Why Is Marketing So Undervalued By Leadership in Professional Services Firms?

About halfway through my career I shifted from technology and publishing into professional services. I love working with professional services firms and am so energized by the work that they do. But there are many things that surprise me about professional services, namely how undervalued and underfunded the marketing function is at many professional services firms. Marketers are quick to blame leadership and their lack of awareness and understanding, but is it really their fault?

The answer is yes, and no.

When it comes to undervaluing marketing, leadership and the marketers in those firms are equally to blame. Before I explain I want to say that there are many amazing professional services firms who value and actively invest in marketing and they are killing it as a result. However, there are many firms that are not and it is just one of the reasons why they are struggling to compete. In those firms both leadership and marketers are at fault for devaluing the marketing function. Here’s why.

Leadership’s Culpability

Leadership is to blame because they have actively chosen to operate from a position of ignorance and ego. Many of the leaders of the firm are technical professionals who have ascended the ranks into management. They are excellent at executing the work, and may even have some business development or operational skills. As a leader and decision maker of the firm, they have a responsibility to learn all the ways to grow and sustain a healthy business, but many have chosen to ignore their own professional development and haven’t learned about all elements of a successful business—primarily the value of investing in marketing. To them, if its not billable it doesn’t matter, and that’s a very narrow and flawed view of business.

The data to support marketing is abundant. Regardless of industry, studies have shown that firms that continue to invest in marketing, even in a downturn, will not only maintain market share during the recession, they will also see tremendous gains in market share and revenue once the market picks up again. Marketing is also critical as competition increases, client procurement habits change, and as clients and firm leaders move to retirement.

It’s important to note that many of the activities that professional services firms call “marketing” are in fact business development activities and not marketing. The recent article from Zweig highlights the point well, arguing that marketing is not proposal development, and although important, a firm needs to balance its proposal efforts with true marketing as well.

Marketing’s Culpability

Marketing’s fault comes from not thinking strategically, not tying marketing goals and activities to firm goals, and not demonstrating value. Marketers often fail to invest the time and effort into understanding the firm, their leaders, and how to secure buy-in and support. Many immediately give up and choose to be forever frustrated and blame leadership for “not getting it.” Granted there are some leaders who will never get it, but most are willing to learn and do what is necessary to compete. They just need to be shown how social media, email marketing, a new website, etc. translate into billable hours and bigger profits for the firm.

The marketers who are able to build departments and secure titles such as VP are the ones who have learned to provide strategic value and to connect and speak to their technical leaders in a way they understand and value. Complaining doesn’t change a person’s mind; it only makes them stop listening. Yet many marketers default into the blame game and complain about being held back, unvalued, and misunderstood instead of taking charge of the situation and learning how to influence, negotiate, pitch, and convert their leaders into fans of marketing.

Professional services firms in all industries, from finance to construction, are facing tremendous change and competition. Staying ahead and thriving in this climate requires a sound talent strategy, competitive advantage, customer-centered tactics, and a multi-disciplinary menu of services—all of which are influenced and supported by marketing.

For those firms who “don’t get it,” here’s my call to action:

Leaders, invest in learning about marketing best practices, study what the competition is doing, and tap into the knowledge and experience of your marketing team to help you pull away from the pack.

Marketers, take ownership for your career, learn what matters to your firm, speak leadership’s language, and earn a seat at the table.

Shennandoah Goodson

Shennandoah is the founder of 525 Principle. She regularly speaks and contributes articles on a variety of topics to outlets such as SXSW Interactive, Society for Marketing Professional Services, Commercial Real Estate Women, and numerous others.

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