Is your marketing team focused on the right activities? Is it properly aligned with the needs of the business? This article compares and contrasts the prevailing professional services marketing “sales support” model to one based on “demand generation.”
One of the first clients I landed in the agency business was an HR consulting and outsourcing firm. Being just a few months removed from business school, I was quickly struck by something odd about the firm — the marketing function wasn’t leading any of the activities I’d expect it to lead. In fact, the marketing department didn’t even appear to be in the right place within the organizational structure. Everything I’d learned about marketing was at odds with what was happening in this firm. At the time, I found the situation to be a bit odd. And, I chalked it up as an outlier.
Now, nearly 20 years later, with the gift of hindsight, I’ve come to realize that this peculiarity is more the norm than the exception. Over that time I’ve worked with 100s of firms through speaking, through our online training programs, and of course directly within our agency relationships. We’ve worked with a wide range of firm types — from technology and consulting firms to training, construction and A/E firms. That one thing I noticed nearly two decades ago seems to pop-up with relative frequency. Ultimately, it’s lead me to the belief that quite frequently marketing is situated in the wrong place within the organization. Or, at the very least it’s focused on the wrong things.
Professional Services Marketing Was Conceived as a Sales Support Function
In a lot of firms, marketing is viewed as an expense to be minimized. It’s seen as part of a shared services function, and quite often it’s literally grouped together with HR and IT within an overhead group. Maybe it rolls up to the COO or a Chief Administrative Officer. Regardless, it’s a function that’s designed to be starved because it’s flat out referred to as “overhead.” It’s perceived to have little to no contribution to revenue.
In these firms, the role of marketing is to support the downstream activities of the partners and business development managers. Manage the event calendar. Make sure the tradeshow booth looks nice. Manage the corporate collateral. And, when an opportunity emerges, marketing better jump into action. Start cranking up the interview prep and RFP machine. Cross the t’s and dot the i’s. It better be perfect. And, it better be done quickly.
In firms like these, partners set budgets and develop marketing strategies. Maybe, they’ll involve the marketing folks in determining the tactics they’ll use to drive those strategies. Maybe they won’t. Regardless, marketing is only responsible for driving the boat when it’s nearing the very end of the stream. When, the vast majority of thinking and decision-making has happened. And, all that’s left is to implement, re-implement, and implement some more.
In these situations, partners complain that their marketers just “don’t get” the business. Yet, they’ve given them almost no opportunity to do so. They haven’t staffed the function with senior marketing leaders. They haven’t given them organizational authority to make critical business decisions. They haven’t held them accountable to achieving meaningful business outcomes. And, they haven’t given them the resources needed to deliver on those outcomes in the first place.
Marketers in these types of firms exist at the far right of the Rattleback Demand Generation Model. They’re responsible for helping partners close business as opportunities emerge. They’re rewarded for being responsive, efficient, and taking lower value tasks off the plates of the senior leaders of the practice.
While this is the foundational model that has governed professional services marketing for many decades, in my opinion, it’s largely short-sighted. And, I would argue, it stands in stark contrast to how marketing functions in virtually every other market. The problem isn’t that marketers don’t understand the business. Rather, it’s that partners don’t understand marketing.
Marketing Is and Should Be a Demand Generation Function
So, let’s look at what marketing could and should look like. The role of marketing in any business is to identify clients’ unmet wants and needs and design products and services to fill them. Marketing fills a gap in the practice that practice leaders and subject matter experts simply can’t — it has the ability to look objectively at the market, identify where the best opportunities lie for the firm to create future growth, and execute marketing programs that will take it there.
Partners and other practitioners are nearly always saddled by a real significant constraint — clients. Their role, by design, is to build deep and meaningful client relationships and guide client work. Their strength is identifying the wants and needs of a single client. And, aligning the resources of the firm to deliver on that particular client’s requirements. Yet, as the saying goes, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.
The very nature of the close, intimate relationships practice leaders build with their clients creates an illusion of validity. They assume the problems those clients face logically extrapolate to a larger pool of clients that share similar problems. Essentially, they take the “inside view.” They assume patterns exist that can be extrapolated across the market based on a sample of clients that is simply much too small or varied to draw such large inferences.
Ultimately, this is where marketing can and should step in. A demand oriented marketing model reports directly to the senior partners and owners of the firm. Firms like these hire senior marketing leaders. They task them to go out into the market and produce original primary research to discover new ways of solving problems the firm can’t always see within the day-to-day grind of its client work.
They give them organizational authority to establish business growth goals. And, to develop the budgets and define the marketing strategies that will drive the firm there. And, of course, they hold them accountable to delivering on the goals they identified in the first place.
In these firms, marketers are tasked with developing intellectual property that codifies the driving issues its clients face in the market, the types of problems the firm has designed itself to solve, and the way it goes about solving those problems in ways other firms can’t.
Marketers in these firms are tasked with creating demand for the firm tomorrow. They operate at the far left of the Rattleback Demand Generation Model — creating thought leadership. taking it to market, and shining a light on new ways of operating that clients hadn’t previously imagined. In so doing, they’re unlocking new value for both the firm and its clients.
Is One Approach Inherently Better Than the Other?
You don’t have to read hard into this article (or into our business) to see where we come down. We’ve made meaningful investments of time and money in understanding how firms develop high quality thought leadership and take it to market. We’ve conducted 4 surveys on this topic. And, we’ve just launched the speaker lineup for our 3rd annual thought leadership marketing event — developed in partnership with Bloom Group. So, clearly, our agency has regularly come down on the side of “demand generation” in lieu of “sales support.”
Despite that, there’s absolutely space for both models. There are firms where the traditional “sales support” model makes complete sense. Generally, these are firms where the partners have developed large networks, have unique and valuable expertise, and aren’t looking for substantial further upside growth. They’re happy with the current performance of their firm and its growth trajectory. Leaders in these firms are essentially interested in sustaining the path they’re already on. And, they have no reason to make larger more strategic investments in marketing. The current model works quite fine, thanks.
That said, some firms simply want more out of their practice than they’re getting now. That want to change their growth trajectory. That want to discover new offerings and new ways of advising clients. They want to discover new operating models. They want to find new ground. They want to shape the way the market thinks about what they do. And, they want to reap the rewards of higher levels of growth that comes with all that. For firms like these, the “demand generation” model makes a lot of sense. If this is the firm you are or would like to be, we hope to see you at Profiting from Thought Leadership 2018.
When I first began to develop this point-of-view for our agency, I reached out to a friend of mine, Jeff McKay, to elicit some feedback on the thinking. He agreed wholeheartedly, and described a similar POV he had published in an eBook entitled the Optimal Marketing Organization. Over time I’ve learned that our thinking on this topic converges much more than it diverges. While the thinking in this post represents my own; it would be hard for me to tell you where and how my conversations with Jeff impacted the words you see on this page. In fact, this was the very conversation that ultimately led to the creation of our podcast on growth and marketing in professional services, Rattle & Pedal.