CPAs advertising their services used to be against the rules, until regulators began loosening those restrictions about 25 years ago.

Today, one of the fastest growing areas in many firms is the marketing department, as recent expansions speak to the success of the professional approach to what used to be a prohibited activity.

And now firms have ushered in marketing expertise to trumpet their financial planning services as well.

Syracuse, N.Y.-based CPA firm Dermody, Burke & Brown committed to a marketing department several years ago. "In upstate New York, there's not a lot of growth in new businesses, but there are lots of quality CPA firms," said partner Theodore J. Sarenski, CPA, CFP. "We finally took the advice we give our clients and hired the expertise to get and keep business for the firm."

The biggest difference in Dermody, Burke & Brown's marketing efforts is the sense of direction. "Where we used to have 14 different partners and 14 different marketing plans, we now have a coordinated effort," Sarenski said.

Supporting the principals at Larson, Allen, Weishair & Co. LLP, in Minneapolis, is a five-person marketing department.

LarsonAllen's efforts to brand the firm started over a dozen years ago, when it moved to its downtown space. "We have to give the marketing folks credit," said LarsonAllen partner Michael McConnell, CPA/PFS, CFP. "They helped us think through the branding, plus they've done a fabulous job building a team of people to support our marketing."

McConnell's area competes for attention with the firm's other industry specialties, such as agribusiness, dealerships, and health care.

LarsonAllen Financial LLC offers a full range of financial advisory services. "We started out thinking that the financial advisory was a totally different business and needed a different marketing approach," said McConnell. "But we've come full circle to follow a similar consultative model of marketing all CPA services."

McConnell gave an A-plus to the marketing efforts, pointing out that the financial services area grew by 50 percent in 2003, doubled in growth last year, and is on track to double again by the end of the year.

Prior to 2003, the financial advisors expected the other partners to open their client relationships with warm introductions. That plan failed. The change came after all principals in the accounting firm went through the financial planning process personally, along with their wives. "That turned around the internal marketing efforts," said McConnell.

The firm also expanded several marketing support efforts. McConnell says that its "house organ," Effect Magazine, generates new business from both outside inquiries and from the firm's other principals. Effect carries technical articles written by inside experts, as well as personal interest stories written by freelancers. "We get lots of clients from the magazine," says McConnell. "Our marketing people also report that the personal finance section on the Web site gets a big portion of the hits to the magazine there."

LarsonAllen's outside public relations firm also helps with strategy. One effort is to get Effect articles placed in other publications. Another is to get CPAs in front of groups of potential clients. McConnell was recently featured on a USA Today Online chat and was interviewed on a local TV channel in the Twin Cities. "These aren't folks who respond to direct marketing or cold calls," says McConnell. "So we seek opportunities to make presentations in person."

Knowing the right people

Personal contact with potential clients, as well as possible referral sources, drives marketing for Marc J. Minker, CPA/PFS, of Mahoney Cohen & Co., in New York. As managing director of the firm's private client services, Minker heads the fast-growing family office service practice. "For the ultra-high-net-worth client with $20 million or more net worth, professional services decisions get made over drinks after 18 holes of golf," said Minker. "Marketing our services is more awareness and recognition among referral sources like current clients, attorneys and, increasingly, real estate and insurance professionals."

Minker's marketing success comes from contacting and developing referral sources, then educating the referral sources about the unique expertise of the firm. He also admits to some cold calling. He picked up the trick when he moved to Mahoney Cohen and his phone rang off the hook from other professionals wanting to network through him. "Now I keep my eyes open for those changing firms who might be beneficial to know," Minker said. "About half the time the strategy results in making a new connection."

Educating the referral sources is critical.

Mahoney Cohen's family office provides some expected services like financial management, helping to set up foundations, buy jets, manage art collections, and outfit New York apartments for out-of-town owners. But the experience with clients with holdings overseas forms a natural tie with attorneys sharing that background.

"We can't be everything to everybody," said Minker. "But when we align with referral sources with similar philosophies that specialize in similar areas, we both know the other can serve the clients' needs."

"What we do may or may not work if replicated by others," Minker continued. "But through trial and error we've found that cultivating referral sources works best for our firm."

The coordinated marketing efforts of Dermody, Burke & Brown bring not only additional clients, but improved service to all clients. As part of the process, all clients are made aware of all the firm's services. Suggestions to move more work to DB&B have been received positively by clients. Dermody professionals also end each audit with a letter of recommendation filled with suggestions for improving the client's business practices, as well as a suggested plan of action.

"The old management letter was pretty staid," Sarenski explained. "The new one covers all aspects of the client's business. I know of one situation that the meeting on the letter alone generated a three-hour meeting with the client to review the findings."

The one regret in the build-up of the firm's marketing efforts? "We should have done this a lot sooner," said Sarenski.

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