Professional services firms no longer need the old boys network to help with their marketing.
These days, when one says the words "lawyer," "accountant," or "consultant," there are certain images that immediately come to mind. And with the bad press surrounding the accounting industry in the wake of Arthur Andersen's involvement in the Enron scandal, and celebrity and high-profile trials thrusting the law profession into the spotlight, that image isn't always positive. So it's easy to understand why marketing executives within these firms are doing everything in their power to make sure that the image that comes to mind when hearing these words is "thought leader" - not "shyster."
But in the end, image is a concern only so far as it impacts business. The world of professional services used to be an old boys network - a place where deals were made with a handshake and a wink. The need to publicize a firm's services or get good face time in the media wasn't very high on the list of priorities. But in recent years, marketing has gradually become a vital part of business strategy for legal, accounting, and consulting firms.
"Marketing and PR are more important than ever," says Michael Bulger, director of PR at Booz Allen Hamilton, a general management-consulting firm. "The old boys network is gradually becoming less influential." He adds that the driving force behind the firm's marketing efforts is to set it apart from the competition.
In fact, keeping up with the competition is the key motivating factor for firms to put effort into their marketing. Richard Levick, president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, which specializes in PR for law firms, agrees that, for professional services firms, the reason for marketing is "because their competition is [doing it]. They do it because the law firm or accounting firm across the street is, so they do it out of fear."
Eric Miller, an SVP at Weber Shandwick's LA office and head of the agency's professional services group, says that law firm marketing has become so common that firms have to step up their efforts just so they are not conspicuous by their absence.
Even so, the very concept of marketing law firm services is something that has only recently become something for firms to contend with. "Law firm marketing as a discipline is relatively new," says Gene Marbach, group VP at Makovsky & Co. "At one point in time marketing to lawyers was something that somebody else did."
Marketing on small budgets
Levick says that one of the biggest obstacles in doing PR for law firms is that they still devote only a small part of the overall budget - 1.5% on average - to marketing. "Law firms and accounting firms still look at marketing as an expense, not an investment," he says.
Adam Wolf, director of marketing at Eisner & Lubin, a full-service accounting and consulting firm, agrees that the biggest challenges of marketing at a professional services firm often arise within the firm itself. "There's an enormous part of selling the idea internally," he says.
For law firms in particular, getting more money for a marketing budget is tricky because, due to the compensation structure, any additional money spent comes directly out of the partners' pockets, says Miller. "It's always a challenge because from where we sit we'd always like to see more budget and opportunity," he adds.
Although budgets still might not be substantial, they have increased as marketing has been taken seriously as a means to raise awareness for firms and as an additional way of drumming up business. And getting prominent members of the company into the media is high on the list of priorities. John Buchanan, director of communication at law firm Heller Ehrman, says that the goal is not only to attract new clients, but also to make sure the firm is visible to its current clients so that it can get additional business from them.
Once management is convinced of the need for marketing, there are still obstacles to overcome in getting a firm's message out to the public. For one thing, Wolf says, the media is still skeptical to a certain extent of accounting and consulting firms. And the fact that accounting services can seem like a commodity adds to the difficulty. "Our challenge is to make these topics more intriguing to show that there's more to it," he says.
But media outreach is still one of the best ways to raise the visibility of a firm, and many professional services firms take the traditional route, focusing on trade and business media, although Buchanan admits that the latter has been a little more difficult for him. "I had to convince reporters that my lawyers could talk about more than legal issues," he says. He adds that, because many of his firm's lawyers have additional degrees in subjects other than law, he tries to get them to comment on as many subjects as possible.
Preparing any professional to speak to the media can be a difficult task, but for lawyers, whose history with the media might have been a string of "no comments," it becomes a more necessary thing. Brian Pitts, director of PR at international law firm Kirkland & Ellis, conducts in-house media training for those who request it. Pitts also does presentations about working with the media, what kinds of things the media are typically looking for, the firm's policy for dealing with the press, and the protocol to follow.
Pitts says his firm takes a highly proactive role in getting attorneys from the firm quoted in the media, especially when it comes to the M&A area.
Marbach agrees that lawyers' attitudes toward the media have changed. "They've gotten better at it," he says. "They know their world has changed. They know they need to be marketing themselves." He says that one way of raising visibility for a law firm is having lawyers write articles for publications. But most often the best way to get names in the media is to speak about a specific issue or current event, for which there is always a need for punditry. "Issues commentary is one of the best ways to generate awareness of the firms and their decisions," Marbach says.
Alternative ways to net business
Sometimes the best way to get a firm's name into the media is to extend the firm's brand with its own form of media. Since the late 1990s, Booz Allen Hamilton has published a quarterly magazine titled Strategy in Business. The magazine not only has a controlled distribution, but Bulger says it also has a respectable subscription base and is sold on the newsstand. "What we're trying to extend is our thought leadership," he says. "Having this kind of outlet of ideas not only builds our brand, but [also] helps explain the ideas of management consulting overall."
At some firms, the marketing department is actively involved in business development, as well. At Eisner & Lubin, one of the marketing initiatives is the Client Engagement Program, where a member of the marketing department will accompany the senior partner on the account, and sometimes a managing partner, to gauge the client's satisfaction. Wolf says that another purpose of such a meeting is to ask the client for more work. For example, if the firm is doing audit work for the client, it will ask to do tax work, as well.
But one of the main purposes for such a meeting is to ask the client to actively recommend the firm to other companies. The firm has created an Ideal Client Profile, which it distributes to clients to give them a sense of what type of business it is looking for. Wolf says the initiative is moving forward in a very positive way. "We've never asked for this kind of help before," he says. "[Our clients] want to help us."