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Building Business Through Building The Brand

Accountants offer more services than they used to, and now they have to sell themBIZ SPOTLIGHT – Accounting

Accounting firms are putting more time and money into self-promotion these days, a move they say became necessary as they broadened their menu of services beyond tax work, audits and compiling financial statements.

“The perception of the accounting firm as a place to only get your tax return or financial statement prepared is rapidly changing,” says Sherise D. Ritter, managing director of Princeton-based accounting firm the Mercadien Group. “Accounting firms now provide services that require proactive decisions dealing with financial and investment planning and implementation, leasing-versus-buying issues, personnel issues and a host of additional matters.”

In contrast to the long-held image of accountants as partnership-based service groups, experts say public accounting firms today are now run more like businesses. “The fact of the matter is that many accounting firms are now essentially professional services firms, and not really accounting firms anymore,” says Donald E. Wygal Sr., professor of accounting at Lawrenceville-based Rider University. “They’re professional-services firms best at the job of accounting, but they’re now also a more-encompassing kind of business.”

In order to make that clear to potential customers, many large and mid-sized firms have opened their wallets for both general brand-image campaigns and focused trade advertising. As part of the process of rethinking self-promotion, most of the larger accounting firms have created full-service marketing departments, says Marla Bace, chief marketing officer for Roseland-based accounting firm J.H. Cohn.

Accounting firms, like other service industries, have realized that with so many accounting firms other there, you must work very hard to differentiate yourself, says Michael Beckerman, president of Bedminster-based Beckerman Public Relations. “There’s so many forms of communication out there, so it’s harder and harder to break through the clutter,” says Beckerman. “I don’t think accounting firms can any longer sit back and wait for customers either to find them or to expect their client relationships will be renewed over and over without some form of marketing.”

Edward Guttenplan, chairman and founder of Wilkin & Guttenplan, a mid-sized accounting firm in East Brunswick, says 15 years ago most accounting firms simply didn’t think about marketing or engage in it. “Now everybody’s doing it,” he says. “Everybody wants to grow and wants to raise the profile of their clients, so they continually upgrade their practice. One way is by marketing.”

In fact, 25 years ago, accounting firms and other white-collar service professions, including lawyers, weren’t permitted to advertise. That changed in 1982 when an Arizona bar complaint against two lawyers who had placed print ads made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the bar’s ban.

Since then, many middle-market or larger accounting firms have hired full-time marketing officers. Their duties typically include attracting and retaining clients, developing the company Web site, print materials and seminars, setting up speaking engagements and working to garner press coverage—all to build credibility and visibility.

Typical marketing activities for small- to mid-sized accounting firms include holding and taking part in seminars, participating in industry organizations, publishing firm newsletters and writing articles for trade publications.

“We want to be the accounting firm that you quote and talk about as an expert about something,” says Sally Glick, director of marketing for Sobel & Co., a firm based in Livingston. “Will all of that create new business immediately? No. But what it does is it creates name recognition, helps build our brand, helps build our reputation. So when someone … recommends us to someone that they know, they can say ‘I’ve seen that name. I think I read an article about them recently.’”

“What an accounting firm wants to do in advertising is demonstrate that they have far superior levels of expertise in whatever sectors they’re going after—nonprofit, public, private, real estate and construction—that they have a level of expertise in that industry to give that client a competitive edge,” says Beckerman.

How much money is spent on marketing is dictated by firm size and how much cash it has available. “The upper end of the medium-sized firms and the larger accounting firms are going to be more dedicated toward a stronger marketing initiative, whereas a more modest firm might not have the resources to go too far down the road,” says Bace.

While many accounting firms say they now make liberal use of advertising to promote their services and polish their brands, most say they are very selective about which outlets they use.

“They’re a little bit more thought-out with professionals involved in assisting the businesses,” says Steve Kass, co-managing partner for Rothstein Kass, a Roseland-based public accounting firm. “Instead of a scatter-gun approach, accounting firm ads are more focused and aimed at their client.”

Still, local mid- to large-sized accounting firms are playing the usual angles: print-media, broadcast media and event sponsorships.

While declining to give a specific dollar amount, Bace say J.H. Cohn has made a “significant” increase to its advertising budget in the past two years. Cohn last year launched a brand-building campaign, teaming with N.Y. Yankees Manager Joe Torre as its official spokesman in a series of print and radio ads. Bace says the campaign is working, resulting in “more awareness of our brand on sales calls and on prospect interviews.”

Ilene Monesson, marketing director for Cowan, Gunteski & Co., based in Toms River, says smaller firms typically use their modest marketing budgets to reinforce their personal-service message among existing clients. Still, she says, “We do some advertising—if just a minimal amount. You have to.”

Not all the big accounting firms have jumped on the advertising bandwagon. Parsippany-based Deloitte & Touche USA, for one, has pulled back considerably on ads. “We don’t have a particular brand-advertising program in place; we’ve been basically staying away from that,” says Ron Rickles, managing partner for the firm’s New Jersey office. “We look to build marketplace eminence through authoring thought pieces and getting our name in print as opposed to pure advertising.”

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