Professional Services Marketing: The Early Days

No question about it, the marketing of professional services can be a frustrating way to earn a living. This holds true whether you’re an employee of a professional firm or a “hired gun.” Common complaints are (a) egomaniacal clients, (b) unreasonable expectations that often flow from “a.” and (c) a paucity of solid content.

But wait a minute. Let’s put this in historical context. Professional services marketing hasn’t been around very long, only slightly more than 30 years. The critical date is 1977, which is when an Arizona court gave law firms the right to advertise. What was professional services marketing before that time?  Think male partners on golf courses and you won’t be far off the mark.

Ironically, given the green light, much of the legal profession did absolutely nothing. Some plaintiffs firms, such as Jacoby & Meyers, initiated ad campaigns aimed at individuals, but that was about it. The big defense firms hardly noticed. In fact, around 1990 a friend of ours was hired as director of marketing by a good-sized NY firm. We asked her how it was going after she’d been on the job for six months, and she said: “It’s getting better. They just allowed me to pick the firm Christmas card.” She soon left, not surprisingly.

In my opinion, the profession that “got it” in terms of recognizing and seizing the marketing opportunity was accounting. The Big Eight (yes, Virginia, there was such a thing) seemed simultaneously to jump on the bandwagon and begin talking “targeting” and churning out brochures, ads and other collateral. Arthur Young even produced a best-selling tax guide that is published today with its merger partner Ernst & Ernst. Our clients at Deloitte, Haskins & Sells were so proficient with brochures that some people thought they were a publishing company. There were also more than a few humorous moments when the accounting culture clashed with the strategies of the consumer packaged goods wizards who had been recruited to spearhead their marketing efforts.

But the accounting firms moved the marketing ball forward, and eventually other professions followed: management consulting, executive search, actuarial science and, finally, the lawyers. With marketing came price competition that grew steadily cut-throat. Mark Stevens even wrote a seminal book on The Accounting Wars. Professionals found that their technical skills were no longer enough to guarantee employment. They were now (gasp) also expected to sell.

Perhaps the first person to grasp the long-term implications of that trend was Ford Harding, the former marketing director of a relocation consulting firm. He established his own consultancy, Harding & Company, in the early 90’s with one goal in mind: to teach service professionals how to sell. To market his firm, Ford authored three terrific books that I recommend to anyone in this business: Rainmaking, Creating Rainmakers and Cross-Selling Success. His business has been an unqualified success.

That’s a quick summary of the genesis of professional services marketing. Were you involved in it during the ‘80s or ‘90s?  What do you remember about “the early days?”

To reach John:

Phone:  212.840.0444
LinkedIn:  John Bliss