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Beyond Marketing

Reprinted with permission from Accounting Today.              

The next time you’re in a Starbucks, conduct an informal survey of the Millennials sitting and sipping around you. Ask their college major, or the field they’re working in currently. I’d wager that in the time it takes you to order and consume a Grande Iced Coffee or Chai Latte, you’ll have identified at least three people whose answer included the word “marketing.”

Which is why the title of this article may have left you scratching your head. Marketing is as robust as ever. But traditional marketing as we have pursued it in accounting has permanently left the building.

In the past 30 years, since the lifting of the ban on advertising in accounting, firms have hired marketing directors to drive visibility and credibility. This is now significantly enabled with the advent of social media and other tools.

But has it caused our firm to grow?

Today, there are about 44,000 CPA firms and almost 665,000 CPAs out there, with little differentiation among them. We are commoditized with thin margins; to the buyer, everybody looks the same. So how do we create preference, enabling us to outpace competitors, similar to the fastest growing companies in the corporate world?

Understand that marketing never explicitly promised to grow anything. In our professional services world, marketing has been a discipline supporting the growth potential of our services. We have a very different ballgame than selling products to consumers (think Tide or Gain).

Marketers have traditionally been creative types – expert communicators, not necessarily people who want to grow companies. And when firm managing partners brought marketing folks on board, what they really wanted was help growing their firm, something marketers were many times not fully trained to do. The combination of MPs, with their focus on execution and delivery, and marketers, with their focus on creative communication, was good enough to create visibility and credibility to cultivate growth conditions. But in today’s complex, competitive environment, traditional marketing communications working alone won’t be enough to create growth.

Balance requires concentration

Seismic shifts in our business, including the intrepid advance of technology and the burgeoning global marketplace, have heightened competition even further. Marketing as we’ve known it—brochures, newsletters, social media, lunches, event sponsorships and the like—is simply not enough to help the 21st century firm break out of the pack and attract loyal clients. We have a big gap to fill.

When growth is the goal, the proven way to fill the gap is to position yourself on a balanced three-legged stool that rests on 3 very different disciplines: marketing, sales and product management. To successfully champion construction of that stool you need a Chief Growth Officer, Director of Practice Growth, or similar, who not only has expertise in at least one of these disciplines, but most importantly the capacity and motivation to learn the others. Otherwise you have an unbalanced, one or two-legged stool which won’t provide the growth foundation you need.

While I’ve worked with many growth officers who are skilled in marketing, and occasionally sales, the accounting community is woefully short on talent in the area of product management. I call it “the last frontier.” A term more commonly used in the technology and consumer industries, product management refers to developing and bringing innovated new offerings to market, by customizing services by buyer group. In 15 years of consulting to accounting firms, I have encountered only three marketing people with product management backgrounds. The technology industry is full of them, but over here they are a rare bird indeed! We wonder why our firms aren’t more innovative. Product managers are the people who know all about innovation, and can bring this talent to our profession. The result? New, shiny stuff that is differentiated from our competitors.

Though your marketing specialist may have never brought an innovation to market, developing these skills is essential to evolving into a Chief Growth Officer or Director of Growth. Point him/her to resources not necessarily in accounting. The go-to place to start is where product managers hang out, the Product Development and Management Association (pdma.org). One look at their website and you’ll know what I mean.

Marketing alone won’t make it, and changing a title isn’t enough. We need to change up the job description, role and responsibilities, and widen the skill set. The job is leading and supporting firm growth, not just marketing. This redefinition enables marketing people to embrace all 3 legs of the stool. Once redefined, encourage and observe your talented marketing people evolve, becoming prepared to lead and support the firm’s growth, today and for the next generation.