Accountants to ad agencies, 'history' is stifling fresh ideas

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Professional-services marketing, those of us who do it are wont to say, is a triple oxymoron. Most practitioners consider traditional marketing communications irrelevant to their pursuit of business; the only tactic that works is "relationship selling." Compounding the communications difficulties, many client service firms are, or act like, partnerships. The professionals think of themselves as semi-autonomous business units and engage in independent marketing activities. Worse, they proffer their "product"-the firm's collective capabilities-in uncoordinated ways, presenting myriad faces to the market.

This helps explain a great mystery of the professional-services business known as advertising: why agencies are such awful marketers of their own expertise. Their brands are muddied. The few with brand identities forged them in the `50s. Their pursuit of new business rests on tactics equally ancient. Golf, anyone?

"We're one of the least innovative industries there is," says Brian Carty, in his second year as president of the New York office of Interpublic's Hill Holliday. "Whether it's `here's how you produce a TV spot' to `here's how you run an agency,' we're weighed down by history."

In trying to change history, Mr. Carty starts with an advantage: He engaged in a successful transformation effort at another professional-services company, Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). For five years beginning in 1990, he served in an unusual dual capacity (chief of staff to the chairman and partner in charge of marketing and communications) to help facilitate Coopers' shift from accounting to consulting-cum-accounting. During that half-decade, the firm's share value grew to $780 from $250.

He encountered the chaos typical in professional-services communications. "We had about 650 separate publications," he recalls. "I went to an early meeting and said, `Guys, we're not in the accounting business; we're in the publishing business.' To them, that was marketing. ... Eventually, we blew up the department, fired 200 people, boiled it down to six publications and outsourced it to Hill Holliday."

Hill Holliday won the Coopers account with an impassioned pitch by its legendary CEO, Jack Connors. He persuaded the firm to do something almost unheard of in professional services: advertise-on the Super Bowl, no less. The campaign, which included the first commercial use of a Bob Dylan song ("The Times They Are A-Changing"), helped drive Coopers' unaided awareness to No. 2 from No. 5 in its category. That gave the firm's leadership the political capital it needed to drive more profound changes in its culture and business mix, with internal communication serving a role at least as important as external communications.

Ad agencies face analogous transformation needs. Culturally, they are still predisposed to tender media advertising as the solution to all marketing problems. While realism dictates that advertising will remain fundamental to marketing ("It's part of a company's extended identity," Mr. Carty says), agencies must become more multi-disciplinary in their offerings and far more consultative in their practices if they are to aid clients in their own transformations.

"An ad person is like a company psychiatrist, helping you discover who you really are," says Mr. Carty, the client turned agency executive. "If you have that kind of a relationship, you better be able to help. You can't just say, `Take Librium' for everything."

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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