Differentiating giants: comms for professional services firms

In an increasingly competitive landscape to win new clients and attract the best talent, professional services firms face a difficult challenge in how to differentiate themselves from the competition. As advisers, they have no physical products that they can point to, and a combination of confidentiality and protection of their IP prevents them from displaying where their real talents lie.

Furthermore, they fundamentally do the same thing; who can name a service offered by one magic circle and not the rest, or likewise for the big four accountants?

Where they believe their value lies is in their experience, their expertise, their talent and the strength of their network, potentially too in their purpose, culture and values. But showing this comparatively can be notoriously difficult in a way that seems both genuine and credible. In many cases it is not so much what’s done, but how it’s done and articulated that makes the difference.

It’s this tension that creates a fantastic challenge for communicators; how do you get under the skin of a business to really demonstrate to stakeholders and the public what makes it special, better than the rest and worthy of the best talent and the prized contracts.

Some core approaches really stand out for me and have stood the test of time in all the work we do for clients and in what we observe in the market place:

Show off your work – be the news

The first way to differentiate is by example. At the most simplistic end of the communications spectrum, companies can talk about what they are doing. Interesting work, new hires, new client wins and firm expansion all help to project a company’s successes and culture, enticing talent and potential clients by demonstrating solid credentials. Last month, PwC showed how even the most mundane announcement about dress code can be used to diffuse an issue and make a statement about company culture.

Although simple, this nuts and bolts news flow can be used to great effect, earning column inches in trade and business media. Last month, Linklaters’ reconstruction of the post-civil war Liberian legal system  showed how with the right work even special interest topics can yield coverage in the most sought after publications.

Show off your insights – comment on the news

Given talent is a professional services firm’s number one asset, a really critical item in the comms toolkit is insight on the business or industry issues that shape our world. Although the core IP must be protected, it is possible to demonstrate understanding and areas of expertise by commenting on relevant news or placing by-lined articles in trade media.

In recent weeks, a raft of lawyers and consultants have weighed in on the potential, and actual, impact of a Brexit, fighting to demonstrate their understanding of this economic and legal behemoth.

Create an original proposition

But if you really want to stand out as a professional services firm you have to put a stake in the ground – carve out your own area of commentary, based on insight that only you have gathered, and build a campaign around it.

To pull that off successfully usually means commissioning research, preferably global in scale, and putting a lot of consultant and analyst hours into crafting a set of data and insights that no other firm can rival. When you are ready to share this insight, no-one else is in the story and you can bask in the attention generated by your hard work and genuinely distinctive point of view.

When McKinsey started releasing its insights into cities back in 2011, suggesting that they would become more important than countries, they changed the way many businesses thought about the world and in particular how they would tackle emerging markets. Looking back on that work now, with Europe looking progressively weaker, some of that insight still resonates: “In a world that increasingly appears ungovernable, cities—not states—are the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built.”

Campaigns from within

Where communications campaigns can really earn their salt for professional services firms however is when they go deeper into the culture, values and strategic direction of an organization.

In a world where businesses are held to account more publicly and rigorously by enlightened, empowered and connected consumers, authenticity is key. The most successful communications campaigns leverage the core of a business, its people and its values, and then use multiple channels, both internal and external, to broadcast those messages to stakeholders. Demonstrating excellent work and thought leadership can certainly be a part of this, but the key is always do so through the lens of wider corporate values and strategies, giving multi-layered insight into what the company has to offer.

Last month, Luther helped EY to generate discussion around its 30th annual World Entrepreneur of the Year forum, a celebration of the innovation and disruption harnessed by the world’s entrepreneurs. The forum, and supporting communications, included thought leadership and news, internal and external comms, set piece press releases and interviews with business leaders from both EY and beyond. However, all activity grew from a central, deeply held EY belief, that by understanding and helping entrepreneurs they can build a better working world. It is this focus that ensured a genuine, credible, and compelling proposition.