PSM – Professional Services Marketing: Marketing Under Water

I order the calves liver, rare. Bottle of young Pinot, green salad. We’re sharing the oysters ‘cause there’s five varieties and both of us are wondering what makes a Cockle Bay oyster any better or worse than a Coffin Bay one.

I’m lunching with one of my favorite comrades in arms who runs a PR company about the same size and vintage as Starship. We are bitching about client expectations and the encroaching squeeze of the ghost recession (the one you can’t see but makes you feel all cold and giddy) and she starts to get angry about a particularly good-looking ex-customer of hers. I take another swig of the wine and sit back and watch her get into the swing of it.

She begins telling the background, the brief, then quickly goes into the nitty-gritty, the frustrations, the billing arguments. I start to get a feeling of impending danger as she becomes more and more angry. It’s like seeing a kid shaking up a bottle of coke before they twist the cap and the whole back seat of the car gets sprayed a sticky light brown.

She’s about to spit out the clients name (and probably their bank details) in front of the increasingly disturbed people seated within a few metres of us in this crowded inner-city restaurant. I put my finger to my pursed lips – like your mum did when your sister was asleep next to you on that same back seat.

‘Oh fuck it’ she says, ‘He’s a fucking Architect and any publicity is good for those fuckers, you know’. ‘Yes’, she says, very loudly to the now staring crowd. ‘Bob Hills (not his real name) doesn’t deserve even one of those fucking awards, I’ve won them all for him and he’s still with his fucking dragon of a wife, after all we’ve been through together…. Fuck him. I did and what did it get me?’ She stares around, challenging the room.

People instantly go back to their black squid-ink linguini. Eyes on their food. Waitress, dumbstruck, comes over and fills up our glasses. Clink, glugg glugg, glugg. For some time I listen to the gentle scraping of the finished plates in the kitchen 30 metres away. Yep, that sounded like the plop of an olive into the bin. No-one says a word, still.

Most peaceful ten minutes or so I’d ever spent in South Yarra. And I used to live there on and off for more than a decade. Quieter than a Sunday arvo nap on the couch.

Professional Services. Frustrating? Political? Marketing under water. You know what to say. You know who to say it to. You know them so well you can see the whites of their eyes. But get a budget to do it? Not a cent. You’re moving your mouth, but nothing comes out. As a marketer, would it make you angry?

Professional Services Marketing is dominated by women who are in turn dominated by men. These are professional women (some men, don’t get me wrong) usually in their 30’s who in the main have at least one degree in marketing/business, many two or three, some years in the real marketing world getting widgets to move through supermarkets or people to change telco supplier, who have been employed (basically under false pretences) by big legal, accounting, engineering, management consulting or architectural firms to help market the firm. They are given some directions, told they have an open brief and then when the ink is only just dry on their employment contracts, promptly have their hands tied behind their backs and are made to sit in the corner with a gag on their mouths.

Dominated by men who have a real lack of imagination (which is why they studied law – everything is based on precedent and argument – both safe places or studied accounting – everything is based on history – ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t control it’, studied architecture, again a safe, unimaginative profession, at least in OZ – ‘it’s not a building until it’s built’, or studied engineering – ‘but will it really work?’) who by inarguable scientific fact have the trust capacity of a twice-bitten very shy 3 year old child.

Any form of promotion in a broad sense can’t really be tolerated because the firm’s reputation for conservative, well-considered, reliable advice would be thrown instantly into flagrant disrepute if you did anything anymore out-there than change the type-face on your letters from good old sensible Plantin to something blatantly racy like Verdana.

This leaves a very professional marketer with only so many weapons in their armory.

And bossy? Did I mention how bossy boots the business is? How they don’t take anything seriously if it isn’t from their discipline? All the lawyers only listen to other lawyers…. all the accountants…the fact is, if you ain’t one of them, you just ain’t. So it’s damned hard to get them to think in a marketing sphere.

How big is this Professional Services gig? Current estimates are there’s about 4,000 marketers working in this kind of role in OZ, if you count in the juniors etc.

The vocation is thankfully growing quite rapidly as more and more professional firms see a need to promote themselves in an effective fashion. This growth is massive in Asia, where they take to the concept of professional marketing better than we do here. According to a report by Seldon Gill, Asia has the highest percentage of senior marketers under 40 (86%). With emerging growth in the Middle East, particularly Dubai. Hence, if you think you might like big weird buildings, lots of oil money, swarthy, hairy men in badly-fitting dresses and a wild night-life amongst drunken ex-pats behind tightly closed doors, head north west.

The commercialization of PSM that has taken place in the last decade has created a proliferation of specialist roles (e.g research, business development, practice management and client relationship management) – so there’s a few different things you can do within these organizations, and you can probably benefit from some specialist training to get your gig really pumping.

On that subject, about 80% of participants in that same report have been in their jobs for less than 4 years. To quote the PSM Association “It is not uncommon for people to reach a point in a role where they are no longer challenged, or can be better rewarded for their skills and experience elsewhere.” Which is nice corporate speak for ‘they got bored and sick of having no money so they nicked off to FMCG where they could play with a real train set, instead of just being given Barbie dolls’.

Pros & Cons of the job

Don’t get me wrong, I can understand why you’d find it a challenge trying to promote a big law firm or bunch of engineers; they haven’t done anything before. There’s bugger all brand. There’s bugger all USP, bugger all real awareness out there in consumer land, so you can create the whole package from the ground up. But it’s hard to do the whole thing without a real budget.

Things you can do without a budget

I don’t know for sure why women are more likely to be working in industries that don’t give marketer’s budgets, but I think it’s somehow connected with their perceived role of themselves – as the person who has to make up pasta from stale flour and eggs – not the person who says ’where’s dinner?’

You can’t do much without a budget. Yes, you can organize lunch (I’m told by a very reliable source that the largest law firm in Australia spends around $5 million a year just on lunches – sure beats my expense account) with a local caterer if they’ll invoice the accounts department directly, and you can get nicer letterhead printed with the local printer, which means you can do a bit of direct mail, but you can’t exactly run any other sort of campaign on sleight of hand alone. “Its pretty hard to go into the jungle and fight the opposing army when you’ve got a pocket knife and they’ve all go M16’s. Especially accounting firms, they assume that you can compete with far less ammunition because you work under THEIR umbrella.” Accounting firm’s business development manager.

What to do if you’re in Professional Services Marketing?

Remember, technology is your friend

There is a silver lining to that cloud. And that is the web and all it’s electronic tentacles. If you can track what partners spend on ‘marketing’ – lunches, direct mails, golf afternoons, phone calls, speeches etc. you can bring into their behavior disciplines based on numbers and results. This dramatically alters the power base from one of attempted justification of marketing efforts to rock-solid directives about time spent where, on what, with whom. Fun for you, hell for a senior partner.

Get specialised

Law firms think they are different from engineers, different from property investors etc. You need to be able to demonstrate specialization, just like their key people do. “Marketing in law firms was traditionally done by PA’s and receptionists, but they are beginning to acknowledge to specialised skill set required for successful marketing campaigns. It’s taking a while”. Law firm Marketing Manager.

Focus on what you can do

Yes, budgets are tight or non-existent, but they are starting to grow like mushrooms. Respondents to a recent survey in the industry said that they expect the more general work to increase in the areas of marcomms, public relations, research, event management, direct mail and brand.

Give them causes to hang onto

In that same survey, corporate social responsibility was not seen by participants as a pressing issue. Let’s face it, how are you going to get a bunch of lawyers to feel guilty about anything? So there’s an instant gleaming opportunity for canny marketers. Instead of the obligatory bike ride around the Bay with the partnership’s corporate colours stretched across 30 or so fat, sweaty biker stomachs, how about you get them cleaning up the Brisbane River or saving little kiddies from being mauled by pedophiles on the web?

Change the way clients interact with your firm

Firms interact with clients on an almost daily basis. This leads to deep relationships with clients but also makes for tedium. Is there another way you can get to old or new clients, another way you can operate that would shake up the market but not come across as nutty? The web was new once. So were faxes, if I remember correctly.

Cut the layers

Get around the system. The normal pecking order is Senior Partner, Senior Partner’s PA, Senior Partner’s wife. Then everyone else.

The fewer levels of decision maker there are between you and the head honcho, the better your job effectiveness will be. Make the other partners and/or PA’s understand this key point: in any big corporate operation, the head of marketing or PR has a hotline to the chair. Finito. If you don’t believe me, ring Telstra, Ford or anybody else with a household name.

Speed up decision making

Marketers from FMCG etc. that go into marketing professional services generally don’t last long, they get frustrated with the slowness of the decision making. If you want to hang around, change their system for making decisions –instigate say an email voting system for partners on critical issues, or insist on 20 minutes for marketing decisions at every board meeting…

Foster competition

Not enough firms of any discipline recognize they are competing with other firms in the same game for work. They spend their time being gentlemen and expect the work to just roll in the door through serendipity. If you can get facts and figures on profitability, hours worked by partners, rates, holiday stints, cars driven, I don’t care what, shove these figures into reports the partners will read. Make them jealous. You will get the budgets you have wanted after a few months of them recognizing they are not exactly number one. Ie. “All the partners at JBG get a $50,000 pa car allowance. They all drive Mercedes 500’s or Bentleys. Our’s is only $10,000, so our cars are Volvos or 3 series BMW’s. I’m not sure if that makes them look more successful, guys, what do you think?”

Manipulate HR

Make mates with the head of HR and adjust the culture at hiring stage.

“There is a big difference between the personality of a marketer and the personality of a lawyer or an accountant. One of the major challenges for HR is to recruit lawyers and accountants with people skills and the ability to promote the brand and the company. Juniors who go for key positions in my firm now, just won’t get the job if they aren’t sociable and exciting.” Accounting firm’s Business Development Officer.

Prove R.O.I.

All marketing organizations, I don’t care what business model you look at, have to justify their budgets by return on investment. It’s quite hard to do when all the real money has gone on lunches. But when you can show that a brochure sent out has received so many calls, you’ll get the budget to do something similar again. Remember, if you can’t measure it, it’s very hard to justify to an engineer or an accountant… Many partners will believe you have to have experience in their industry to be useful… it’s actually part of your job spec to prove them wrong.

Get hold of powerful information

The main difference between marketing professional services and non-professional services is that non-professional services can go into Myers and say “this is what our competition are selling, this is their price, and this is how are they doing it”. Professional service marketers have very few ways to track/measure competitors behavior.

Do great design

One thing everyone (even engineers) recognize is beauty and/or nifty design. In this sphere you can really shine – stunning direct mail or out bound emails, brochures, witty Xmas cards. Better looking power points. Intelligently crafted podiums for speeches. Great displays at conferences. If you must do lunches, make the menus gorgeous, the food superb, the speeches short and witty (write them for the partners, please) and the flowers stunning.

Be social

There are many people in similar roles to you who are also frustrated, but talented. Get together with them and compare notes. My thoughts above are nothing on what you’ll get from regular contact with your peers.

Ask yourself, how can I make my role centre stage?

Marketing needs to be at the core of any business for that business to be successful. A focus on customer needs, service delivery etc. would be a complete turnaround for most professional organizations. Let’s face it, if you’re dealing with clients in a superior ‘trust me’ manner, it’s hard to then turn around and say ‘hey, what is it you really want from us?’ – that would take a degree of humility and sensitivity that I cannot imagine would be easy for the average senior partner to even get their head around, let alone do on a regular basis.

Protect your power base

Firms are very protective of their marketing information. You never know when lawyers are going to leave and take their clients with them. You therefore need to track performance and behavior regularly – track billing and financial systems, clients details, create and update reports on marketing activity, response, effectiveness and budgets. Hold onto control.

Hire your mates

There are still a large number of service firms that have no marketing professionals working for them. And those marketers in firms need support from fellow marketers. If you’re already in PSM, you can easily get your mates jobs in the business, then use them/you to give references for each other –“every time you jump jobs you’ll get about 20% increase in salary” PSM recruitment specialist. Think of it as a business model.

Professional Services Marketing needs help, but that’s what makes it an interesting challenge for a marketer, and isn’t that why you joined the vocation in the first place? You could have studied Law and been bored to death doing conveyancing like those dweebs downstairs?

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