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An opportunity to reinvent marketing in professional services firms

There is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvent marketing in professional services firms because developing ideas with existing clients and forging relationships with new ones is more difficult in a world in which so much work is done remotely.

Historically, the gap between marketing (largely done by marketing professionals) and sales (largely done by partners and other chargeable staff) has been wide—to the detriment of both sides. Marketing people have often worked in a vacuum, with too little of the direct contact with clients that helps to strengthen a professional services firm’s credibility. Operating at arm’s length from the commercial cutting edge of the business, their knowledge of the market attenuates over time. Partners, meanwhile, have relied on their networks of contacts and gut feel about what sells. Both of these are highly effective in an environment where it’s possible to have a continuous stream of casual interactions but suffer in one where a catch-up over a coffee becomes a Zoom call with an explicit objective and agenda. Now, the challenge is to bring these two parts of the business development equation together. It’ll take change on both sides to make this happen, but the burden of responsibility will fall largely on marketing, because it has more to prove and more to gain. There’s a classic window of opportunity here: If marketing functions don’t use this moment to demonstrate the value they can create, partners will adapt (they’re smart people) and will find ways to compensate for our remoter world. As business settles into a new in-person/online equilibrium many of partners’ old ways of working will become more important again (we’re human, after all).

So, what should marketing do? In a nutshell, more research, better thought leadership, and smarter interactivity.

More research: Professional services firms are anchorless. Past reference points aren’t reliable; client priorities and behaviour have shifted. Less able to have casual conversations with their clients—the critical line of communication that has allowed consulting firms to adapt in past crises—firms are having to forge strategies on fewer data points, at a time when the investment decisions they make need to be more precise. Many big firms boast sizeable research functions but keep research and marketing separate. Now is the time for these two functions to collaborate in order to produce genuinely groundbreaking and challenging material about the way in which clients and markets are evolving, and the implications this has.

Better thought leadership: We already know that it’s the most effective way of marketing to clients, short of in-person meetings, but clients have turned to thought leadership during the crisis. They, too, are bereft of certainty. What they’re looking for is new, robust data, translated into crisp and succinctly expressed ideas they can use to help their organisations adapt to unprecedented change. Only a tiny proportion of the thought leadership we’ve seen comes close to clearing that very high bar.

Smart interactivity: The clients we speak to stress how important it is for professional services firms to demonstrate they can work just as effectively on a remote basis as they could do when in their clients’ offices. Surely there’s an opportunity for firms’ marketing, HR, and technology teams to come up with innovative ideas and tools that will make remote collaboration more effective. In the past two years, we’ve heard a lot from clients about the impact that experience or innovation centres have had on their understanding of how a consulting firm works in practice—but most clients will be very cautious about attending such sessions in the foreseeable future. We need a means of replicating that impact in digital terms.

And then, of course, there’s the other side of the equation: the partners. None of the above will make a blind bit of difference unless partners recognise they need more help and are prepared to play a more active and positive role in helping marketing to help them.

None of the above is impossible; all of it is difficult. But if not now, when?