2015: The year of the re-energised marketing function?

2015 is already well under way: pundits have made their predictions for the year ahead, marketing leaders have discussed their priorities for the next 12 months with colleagues, and by now everybody is
frantically back to the grind trying to turn these plans into a reality. But it is worth pausing for breath to consider whether your firm’s plans and priorities are sufficiently aligned with wider developments in professional services marketing. The 67 responses to this year’s annual PM Forum/MPF and Meridian West marketing benchmark suggest that the marketing community is turning its attention to improving the client experience with renewed vigour.

This time last year I suggested that innovation would be as equally important to marketers as efficiency for the 12 months ahead. 2014 was characterised by professional firms of all hues launching new service lines, experimenting with new business models and joined-up propositions. This trend is likely to continue into 2015, and as it does the importance of fostering greater collaboration with internal and external networks will dramatically come to the fore.

Respect where it’s due

More so than in any previous year, the marketing directors and managers who responded to this year’s benchmark paint a picture of marketing functions that are well-regarded by fee-earners and colleagues in other support functions. More than seven in ten (72%) say that the marketing team has sufficient authority to perform its role successfully. 60% say that the role of marketing is sufficiently understood by fee-earning staff.

However, there is still a significant minority who disagree with these statements, which suggests there is more work to be done to achieve complete buy-in to marketing initiatives within some firms.
Although 72% of senior markets say they are always involved in decisions about targeting new clients and sectors, just 55% are always involved in developing new products and service lines.

Reaping the fruits of growth

2014 saw the profitability of many professional firms exceed pre-2008 levels for the first time. As a result firms now have more income to invest in strategic initiatives. This is reflected in the anticipated outlook for marketing budgets and headcount this year, at 2.7% and 2.9% respectively on average. These levels are on par with 2014 and far exceed 2013.
Yet with increased budgets comes increased pressure to demonstrate value. Almost half (46%) of marketers believe it is difficult to demonstrate the ROI of the time and money spent on marketing. This
is troubling: an inability to showcase the value of its activity leaves the marketing function vulnerable to having budget increases frozen or slashed in future years. Colleagues will expect increased resources for marketing to translate into tangible, measurable outcomes.

Plans and priorities for 2015: the client experience

When asked about their specific plans for the coming year, marketers’ responses are multiple and various. Typical responses referenced the desire to become more strategic, to help deliver a differentiated brand and most frequently, to focus on improving the client experience.
Here is one example from the Head of Marketing at a law firm: “Our priority is kick-starting our five year strategy for 2020 by helping the firm to deliver exceptional client service standards and more targeted business development.”

More than four out of five marketers (82%) say they plan to obtain more feedback from clients in 2015 than they did in 2014, and more than three-quarters (76%) say they plan to make more improvements to client service. Indeed when asked about the activity highest up their agenda for 2015, 43% of respondents cite either improvements to client service or obtaining feedback from clients.
Why should the focus be so heavily weighted in favour of the client experience? Perhaps after several years spent competing on price, marketers have woken up to the possibilities of competing based on innovations in service delivery. But more so than this, it is impossible to take strategic decisions about the firm without sufficient data about what clients want and need, and even harder to make the case for internal change.

Putting the plans into action

Focusing on the client experience is one way to re energise the marketing function. It provides a clear goal to rally around, which can also be easily measured to track improvements in performance. However, doing this successfully is not without its challenges. Marketers will need to concentrate on the following three areas to put their plans into action effectively:

  • Collaboration: The client service agenda can be led by marketing, but it needs to be owned by all
    areas with the firm. This means working together more efficiently to design and roll-out client-centric initiatives. 69% of marketers say that greater collaboration between marketing and other functional areas is required in their firm. On a positive note, two-thirds (68%) have a plan in
    place to collaborate with HR colleagues, and 57% have a plan in place to collaborate with strategy colleagues over the year ahead.
  • The right skills: Although marketers say lack of time is the greatest barrier to achieving their objectives, the need to enhance skills may be a more obvious barrier to innovating the client
    experience, and one that is potentially more easily overcome through coaching and training. 80% of senior marketers say they would like to improve their strategic planning skills, and 56%
    would like to improve their influencing skills. When asked about their team’s skills, 82% think more project management skills are required and 78% believe enhancing commerciality would
    be beneficial.
  • Proximity to clients: Surprisingly, a third (32%) of senior marketers say they do not have regular interaction with clients in carrying out their role. It is difficult to accurately take the pulse
    of client needs and expectations when client contact is kept to a minimum. To be instrumental in improving the client experience requires much greater freedom to capture direct feedback
    from clients. Without this, you risk basing your plans on speculation or unverified assertions from fee earners.
Planning for the long-term: 2020 and beyond

For the first time, our benchmarking survey asked marketers about their long-term plans as well
as their aspirations for the year ahead. The results make compelling reading: marketers have ambitious goals to make a greater impact on the overall strategic direction of their firm. 55% believe that the role of marketers within professional firms will be very different in 2020 than it is now, and two thirds (66%) think professional firms will invest more in marketing as a proportion of revenue than they currently do.

So what will change? It is a three phase journey. First, 41% say many of the tasks and processes carried out by marketers will be automated. This means much of the day-to-day admin and process can be eliminated or reduced which will free up more time to focus on aspects that really add value to the firm. Second, this change in focus will enhance the status of marketing professionals: 56% believe that marketers will be seen as suitable for CEO roles in professional firms. Third, and as a consequence, clients will reap the benefits of this shift: 84% think the voice of the client will have a stronger presence at the management top table, and so strategic decisions will be more client-focused.

Head in the clouds or finger on the pulse?

Is this portrait of professional services marketing in 2020 realistic? Only time will truly tell, but it appears the desire to move towards a better-integrated, more strategic role is present among a majority
of those currently occupying senior marketing positions. As one Head of Marketing rather bullishly puts it: “Marketers are often some of the most strategic-minded and skilled people within their organisation but rarely get the credit for being so, and rarely put themselves forward to give strategic input.” Assuming this to be true, it seems marketers still have a way to travel before they arrive where they want to be in five years.

What can be done to accelerate this shift? Marketers are clear that aside from new technology, the factors that will have the most fundamental impact on professional services marketing are changing
client demands and obtaining a stronger voice of the client within the firm. With this in mind, concentrating on the client experience during 2015 seems a sensible place to start.

This article originally appeared in professional marketing magazine. For further details go to www.pmforumglobal.com