By now, everyone is keenly aware that we are amid a global pandemic. It is all COVID-19, all the time. This period is likely one of the most challenging, chaotic, and confusing times you will navigate in your career as a marketer. Looking back after all of this is over, I am sure you will see this as a career-defining time. You are working hard to communicate internally and externally, understand the CARES Act and all sorts of new acronyms, produce content, rearrange websites, stay current on social media, and a multitude of other things for your firm that likely change daily. And you are probably doing it all remotely—which is a new norm for you, too. I get it. I am right there with you. But what if you could help recession-proof your marketing department by producing revenue? How could that help secure your position and make you look like a rock star? Let’s take a look at a few marketers who are doing just that.
Offering strategic marketing services
Jonathan Ebenstein, Managing Director and Partner of Marcum Strategic Marketing at Marcum LLP, started his career in the agency world, but in 2006, he made the switch to the accounting industry. He had no intention of giving up agency life completely, and went on to launch Skoda Minotti Strategic Marketing, a full-service marketing agency, in 2009 at then-named Skoda Minotti. He spent his first few years establishing trust within his partner group and making sure the firm had earned “brand permission” to offer marketing services. “When planning to start a new niche, it is important to understand that you have brand permission from your clients,” Jonathan said. “For instance, a bad niche idea for a CPA firm would be turning someone’s passion for landscaping into a landscaping niche. While some clients need landscaping services, the likelihood of a brand-loyal client base engaging their accounting firm to mow their lawn is well beyond the reach or ‘permission’ of your firm’s brand. However, offering niche and advisory services such as business valuations, financial services, and yes, even marketing, are all permissible service extensions that clients would trust your firm to perform.”
Over the years, Skoda Minotti’s services expanded from branding, traditional outbound marketing, and some online marketing to a whole suite of services that now also includes content creation, lead generation and management, SEO, social media, and web design and development.
In December 2019, Skoda Minotti merged with Marcum Accountants and Advisors. Jonathan’s team includes 11 people in a variety of specialized roles serving both clients of the firm as well as companies that are strictly marketing-only clients, many of which are other accounting firms. Prior to the merger, Marcum did not offer marketing services to their clients, so Jonathan has been focusing his efforts lately on educating Marcum’s partners on the benefits of providing these services to their clients.
Jennifer Cantero, Director of Marketing and Sustainability at Sensiba San Filippo in California, had a different experience getting started. “About a year and a half ago, my managing partner asked if I had ever thought about becoming a partner,” Jennifer says. “He asked me to put a plan together for myself to start offering services to our clients to gain a book of business and propel me to partner. Part of my plan included offering select marketing services to our client base,” she says.
Currently, Jennifer has a team of three that offer marketing consulting services to clients. Their services include how to tell your sustainability story (SSF is a Certified B Corporation) or change your marketing tone post-COVID, social media consulting, photography, graphic design, and email campaign creation. Jennifer’s role is primarily working on strategy and storytelling. Her communications coordinator works on social media and email campaign projects, and her marketing coordinator works on photography, collateral, and graphic design projects. “Technically, all three of us can do any of the work, but we try and play to each other’s superpowers when we can,” she says.
Similar to Jennifer, Brittany White, Director of Marketing at Apple Growth Partners in Ohio, got her start offering marketing services when the firm’s chairman recommended her services to several of his clients. “After discussing his clients’ marketing needs, we discovered that business owners may not have full-time marketing support and may need further help with strategy, design, and execution of marketing plans,” Brittany said.
As a result, the firm started offering clients the opportunity for a marketing audit. Brittany performs an inspection of the client’s current needs and then provides a gap analysis with recommended next steps. “Even if the client has a marketing department, providing a third-party assessment of their campaigns and department structure is beneficial for the marketing leader. AGP Creative’s assessments provide a report of opportunities for businesses, and if requested, vetted recommendations for partners like agencies, designers, and freelancers,” says Brittany.
How do I get started?
What if you are a team of one? How do you get started? Both Jonathan and Jennifer had the same advice: start small, start with what you do best, and offer those services to the firm’s current clients.
But it all begins with trust. “To get to the point of offering marketing services to the firm’s clients, you have to build trust with the partner group, which is an ongoing effort,” says Jonathan. “I did not start offering services until after I had been at the firm for three years, which allowed me time to build relationships.”
Jennifer started by looking at what the team did well for her firm and felt comfortable doing for others. “We also took into account the work that we did not like doing, and we find channel partners to refer. For example, we knew we did not want to manage websites, so we found a couple of partners we could recommend for that work,” she says.
Like Jonathan, Jennifer’s plan includes marketing their services to current firm clients who need marketing help. “We hope to bring in new clients of our own in the future,” she says. Her team is currently marketing their services through word of mouth and a few webinars. Their goal is to have a full service page of their own soon as well as a thought leadership library of articles for the firm’s blog and newsletter.
At Apple Growth Partners, Brittany is the only marketer, but has some administrative support from one other firm employee. Currently, her firm’s marketing services, AGP Creative, are in the early stages and are marketed through word of mouth by the firm’s chairman and a handful of partners. “We have not completed a full marketing campaign yet due to our firm’s COVID-19 Response Team communication and marketing needs, but we plan to do a full-fledged marketing campaign this summer,” she says.
Brittany noted that one thing to think about is that many agencies offer a marketing audit only to have the answer be to use their services. “I believe there is a significant need for a true third-party marketing assessment provided by an experienced marketing director – one that does not result in ‘only our services can help you.’ A third-party opinion helps a marketing department set a clear strategy going forward,” she said. AGP Creative’s marketing audits are broken down by hours so that clients have the option of anywhere between a 2-12-hour comprehensive review. This review can include a website, social media, paid advertising, department structure, staff education and training, logo design, advertising spend, media buying, customer experience, and more.
Jonathan also advised to leverage your strengths and added that you should not be afraid to learn and try new things, admitting that, “At the end of the day, it is marketing. We are not trying to put someone in space or do brain surgery. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, you will be fine. Otherwise, outsource. But do not be afraid to take the risk.”
Approaching your partners
At this point, you might be sold on the idea of offering your services, but you are wondering, “What if my partners think I do not have enough to do?” That is why you start small. Offer to spend 5-10 hours a week doing additional work for clients.
“Partners must think of themselves as well-rounded business advisors instead of narrow subject matter experts in tax, audit, or assurance. With the mindset and approach of a business advisor, partners are positioned and viewed by their clients as trusted advisors who can help them grow their business in any number of ways – including through marketing,” advises Jonathan. Arm your partners with a few open-ended questions to help determine if a marketing opportunity exists. Who knows? It could turn into revenue and ultimately lead to you running your own line of business.
Jennifer counts herself blessed that her partners see the value in offering new consulting services and understand that it is just like a staff person trying to build a new practice line. “Our partner group was excited by the prospect of offering marketing consulting. They see the value we can add to their client relationships and the firm’s bottom line,” she noted. “We are starting with a few projects, but with the understanding that once we get a bigger book of business, then our department’s headcount will grow to match the demand. However, we will certainly ensure our first client, our firm, does not feel underserved.”
Brittany certainly understands that many firm leaders do not fully grasp the workload of their firm’s marketing leaders, which can cause grounds for wrong assumptions. “My recommendation is to outline the firm’s marketing strategy and how to work billable hours into the conversation,” she said. “Luckily, my firm’s chairman and executive committee is extremely supportive of my marketing efforts and strategy, which resulted in their full support of expanding marketing as a service offering for our clients.”
It’s a win-win
Who wins here? First of all, your partners solidify their relationships with their clients as a true business advisor who looks out for their best interest in all areas. And as a bonus, you look like a star, further solidifying your expertise as a marketing professional.
“Our partners love marketing services because it allows them to offer an added-value resource to their clients. This is especially true for the CPAs who subscribe to the business advisor philosophy,” says Jonathan. “In the beginning, focus on the ones who ‘get it,’ even if it is only one or two. When you start having success with those partners, others will come around. The clients love it, too. Typically, when a client gets a recommendation from their CPA, they are likely going to try it. While the client may not know you well, they know and trust the partner who recommended you, and that is half the battle won right there.”
Jonathan adds, “Be careful what you wish for, however. Building a consulting practice can become extremely time consuming. One of my biggest challenges when I started was determining how to spend my time—internal vs. external. This experience has been great from many standpoints; professionally, it has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. There have also been economic advantages, both personally and for the firm. But there is a trade-off that comes with it in the form of time, sanity, and stress.”
So far, Jennifer and her team have received nothing but positive feedback from clients as well as partners. “The projects that we do help us get to know our clients on a different level, build a deeper relationship, and expand our quality of service to those clients,” she said. “But I think the most rewarding part is how thankful the clients are for help and guidance. I remember the first time I helped a client, pro bono, just to add value for a long-time client. After a few minutes of talking through a campaign strategy, she released a deep breath, and I saw her shoulders drop tension. She looked at me with a sense of relief and said, ‘thank you.’ I was a little taken aback in disbelief that just talking with me relieved that much stress for her, but it kept happening. The folks I spoke to would either have a moment of profound relief or they would get fired-up excited about what we would be planning. These experiences helped fuel the drive to develop an actual service line to expand the added-value conversations I was having and put more meat behind them,” said Jennifer.
For Brittany at AGP Creative, “The most rewarding part of offering marketing services is having the full support of our firm’s chairman and executive committee of our marketing department to offer to their clients. It has been great to also take a ‘break’ from day-to-day tasks for the firm and dive into a new company, challenges, and opportunities for our clients’ marketing needs.”
Even if you are not ready to approach your partners and ask for the green light to offer strategic marketing services, there are still a few things you can do in the meantime. Most importantly, focus on building trust with your partners. This relationship-building goes a long way in many different areas, not just in offering your services. Additionally, as Jonathan said, focus on the ones who ‘get it,’ both in your partner group and with your firm’s rising stars. They are your best allies. Finally, take stock of what you are good at, leverage those skills for your firm, and do not be afraid to celebrate your strengths.
About Rachael McGrew
Rachael McGrew is the Business Development Director for Landmark CPAs, one of Arkansas’ largest accounting firms. In her role, she wears many hats, including overseeing the firm’s marketing and business development strategy, managing internal and external communications, maintaining the firm’s social media and web presence, planning and executing firm events and community outreach programs, coordinating recruiting campaigns, and serving on industry association committees.
Rachael is a graduate of the Leadership Fort Smith program, an Arkansas Business and Northwest Arkansas Business Journal 40 Under 40 honoree, a Fort Smith Chamber Ambassador, a member of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Arkansas’ Western Council, Co-chair of Immaculate Conception’s Spring Festival Silent Auction, and a Home Room Mom.