Profession-wide, accounting firm marketing has made great strides in the three-plus decades since the Supreme Court case Bates v. State Bar of Arizona upheld the right of lawyers and other professional services firms to advertise their services.
While that ruling opened the door, a great push came in the form of an economic downturn and the greater availability and reach of online resources.
Of course, some firm leaders still struggle to recognize the major evolution that the marketing function has made -- from tactical to strategic.
"There's a big differentiation in firms, in terms of those that understand marketing and those that don't," shared Katie Tolin, director of practice growth at Top 100 Firm SS&G and president of the Association for Accounting Marketing.
"I was talking to a marketing director who just lost her job a month ago ... the partners wanted her to be more tactical and less strategic," she added. "To me, that made no sense whatsoever. It's still an education issue in terms of what marketers can bring to the table. A great number of firms get it, and are using marketers in the capacity they can. And I like to believe people are starting to come around."
SCOPE AND SPECIALIZATION
Indeed, there are more examples of firms that have successfully navigated that bend. They have been led by trained, specialized marketing professionals with a more strategic approach than the firm administrators of the past.
In those more progressive firms, the role of marketer has both expanded and become more specialized.
"A huge trend in accounting firms is hiring practice growth or business development people, and those in a sales function," explained Eric Majchrzak, shareholder and chief marketing officer at Arizona CPA firm BeachFleischman. "The Big Four had that for decades, but now more midsized and smaller firms are investing. Part of the reason AAM decided to rebrand was to acknowledge that trend in the industry. The tagline, 'Growing people and practices,' in part, is meant to make business development at home."
Joining business developers on the modern marketing team, according to Majchrzak, are professionals in the realms of data and research, proposal writing, advertising and creative, digital/social media/inbound marketing, PR and community/media relations, and events and sponsorship.
He acknowledges that some of these roles are outsourced to consultants, though many of the professionals brought in-house are just that -- professionally accredited for their specific expertise, whether it be a public relations degree or certification in Google AdWords.
BRIDGING THE CREDIBILITY GAP
Marketers whose responsibilities encompass many of these areas are finding new ways to define their roles, as well as new seats at the table.
Tolin, who recently began her job as director of practice growth at SS&G after 11 years in the same role at Rea & Associates, will also focus on business development and product management. "Marketers have gained a lot of credibility in the past decade," she said. "Not to say it's to the level where it needs to be, but I see how the accounting marketing profession has evolved. The number of marketers who are partners in firms, doing strategic planning and setting the direction, has increased many times over."
Among those marketers are Majchrzak, Tolin and Ann Lathrop, chief marketing officer at Crowe Horwath. "I believe we have a seat at the table," Lathrop said. "Like any of my fellow partners, what we do in marketing continuously earns respect in the firm for the value it brings ... the credibility has been advanced."
Credibility is a concept pushed in organizations like AAM to make the marketing function a critical point of contact between a firm's growth goals and strategic initiatives. Credibility breeds awareness, creating a positive feedback loop of authority and action.
"Partners see how marketers perform the role," shared Laura Snyder, manager at Crowe Horwath and treasurer of AAM. "You ask aging partners their concerns, and it's succession, business development and growth. It's always been top-of-mind, but now it's different in how we approach things."
ABOVE THE LAW (FIRMS)
Those approaches include the use of new technology like social media and mobile platforms, which have generated industry trends like thought leadership and inbound and content marketing.
And while some marketers, particularly at smaller firms, struggle to implement these methods, they still appear to be ahead of their counterparts at other professional services firms.
Law firms, in particular, have a similar relationship to marketing that accounting firms had in the recent past.
"I think, within accounting firms, marketers are more respected than at law firms," Snyder mused. "Lawyers still see, in many cases, marketers in an administrative function, writing proposals and doing things behind the scenes. Accounting firms are using marketers in a strategic role, value their opinions, and have them sit at the table and be involved in strategy. At law firms, they are spending time writing proposals, coaching partners behind the scenes and not in front of clients. Accounting firm marketers earned respect faster than in the legal market."
Industry nuances, however, do impact the marketing adoption curve. "The legal industry has more hurdles to overcome in terms of marketing, with compliance issues, and very strict guidelines in solicitation, advertising, and what they can and can't do in social media," explained Majchrzak, who recently participated in a legal marketing conference. "The accounting profession has more freedom to do things, while the legal industry is trying to work through, or muddle through, it. There is a big difference."
"In my little corner of the world, we in accounting marketing have embraced marketing and digital technology much faster than our counterparts in our local area," said Kerry Sullivan-Lechner, marketing director at Montana accounting firm Anderson ZurMuehlen & Co. and president-elect of AAM, who has worked on joint projects with attorneys and has a group of local engineering contacts.
"I get calls from people asking, 'How did you do that? How did you get buy-in?' I've done some coaching and mentoring of other individuals and my contacts in the local area. In my little corner of the world, we are much farther ahead than law firm or engineering firm marketers. I tell them, 'You need a champion in your firm, one or two shareholders that get the importance of marketing. Work with them first, start small, and have success early and often.'"
MASTERING THE DIGITAL DOMAIN
The same advice applies to accounting firms. And, thanks to digital advancements, there are an increasing number of ways to start small and -- more important -- frugally.
Tolin cites a recent budget survey conducted by AAM: "What we saw was higher-growth firms were spending less dollars on marketing than slower-growth firms. There's a major shift, to work within our means that we have, and in generating leads. We are not just throwing money at things, putting an ad in every single phone book ... As a profession, we are evolving past that spending and, from the survey, firms across the country have caught on to that as well. It's another evolution."
This new way of budgeting will also factor into the emerging mobile trend, Tolin added. "As a profession, we haven't figured out how to work [with mobile marketing], it's more about being very targeted in reaching people, in the ways they want to be reached. It's not spending more money on ads and outreach, but more targeting to make the most sense."
Globalization will make targeting even more critical, as accounting firm marketers look ahead. "So much time was spent on the competitor down the street," Tolin explained. "In the very near future, there will be competitors firms don't even know, firms in other countries. It's going to be a challenge."
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