What is Marketing’s Role?: 2 Schools of Thought on Professional Services Marketing

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Marketing's role in professional services firms

What is Marketing’s Role in Your Firm?

Every year about this time cyclists ramp up an enduring argument. If you are a cyclist, you know where I am going; it’s the great base-building debate.

There are two schools of thought. The first is traditional, laid back and longstanding. The second is new, “market-focused” and intense. We will call the first school the low intensity, high volume training school and the second the high intensity, low volume. Which school you belong to probably depends on your self-determined cycling “persona,” your riding peers, and ultimately your goals.

There is a similar debate about marketing’s role and performance among professional services firms. Does marketing really impact firm performance? Or, is it a necessary “evil?” Is marketing’s role maximize the top line or minimize impact to the bottom line? Like cycling, it depends on your firm’s marketing school of thought, peers, and goals.

First, with a little help from wannaberacer.com, let’s look at the cycling argument:

The aim of training at the start of the season is to create adaptations to the aerobic system so that the body is ready to handle greater stresses during the later training phases and race season. Traditionally, long, steady rides have been used to generate these adaptations but recently high intensity training has been put forward as a possible substitute.

But, according to Mike Robertson, President of Robertson Training Systems, the body adaptations brought on by high intensity training are completely different than those brought on by low intensity, high volume training. The two can be in direct competition to one another. For example, the adaptations are very different because the aerobic and anaerobic systems produce energy in very different ways. So, adaptations to one do not necessarily benefit the other. Also, aerobic and anaerobic (low intensity vs. high intensity) training cause very different adaptations to the heart.

Aerobic training increases heart efficiency. More blood is forced into the left ventricle, which stretches the walls of the heart leading to an increase in size. But anaerobic training, on the other hand, increases the thickness of the heart wall. The heart becomes trained to get blood in and out as quickly as possible. The heart adapts to working at high beats per minute. 

… traditional base training and high-intensity training produce very different physical adaptations. They are training two different systems and are working in competition with each other


Now, let’s look at the professional services marketing debate. I divide the two schools of thought about marketing’s role into the Productivity school and the Growth school.

The Productivity school sees marketing’s objective as increasing the personal output and utilization of highly paid consultants (lawyers/architects/accountants).

This school believes that simple economics dictate using $30/hr. “marketer” to write proposals, proofread documents, design presentations, enter data and manage events versus having a scarce resource who bills out at $250-$1000/hr. do it. Marketing exists to keep consulting productivity high. Work is often outsourced to the cheapest labor and the consultants add value by serving the client and setting the marketing strategy for the practice. Marketing is a cost to be managed and its value is “making things pretty.”

In this approach, the marketing emphasis is put on cosmetic “branding” (a logo, taglines, and visual identity) that provides an “umbrella” that enhances the personal productivity and accommodates the “personal” brands of select consultants. Key performance measures include marketing headcount, brochures produced, proposals written, events held, and, most important, partner satisfaction with the order taker.

The objective of the Growth school is a strategic impact that maximizes profitable growth.

The Growth school views marketing’s role as strategic. Marketing operates as big-picture thinkers with strong business acumen and a focus on addressing clients’ needs. The marketers drive growth by helping the firm to anticipate client needs, develop capabilities and build solutions that meet them.

Instead of the cosmetic brand, these firms emphasize culture (i.e. reinforcing behaviors that build and differentiate the firm’s reputation). This school of thought emphasizes strategy and organizational effectiveness. It uses a portfolio approach to services and a collective focus on an “ideal client” who provides cost-effective scale and values the firm’s capabilities and solutions. In the Growth school, marketing’s metrics and goals are tied to firm-wide strategic goals. Key performance measures are pipeline contribution, market share, brand relevance and marketing qualified leads. 

READ: Building the Optimal Marketing Organization

Take away

Many partners believe in the clean division of labor of the Productivity school. As I said in a previous post, they believe that they have the voice of the client and strategy under control. The results would indicate otherwise and partners are the proverbial blind man feeling a single part of an elephant. Partners overestimate their ability, wrestle with balancing competing obligations or are not rewarded to complete the important tasks. As a result, firms squander marketing investments to optimize productivity instead of driving growth.

Meanwhile, back to the cycling world. If one is an experienced rider who has noticed their progression plateauing, it might be a good idea to give high-intensity training a go as a replacement for normal base training. The introduction of new stresses might help get one off that plateau. For the recreational cyclist, if one is only looking to do a couple charity rides rather than race, low volume, high intensity might be perfect for you (straight from wannaberacer.com).

Be prudent.

About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

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