The State of Professional Services Marketing 2015 Research Study

Are the top firms growing because of a strategic marketing approach or in spite of it?

Prudent Pedal is conducting research to identify the practices of professional service firms that have developed a superior, strategic marketing approach to drive growth. We are quantifying how these firms outperform peers, build competitive advantage and sustain superior growth.

This is not a survey about social media or digital marketing. It is a strategic assessment for Managing Partners, Practice Leaders, Chief Sales Officers and Chief Marketing Officers. The survey examines 3 areas:

  1. Strategy
  2. Operations
  3. Delivery
Assessment Areas

Research Areas

The survey is confidential and takes approximately 10 minutes to complete.

Why your firm should take the time to complete the study.

Marketing in professional services firms can be messy.  Organizational structures, mixed expectations and unhealthy cultures often complicate the function and hinder strategic impact. To exacerbate the issue further, technology, disintermediation and buyer sophistication have drastically changed the world of business development and marketing from where it was five years ago.

  • Benchmark your firm’s growth capabilities against your industry peers.
  • Identify areas of strategic strength and disconnect.
  • Pinpoint the capabilities you maybe neglecting that are sub-optimizing your growth investments.

Please take a few minutes to take the survey, share it with your firm’s leadership and forward to your peers.

Prudent Pedal is a Chicago-based, marketing consultancy that helps professional services firms set smart growth strategies in motion. Prudent Pedal’s Founder, Jeff McKay, has helped the world’s top professional services firms achieve industry-leading growth rates, optimize marketing investment and maximize brand value.  Jeff was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen.

For more information, visit or email

Be prudent.

The Roles You Need on Your Marketing Team

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Professional services marketers fight hard to achieve their titles. Newbies start out as coordinators, move to managers, if they prove themselves, become directors, if they stick around long enough, and often become CMOs when they jump ship and negotiate the title into their new job descriptions. On the line side, there is some usual progression from associate to managing partner. Everyone knows where he/she stands in the pecking order and there is balance in the universe.

Unfortunately, this approach is antiquated, ineffective and harmful to delivering strategic results and superior ROI from a marketing function. It is time for firms to eliminate these job titles and build a team that is playing starring roles in driving the growth of the firm. With a little help from Hollywood, here are the roles casting needs to fill:

The Strategist

Many firms delude themselves into thinking that they have this role covered because they use a complex, months-long business planning process at the start of each fiscal year. While the process often uses buzzwords like SWOT, adjacencies and growth targets, firms seldom ask the basic strategic questions: “What problem do we solve?”, “Who is our ideal client?” and “What do they value?” The Strategist’s role is to get the firm focused on the most important questions. The Strategist is a big-picture thinker with strong business acumen and a passion for meeting clients’ needs. He/she is measured by the firm’s ability to anticipate needs, develop capabilities and build solutions that meet them.

Hollywood example: Moneyball

The Futurist

Business life is like fashion. Consulting fads come and go, historical events happen, demographics change, technology evolves, markets expand and collapse, etc. China, marketing automation, the Internet of Things, mobile, cloud, consulting industry disintermediation are just a few areas of recent import. As the world turns, most professional services firms are content to be followers. The Futurist’s role is to go up on the mountain and think about “What if…?” Having the ability requires the time to think, ingest huge quantities of seemingly irrelevant information and synthesize a hypothesis that provides competitive advantage for the firm. This person is a constant learner, antagonistic, a born problem-solver, impractical, expensive, innovative and, more often than not, annoyingly brilliant.

Hollywood example: Dr. Emmett Brown

The Enforcer

Many partners think they are marketing gurus because they have seen an Apple commercial that is cool, read a book on emotional branding or served a big client– none of which qualifies them to layout marketing strategy for the firm. The Enforcer role tells the partner(s) to sit down and shut up (metaphorically speaking). This person possesses the understanding of the firm’s business, strong operational and business acumen and the gravitas to push back on loud, intimidating partners to intelligently build a winning argument. The Enforcer calls a spade a spade, does not take the path of least resistance and is not intimidated by titles. His success is measured by his ability to build consensus, do what is right and move the firm in the direction of its strategic goals.

Movie example: Good Will Hunting

The Idealist

Hitting your number or making partner often takes the front seat when evaluating business decisions. The Idealist’s role is to keep the firm on its highest plain, whether it is fulfilling the mission, living its values or delivering a brand promise. The Idealist is often the voice calling out in the desert. This role is often filled by the naïve, but s/he keeps more seasoned and cynical people aligned with their more noble selves and keeps them from succumbing to greed and vanity. This role reminds us of why we are here. While perfection is unachievable, the Idealist calls us to the quest nonetheless.

Hollywood example: Mr. Smith

The Quant

Marketing is often accused of wasting 50% of its spend. That may be generous for many firms. In a data-driven world, the Quant has become a very hot commodity. Leadership teams rightfully are demanding proof that the earnings they are allocating to marketing are paying dividends. Substantiating the investment should be low-hanging fruit. The Quant’s more important role is to enable all the other roles. To do this, the Quant must possess more than mathematical ability. He/she must be curious, client-centric and understand the inter-relatedness of the roles and other parts of the firm. Number-crunching for the sake of number-crunching is not useful. The result must be applied to learning and competitive advantage.

Hollywood example: A Beautiful Mind or Moneyball  (I love them both).

The Creative

Often professional services firm marketers are relegated to “making things pretty.” The Creative role is not about making it pretty; it is about making it understandable. The Creative plays the trifecta roles of translator, storyteller and designer. All three combine in a meaningful way to communicate to prospects in an attention-deficit world how the firm is different and can help. You probably know a person like this. They are the go-to-person when a bad idea needs a huge shove to knock it off center. The skill set is unique and the person can often name his/her price.

Hollywood example: Alton Brown (nobody does it as well)


RolesThe optimal marketing organization can take many forms depending on the firm’s priorities, but marketing’s role never changes. Its role, as Peter Drucker so eloquently described it, “is to make and keep a customer.” A firm with strategic market capability is not satisfied with titles du jour: social media coordinator, digital marketer or chief experience officer. Instead, they focus on strategic roles.

Many partners fancy themselves filling these important roles, but they don’t. They overestimate their ability, wrestle with balancing competing roles or are not rewarded to fill them. As a result, firms 1.) don’t ask the tough questions, 2.) take the path of least resistance and 3.) squander marketing investments trying to drive growth.

How many of each of these roles and how they are aligned in your firm are ultimately driven by your matrix and level of investment? Recognizing the importance of these roles and admitting that they are not consistently fulfilled is the critical first step in eliminating the wrong marketing jobs and adding strategic value.

Be prudent.

Tell Me a Story

I am astounded at how asinine marketing messages can be, particularly in the consumer world. The latest commercial to catch my ire is the Lincoln commercial with Oscar winner, Matthew McConaughey. The commercials have McConaughey riding around in a Lincoln product expounding “big” thoughts on life, including environmentalism, existentialism and the mind reading of a “big bull.”

I like McConaughey. I enjoyed him in Dallas Buyer Club, The Lincoln Lawyer and even The Wedding Planner, when he annoyingly threw away all but the brown M&Ms. This is not an anti-McConaughey diatribe or a rant against celebrity endorsements. What I hate about this commercial, and so many like it, is the premise that buying a Lincoln will make my life complete. Before McConaughey and Lincoln, the “Designed by Apple in California” held the top spot on my product-as-savior list. It was the pinnacle of Apple as a religion.

I dislike any commercial that tries to tell me that a product or experience is going to complete me as a human being. It is absurd that making a purchase–be it a car, a phone or a beer–is going to make me more successful, hip or attractive.

Having said that, you may be wired completely different. You may find the ads and the message appealing. Perhaps you share the values that McConaughey expounds. You may love the styling of the Lincoln MKC or recall vacations in the family’s Lincoln. An Apple product “designed in California” may have changed your life. You’re OK. I am OK. My point is that we all define value and values differently. Why do I share this?

Last week, I was in a peer group of technology CEOs. One of the owners was sharing his concerns that he may be overcharging some of his clients for access to his REIT documentation platform. When asked why he felt that he was overcharging, he replied that while many clients were satisfied with the system they where not regularly accessing all of its functionality or taking a discount for an annual subscription.

As we talked about the issue, it became clear that he didn’t have his arms around what value the client actually saw in the system. Some were using it as a cheap, secure, disaster recovery solution. Others were just using the due diligence portion, but were dormant in acquisitions. Perhaps others didn’t pay because the subscription terms were better for their cash flow versus saving money by paying up front. Or, the client’s low-level contact lacked the power to exploit the capabilities of the system. We concluded that while the business’ platform delivered value, the company was not completely clear on what value it was offering each buyer and segment of its market because each one saw different value in the system.


If we are not mindful, we get caught in the trap of thinking that everyone sees the world as we do. If they do not, then they must be irrational. I am dumbfounded at what consumers will buy and why. The Kardashians, Joel Osteen, and the QVC Shopping Network are just a few more “marketers” on my list. Who watches this stuff? Apparently, a lot of people do—Kardashians (3 million viewers), Osteen (7 million viewers) and QVC (up to 16 million viewers). Like I said, we all define value and values differently.

“Storytelling” is the rage in marketing. Stories work because they are more memorable than simple facts and figures and excite emotion in us. Stories play a more important role in marketing, because buyers look for stories that complement the bigger story that they are already telling themselves about who they are. Buyers use the stories to reinforce their self-images–seeing, believing and buying the things that reinforce it.

According to MarketWatch, sales of Ford’s Lincoln vehicles surged 25% to 8,883 vehicles this past October.  The MKC saw a big leap in sales between September and October from 1,763 vehicles to 2,197 vehicles, during the same time frame the McConaughey ads began airing.

If you are going to be a great marketer, you have to know your market AND yourself. More importantly, you have to be able to tell the difference between the two.

Be prudent.

Professional Services Cultures vs. the Local Dry Cleaner


Professional Services Cultures

When I shop at Target, eat at McDonalds, buy a new bike at a local bike shop or even get my shoes shined, I expect the people I interact with to have integrity, provide great service, give me a quality product and be accountable for delivering what the company has promised to deliver. I suspect most people have these seemingly modest expectations for any customer relationship.

Why is it that so many professional services firms display these “values” as if they are unique differentiators and somehow make their firms something special to their clients? While all are important values, are they not the qualities to be expected from any service provider—be it a Big 4 accounting firm or a dry cleaner?

Working at and with the world’s top professional services firms—as an entry-level employee, executive leader or consultant—has shown me the challenges of setting values and demonstrating them. I have seen leaders put their own careers at risk to help others. I have witnessed the hypocrisy of firm leaders who pontificate values, but demonstrate through their actions that they care only about power, title and money. These experiences have taught me that without a different type of culture a firm has little chance of separating itself from others. As a result, I can quickly assess which cultures are made of “solid oak” and which are covered in “veneer.” Here are the prudent attributes and the thinking behind them that I have observed in firms built of oak.

Spirituality and Purpose

A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps. Proverbs 14:15

It takes most of us decades to learn that life is about more than power, fame, success, wealth and possessions. Some are blessed early with a clear vision of a higher purpose, their contribution to the world and to individuals. Prudent firms know the difference between fleeting, superficial rewards and a legacy of impact. They are driven by a mission to change lives for the better—theirs and all with whom they come into contact.


“The essence of statesmanship is not a rigid adherence to the past, but a prudent and probing concern for the future.”  Hubert H. Humphrey

Great firms live beyond individuals. A prudent leader understands that his/her role is to preserve and enhance the value and reputation of the firm for the next generation. He does not think in terms of “me” or “gettin’ while the gettin’ is good.” He makes smart decisions that may not benefit him or his practice but that enhance the value of the entire firm. These leaders expect to leave the firm better than they found it.


“That man is prudent who neither hopes nor fears anything from the uncertain events of the future.” Anatole France

It has been said, “Life is a series of crises interrupted by good times.” Prudent firms develop the strength to withstand crises, learn from them and exploit them to their advantage. Doing this requires teamwork and “grit”—the ability to persevere in spite of the overwhelming challenge of the moment. Firms made of oak build this capability over time and have the stories and legacies to reinforce it.


“Prudence has two eyes, one that foresees what one has to do, the other that examines afterword what one has done.” St. Ignatius

Prudent firms nurture awareness and introspection. They know themselves. Prudent firms do not get caught up in fads, booms and busts and hysteria. Decisions and actions are not driven by impulse. Prudence is about truth: the truth of what is, what is right and what must be done. We must know what is true before we are free to do what is right. This includes an awareness and acceptance of our own moral values. The best firms take the time to reflect on actions before they are taken, and again after they are done, to learn more about themselves and the world around them.


The prudent course is to make an investment in learning, testing and understanding, determine how the new concepts compare to how you now operate and thoughtfully determine how they apply to what you want to achieve in the future. Dee Hock

Prudent firms encourage the taking of smart risks. They reward initiative and, more importantly, learning. Professional services firms are driven by knowledge. So, prudent firms create a culture that makes it safe for their people to explore and experiment with new ideas. They do not penalize failure. They couple it with knowledge-building and encouragement.


“Life has no blessing like a prudent friend.” Euripides

I witnessed inauthenticity that was so bad at one firm that partners used the term “grin f’ing” to describe it. This was the experience of receiving a smiling nod of agreement followed by a clandestine plan to do just the opposite. Prudent firms have the self-confidence, openness, safety and courage to have the crucial conversations necessary to make tough decisions. They do not shirk from this responsibility and they are true to their word.


“Prudence directs choice by means of counsel.” St. Thomas

Humility and vulnerability are not signs of weakness. To prudent firms, humility is an act of strength, courage and self-confidence. Humility creates an environment that enables people to share fears and aspirations. Humility allows us to say, “I do not know” or “I need help.” Without humility, associates lack the fundamental building block to spiritual and personal growth.


“Prudence implies a transformation of the knowledge of truth into the decisions corresponding to reality.” Joseph Pieper

Firms often misconstrue anecdotes for data and feelings for facts. Prudence demands openness to the whole truth of the situation, including long-held beliefs, prejudices and agendas. Prudent firms are completely honest about decisions with clients and themselves. As Arthur Andersen said, “Think straight, talk straight.”


Happiness exists on earth, and it is won through prudent exercise of reason, knowledge of the harmony of the universe, and constant practice of generosity.”   Jose Marti

Prudent firms have, at the core of their being, a compassion for people. While they demand responsibility, they do not measure a person’s value solely by economic production. The Golden Rule lives and breathes within these firms. As employee lives ebb and flow, prudent firms treat people lovingly through life’s transitions. They always keep the well-being of the person at the center and do not use platitudes or throwaway lines like, “people are our greatest asset.”


While Prudent Pedal is not a human capital firm, we understand that if the culture is broken, then the firm is broken. Many of the issues we address in marketing strategy and effectiveness have their root in culture, not the marketing function.

Values like integrity, trust, excellence and service are important attributes, but they do not differentiate firms and they do not inspire people in the same way as the attributes above. Love, spirituality, humility, realism, resilience, learning, authenticity, restraint, stewardship and mindfulness create a unique culture and attract virtuous associates and clients. These attributes may be too touchy-feely or not speak to you. But, if you want to differentiate yourself from your competition, McDonalds and your local dry cleaner, then you must choose yours. Choose prudently.

Be prudent.

Love and Prospecting

Love and ProspectingI never take brochures or PowerPoint decks when I meet with firm leaders at prospective clients. Instead, I take two things: a legal pad for taking notes and a book that I leave behind at the close of meetings.

The book is not a self-promotional diatribe or even a business book. It is The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman. Handing it over guarantees I will receive a stupefied reaction in response. (This is not my goal, of course; it 5_love_languagesis simply a bi-product of the gift!) Some recipients even become physically uncomfortable when they see the title. I tell them that I understand that it is odd to get a book about love in a business meeting, but I give it for several reasons.

First, the book changed my marriage and family life. It showed me how to communicate and demonstrate my love to my wife and kids in a way that they understand. When you read a book that has a personal impact, you want to spread the word.

Second, I believe that the quality of life is predicated on relationships. It is incongruent to be one way at home and another when managing people at work. If you do not have your house in order, it is difficult to make meaningful and sustainable headway in your work life.

Third, professional services are about trusted relationships. The book is about how we speak love and support in our most important relationship, but the message of the book has great application with clients, managers and staff.

The most important reason I give the book is that it communicates who Prudent Pedal is philosophically. In effect, the book helps our potential clients self-select. Prospects understand upfront that we are not in business just to make a buck and that meaningful (not just trusted) relationships are what it is all about for us.

Do we lose some potential clients to this approach? Yes. But does that bother us? Not at all. Our ideal client is one who understands the value of the strategic marketing capabilities that drive revenue growth AND the value of personal growth.


Being true to yourself has an associated cost: you cannot please everyone. I have spent a lifetime building the courage to be true to what I believe. Are you clear about the value that you deliver and what is most important to you for your firm? Do you have an inviolable value that helps prospects self-select? If it is not love, what is it for your firm?

Be prudent.

Identifying Your Focus

Apollo 13 EarthIn the movie Apollo 13, after the crew has survived several harrowing events, the team must adjust its angle to Earth to set the proper trajectory for reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Too flat an angle bounces the capsule back into space and too steep an angle incinerates the ship. As bad luck would have it, the crew does not have enough battery power to fire up the computer guidance system. The crew determines that the “old-fashioned” way to accomplish the same task is to identify a fixed point in space through one of the capsule’s windows. Earth becomes their fixed point. By keeping Earth in the window as the rockets fire, the crew is able to manually set course. The scene is intense as it shows the crew stalwartly setting the ship on the correct course.

I love this scene because of its intensity, clarity and ingenuity. As I watched the movie for the 10th time, the scene reminded me of how I often see professional services firms trying to make strategic decisions. While their decisions and actions are neither life threatening nor historic, they are relevant to the success of firms’ missions.

The most successful firms are able to look out their proverbial windows, spot their fixed objects in space, fire their engines and head for home. They achieve this by being very clear about who they are, whom they serve and what value they deliver. Most importantly, they work together, regardless of what circumstances they must overcome to complete their missions.

Less successful firms cannot locate their focal points. As a result, they bounce off into outer space or burn up. They do this by either trying to be all things to all people or becoming self-centered and self-serving, thereby neglecting the broader well being of the firm. Infighting, greed, self-righteousness, irresolution, indecision and leadership gaps are just a few of the causes. For whatever reason, in the end, the inability to set a clear vision and make strategic choices leads to mission failure (slower growth, low profitability, obsolescence, higher turnover, firm collapse, etc.)

Take away

It seems like common sense that members of the firm would all work together for the well being of the firm and its clients. Unfortunately, dysfunctional cultures and misaligned performance measurement systems can create just the opposite behaviors. In order to make it successfully home, leaders must identify that fixed object in space before hitting the thrusters. You don’t need perfection. Like Houston said, “That’s close enough, Jim. Good work.”  On the other hand, failing to do so may lead to a very undesirable outcome.

Be prudent.

Twitter Does Not Equal Marketing Technology

marketing_technology_jan2014_600 Technology is dramatically shifting marketing, and most professional service firms are being left behind just as the broader market—both B2B and B2C—are applying decades-old professional services marketing tactics to their own.   If your understanding of marketing “technology” is limited to Twitter, email and your website, it is time for you and your practice leaders to get engaged (This is not a social-media-bandwagon diatribe.).

The marketing landscape has evolved quickly in the past several years. has estimated more than $21.8 billion of venture capital and private equity has been recently invested marketing technology companies.  The latest count has more than 1,000 marketing technology firms providing unique value propositions around client experience, market understanding, service delivery and marketing operations. According to Gartner, professional services firms spend 4.2% of revenues on technology. Your marketing team may be using upwards of 10-15 of these technologies already–yet have just scratched the surface of the strategic potential. Here is a small sampling of the key areas (from Scott Brinker of

  • Internet services such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter that underlie today’s marketing environment
  • Infrastructure such as databases, big data management, cloud computing, and software development tools
  • Marketing Backbone Platforms such as CRM, marketing automation, WCM, and e-commerce engines
  • Marketing Middleware such as DMPs, CDPs, tag management, cloud connectors, user management, and API services
  • Marketing Experiences, or the “front-office” of modern marketing, are more specialized technologies that directly affect prospects and customers across their lifecycle, such as advertising, email, social media, SEO, content marketing, A/B testing and marketing apps
  • Marketing Operations include the tools and data for managing the “back-office” of marketing, such as analytics, MRM, DAM, and agile marketing management.

If you have a strategic marketing function, you are probably using many of these technologies and garnering (and measuring) the business impact. You are seeing strategic results like:

  • More marketing-qualified leads: The number of leads generated by Marketing that meet a sales-agreed-to set of qualification criteria
  • Higher brand relevance:  A measure of your firm’s/brand’s credibility, visibility and consideration, vis-a-vis the competition in the markets in which you compete
  • Higher prospect engagement: A measure of a prospect’s overall interactivity with your firm through marketing channels including website visits, time spent on website, pages viewed, site logins, email list growth, blog comments, event attendance, etc.
  • Faster velocity:  The amount of time it takes a prospect to move through the sales funnel from initial engagement until close
  • Higher pipeline contribution: The dollars of potential revenue contributed by marketing-qualified leads
  • Increasing size of prospect database size:  The total number of prospects in the firm’s marketing database.

If you are not seeing these results, it is time to shift gears and start thinking more strategically about the evolution of marketing technology and your ability to grow the business. The first step is to sit down with your marketing leader and understand your current state. The second step, as a leader, is to make sure that you are reinforcing a culture and capability to exploit these new technologies. Ask yourself if:

  • You have set the expectation to deliver strategic marketing capability
  • Your firm has a data-driven mindset
  • Your practice leaders are informed and engaged on key technologies
  • You are creating a culture that is risk-tolerant (i.e. has a learning ethos not a failure-avoidance ethos)
  • Your sales and marketing functions have synergistic and strong working relationships
  • Your culture is collaborative, not dictatorial
  • You have a strong, confident marketer who has a growth and problem-solving orientation
  • Your firm has a differentiated point of view, strong thought-leadership agenda and content-production capability
  • You see technology as an enabler not a pain in the ass.

Take away

Marketing technology is moving quickly. Your client’s experience in the consumer world sets the expectation for how they want to be able to engage your firm. Dragging your feet or being ignorant of technology’s evolution will put your relationships and your firm at risk. Mobile devices, the Internet of things, cloud and apps are dramatically changing how clients will be interacting with your firm, your people AND your competition.

Be prudent.

Making it Pretty and the Dearth of Marketing Leadership

“Send it to marketing and have them make it pretty” is a phrase you hear regularly in professional services firms. The “it” in the phrase could be a presentation, a proposal or any other brilliant marketing idea coming out of a practice. Most marketing organizations in professional services firms, to their credit, “make it pretty” with a positive attitude, limited resources and a few enhancements squeezed in that make “it” more effective in achieving “its” intended goal. “Making it pretty” is daily life for marketing in most firms. What a waste.

Recently, I attended the Global Leadership Summit, a two-day event focused on building stronger church leadership. Each year, the event draws church leaders and lay people intent on becoming better leaders. I always enjoy learning from the Summit speakers and meeting some of the most inspiring people on the earth. As I listened this year, it occurred to me that professional services firms have a dearth of marketing leadership. Why do so many marketers just “make it pretty” instead of leading (i.e. adding strategic value)? Here are several takeaways from the Summit that made me think that it is time for your marketers to become the leaders they are capable of being:

  1. Marketers are too focused on “managing” the marketing function.

In her summit speech, Carly Fiorina delineated the difference between management and leadership in a way that really resonated with me. Leaders can be managers, but not all managers are leaders. She said that “management,” in any setting, is the task of “producing acceptable results within known constraints and conditions.” In marketing, the results are rather common: produce a webinar, write a brochure, update the website, etc. The constraints and conditions are well known, as well: deadlines, budgets, resources AND individual partner expectations. It is important to have good managers. After all, you have to keep the trains running on time.

Leadership, on the other hand, is more rare. Leadership says, “I am going to change the conditions.” Fiorina says that leadership “changes the order of things.” Most partners would laugh at the idea of a marketing person changing the order of things in a firm. Most marketers, in partners’ minds, do not even understand the firm’s business. Perhaps, but many partners are called “leaders,” but they do not lead either. Instead, they maintain the known constraints and conditions—like “make-it-pretty” marketing. Marketers live up to the constrained expectations and keep producing acceptable results within the known constraints.

Leaders do not accept the constraints. Leaders see a different path and change the trajectory of the firm. To lead, marketers have to stop focusing solely on managing, accepting the firm’s and their own personal constraints and rethink their value to the firm.

  1. Marketers are obsessed about a “seat at the table.”

If I had dollar for every time I read an article or heard the lament of having a seat at the table in order to affect change, I would be a wealthy man (22,000,000 hits on that phrase in Google alone). Bill Hybles, THE “leader” of the Leadership Summit, is a broken record. Thank God too, because sometimes it takes time for a message to sink in. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Summit. One of his mantras is “Lead where you are.” Whether you are leading a Fortune 500 company, a mega church or a small marketing team, you are leader. Be one. As Hybles says, “Leaders, your God-given job is not merely to preside over something, not to pontificate to your underlings how smart you are, not merely to preserve something from its gradual demise; it’s to figure out what God wants to get done in this world, figure out what role you play in that, and then to move something or someone from here to there.”

Patrick Lencioni, author and world-renown speaker and consultant, spoke about mistakes leaders make. The first one was becoming a leader for the wrong reasons (i.e. perks, money, power and a seat at the table). The right reason to become a leader is to sacrifice oneself for others even though there is no ROI. If you are calculating the ROI for a leadership position, you shouldn’t be a leader.

  1. Marketers are living up to a stereotype of what a professional services marketer is.

When you think about a stereotypical marketer, what picture comes to mind? I suspect that a creative, flashy and extroverted persona comes into view. After all, that is the type of person that makes things pretty and throws a great party (er, event). You know the person with the fun cubicle, candy bowl and tchotchkes from the latest tradeshow.

I suspect some of the most talented marketing leaders are actually introverts and are playing small in a world of over-sized personalities. Susan Cain, TED sensation and author of the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, talked about the leadership strengths of introverts. Introverts are the people who can help firms think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems and spot canaries in your coal mine. It’s difficult for these individuals to breakthrough all the corporate noise and the charismatic-extrovert-as-leader mindset that permeates firms. Most firms don’t make the most of introverts’ strengths; but instead they allow group dynamics to push their marketers into conformity.

Take away

If your only expectation for your marketing team is to make “it” pretty or to just deliver acceptable results within known constraints, perhaps it is time to shift your idea of marketing.

Marketers could make huge inroads into leadership if they learned the business more comprehensively, brought real data/insights to the conversation and played to their strengths.

While never a speaker at the Summit, the great Peter Drucker had much to say on this topic:

  • “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.”
  • “Business has only two functions—marketing and innovation.”
  • “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.“

I don’t see “make it pretty” on that list.

Be prudent.

Marketing Lessons from a Sports Stadium Classroom

Busch Stadium

When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to St. Louis Cardinal baseball and football games and to see Blues hockey. I can vividly recall learning at a very early age when and how you pulled the goalie, sent the runner (that cost me a dollar on a sucker bet with my brother) and read the blitz. Driving to the game, we listened to KMOX, a giant St. Louis sports radio station. Radio personalities Jack Buck, Dan Kelly, Ron Jacober and many others prepped us for the game in excruciating detail. On the ride home, we listened again as they analyzed the results and gave us a better understanding for the next game.

We were able to go to so many games because we owned a family business. When your family is in business together, work, play and life are all mixed into a way of life (not the cell-phone-driven, reach-you-anywhere lifestyle that is so common today). Before every game, we went out to dinner. Giovanni’s on The Hill was my dad’s favorite place, but we went all over the city. Everywhere we ate, my dad scrutinized the service, the parking, the food, the restaurant layout, the décor, etc. He was constantly scanning the environment to garner new ideas and validate his own. My dad was not a big talker. So, when he spoke, I listened.

One of his favorite subjects was marketing, and his favorite targets were the big brands on display at the stadiums. In between teaching the concepts of icing, pass interference and squeeze plays, he shared his thoughts on the products and their positioning. I recall one conversation on the subject of Busch beer (mind you, I was a little kid and we were sitting in Busch Stadium). Out of the blue, he said:

“Anheuser-Busch needs to drop “Bavarian” from the Busch beer can.”

“What’s a ‘Bavarian’?” my astute young self asks in return.

“The name has no relevance to the target market.” he responded.

“Right. What is a Bavarian?” I asked again.

He went on to explain that the historic name complicated the message of Busch beer for its main consumer: working-class American beer drinkers. Most beer drinkers did not know where Bavaria was, nor did they care about the origin of the recipe. Thus, began my education as a marketer. Snacks, banks or car dealers did not escape scrutiny. (By the way, A-B dropped the word Bavarian from the name several years later for the very reason my father gave.)

I share this story because understanding your target market is the most basic of concepts in marketing and is the foundation of any strategic marketing effort. The ironic thing is that this simple concept is the primary reason firms never reach their growth potential and waste so much time and money in business development. I have found that firms simply don’t do it at all, they hang out an industry “shingle” and stop there, or they get very clear on it but lack the discipline to execute.

Firms that don’t do it usually lack the knowledge, the resources or the will power to make strategic choices. Strategic choices have opportunity costs. Choosing strategic segments means not pursuing or allocating resources to others. Many partners think that focusing on clear segments precludes avenues to other growth sources and the revenues needed to achieve or sustain their partnership. This is a fallacy.

Firms with an industry focus fare somewhat better because there is a clearer line of sight to the unique needs of buyers. Unfortunately, firms choose too broad of industries (e.g. financial services vs. investment management, insurance, retail banking, etc.) or they believe that because they have two “financial services” clients in their client base that they are industry experts. Either way, clients can easily see the shallowness of the industry programs and discount the “expertise” and the firm. 

Finally, firms that lack execution discipline often end up pursuing the “deal of the day.” I think the best illustration of this is mid-sized accounting firms. The firms have a clear understanding of their value (an alternative to Big 4 cost and arrogance) and their target market (mid-sized companies that do not want the Big 4 cost and arrogance). BUT, in reality, there is an irresistible pull inside the firms toward “upstream” growth and the desire to be number five and not a “Tier 2” firm. Both of these unspoken insecurities/ambitions drive behaviors that contradict a very strong focus and market positioning.

Take away

If you have neither segmented your markets nor identified your ideal client, you have not unlocked the key to growth and brand strength—focus. More often than not, the specialist in a market wins. Look at how the mass market of beer has come full circle and niche “Bavarian-like” beers are driving market growth today. Identifying your ideal client allows you to hone in on his or her unique issues, understand them, speak his/her language and build scalable solutions.

When you specialize around a market, an attribute, an issue or a client, you become very, very good at it. Identifying your key market segments streamlines marketing messages, simplifies lead generation, guides straightforward marketing metrics and helps existing clients refer more people to you. Most importantly, it demonstrates to your clients that you see their uniqueness and understand their business.

Take a word of advice from my dad. Understand who your market is, drop what is not relevant to it and then relentlessly pursue it. Time will demonstrate the wisdom of your decision.

Be prudent.

“Grow Everything” is not a Marketing Strategy

Grow Everything Chaos“I need your number by the end of the week!” is a phrase you have probably uttered or heard during your annual planning cycle. The “number” is the revenue bogey a partner or practice is “asked” to contribute to the overall growth of the firm and expected to hit by year-end. It is the combination of a top-down CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) and a bottom-up SWAG (scientific wild-ass-guess) that is cajoled, negotiated and extorted from line leaders.

To get there, firms plan to add a few new practices, expand into some new geographies, augment business developers, build new strategic partnerships, launch some new products and achieve the allusive “cross-sell.” If a firm is a little more ambitious, it might add an acquisition.

I call this the “grow everything” strategy. It sounds good, looks good and seems strategic. Can you say “adjacencies”? It gives everyone in the firm their do and doesn’t entail any hard strategic choices. Unfortunately,  every time it launches, it hits the ground with a resounding thud. If you are planning to launch a plan like this, get ready to waste a lot of time, energy and resources. Instead of a “grow-everything” plan and a revenue number, I propose a more prudent approach and a relevant, complementary number. Try this.

In order to grow efficiently, you have to first stop shrinking. Starting each year from zero or a significantly lower revenue number than you finished last year means starting 50 meters behind the starting line of a 100-meter dash. Don’t focus on all the possible growth sources until you have protected your base revenue. To do this, make your “number” goal client loyalty. In particular, make your objective to establish such a high level of performance that your clients don’t look elsewhere. This means a relentless pursuit of understanding how you are serving clients, anticipating your clients’ evolving issues, offering solutions that deliver differentiated value and being easy to do business with.

The best way to achieve this understanding is to ask your clients two simple questions, “How likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?” and “Why did you give that answer?” You may recognize these questions from the book by Fred Reichheld, The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth, which details the Net Promoter Score, or NPS®. The score is based on the idea that every company’s customers can be divided into three categories: Promoters, Passives, and Detractors. Customers respond on a 0-to-10 point rating scale and are categorized as follows:

  • Promoters (score 9-10) are loyal enthusiasts who will keep buying and refer others, fueling growth.
  • Passives (score 7-8) are satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who are vulnerable to competitive offerings.
  • Detractors (score 0-6) are unhappy customers who can damage your brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.

NPS is calculated by subtracting the percentage who are Detractors from the percentage of customers who are Promoters (

If you have not read the book, read it (don’t consume someone else’s summary). If you have read the book, but have not taken the advice, ask yourself, “Why?” Reichheld’s ideas are simple, powerful and proven. They are at the heart of protecting your base and are invaluable in turning the flywheel on organic growth. Loyal clients do not send out RFPs; they hire you uncontested. Loyal clients to not shop on price because they have seen demonstrated value. And, loyal clients are more apt to “promote” your firm through positive word of mouth—the cheapest and fastest way to new business.

You might be pushing back right now, “We have loyal clients. We have great service. We understand our clients’ needs.” Really? Are you simply measuring client satisfaction or have you developed the associated discipline to actually drive improvements in customer loyalty and enable profitable growth? How does leadership demonstrate its commitment to loyalty? How is client loyalty built into to your business processes and operational DNA? How do you deliver real-time information to consultants, so they can act on client feedback? Does your process help employees clarify and simplify the job of delighting clients? Does it help them identify and engage their best clients? Does it allow them to compare their performance to the best from week to week and month to month?

Take away

“Grow everything” is not a strategy. Just because a practice leader is given a number based on history or assigned a needed growth rate does not make it strategic or realistic. More often than not, it is neither and is a huge waste of scarce, strategic resources.

To be more strategic and more practical in actually achieving your growth goals, start with protecting your base, while avoiding the cacophony of geography, business, new products, adjacencies, acquisitions and cross-selling noise (there is a time and place for these strategies, that is a later post). If your firm did nothing else but focus on retaining your base, the word of mouth recommendations could fuel most the firm’s long-term growth.

Keep asking for that number, but make sure that it is the right number.

Be prudent.

Prudent Decision Making

PrudenceSt. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Prudence has two eyes, one that foresees what one has to do, the other that examines afterword what one has done.”

Ignatius, was the founder of the Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests. He was born in 1491, of a family of minor nobility in Spain. As a young man, Ignatius Loyola was inflamed by the ideals of knighthood (one might even say vanity).

In 1521, Ignatius was gravely wounded in battle. While recuperating, he experienced a spiritual conversion. Reading about the lives of Jesus and the saints made Ignatius happy and aroused a desire in him to do great things. Ignatius realized that these feelings were clues to God’s direction for him.

Over the years, Ignatius became expert in the art of spiritual direction. He collected his insights in his book The Spiritual Exercises, one of the most influential books on the spiritual life. With a small group of friends, he conceived and founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) as “contemplatives in action.” (from

The Jesuits are arguably one of the most consequential Catholic orders of all time. Their impact on education, evangelization and church leadership (the current pope is a Jesuit) speaks for itself. I have always been intrigued with Ignatius and the concept of “contemplatives in action.” It is an oxymoron in most business circles (you are either a thinker or a doer), but it is a driving force in my life.

Contemplating and acting can be difficult for us as individuals and as leaders of firms. Leaders often fear looking indecisive or making a mistake when the firm’s future—or their role—is at stake. Firms are filled with competing agendas and decisions carry opportunity costs. Big (and not so big) decisions can threaten long-standing beliefs and stir up emotional upheaval. Leaders may make decisions that are politically expedient, travel the path of least resistance or avoid confrontation. It is very dangerous and often unproductive to take the easy way out or to act without thinking through the ramifications of the decision. If you were to ask most leaders if their decisions were effective, most would answer affirmatively. I have found, while leaders do much thinking and acting, their decisions are not necessarily effective, cohesive or prudent.

Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium, “right reason applied to practice.” The emphasis on “right” is important. We cannot simply make a decision and then describe it as a “prudential judgment.” Prudence requires us to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, prudence does three things: 1. To take counsel, 2. To judge soundly and 3. to command their employment (i.e. act).

A large part of our work at Prudent Pedal is helping leaders make prudent decisions that drive growth and build long-term success. Building on the thinking of Ignatius, Aristotle and Aquinas, this is how we help. 

Three Parts of a Prudent Decision

Step 1: Take Counsel

One must take counsel carefully from one’s self and others. Failure to deliberate is rashness, which leads to impulsive and ineffective decision-making and confuses activity and action.

We gather the relevant information during this stage, starting with a consideration of our principles. Prudence is about truth: the truth of what is, what is right and what must be done. We must know what is true before we are free to do what is right. This includes an awareness and acceptance of our own moral values, our firm’s values and our mission as a firm. If our firm’s culture and mores dictate that a certain act is inappropriate, then there is no need to deliberate; we know not to do it.

While deliberating, we must also carefully examine the concrete situation, to be sure that we fully understand it. Firms often misconstrue anecdotes for data and feelings for facts. So often, we don’t deliberate honestly, but rather focus on the aspects of the situation that we want to see. Prudence demands openness to the whole truth of the situation, including our long-held beliefs, prejudices and agendas. With this step, it is absolutely critical that we be completely honest about the decision with others and ourselves.

Step 2: Judge Soundly

After deliberating with counsel, we fairly weigh all of the evidence. Judgment separates the relevant from the irrelevant and applies it to the issue at hand.

This is where firms most often stall in making strategic choices. Choices have opportunity costs and firms are loathe to limit their partners and practices or, more importantly, to seed discord. Unfortunately, we can’t contemplate forever; we have to reach a conclusion. Failure to make a judgment is called indecision. Procrastination, perfectionism and fear of failure are common indecision traps.

Prudence lies in the readiness to sacrifice today’s gain for tomorrow’s greater reward. Our judgments should be guided by optimism, new possibilities and hope. Prudence is about stewardship and expressed with an attitude of realism, not scarcity or greed.

Step 3: Act

Once we judge the right thing to do, we must act. If we determine the proper action but then fail to implement it, what’s the point? We do not exercise the virtue of prudence until we actually do what we have judged to be right.

Failure to carry out what we believe to be the proper decision is irresoluteness. Most firms make hoards of decisions but never manage to keep them; instead they swing back and forth like a pendulum. Thinking about an issue without arriving at a practical result does no one any good, but making a decision and then impulsively altering course can create a lack of clarity about direction and values that damages the firm even more. Does “the flavor of the day” ring a bell? 


Prudent decisions are not risk averse, selfish or calculating.

The first part of prudent decision-making knows the goal; the second part knows how to choose the proper and right means to obtain the goal; the third part acts.

With prudence in the spiritual world, we look at every decision in light of the ultimate goals—goodness and happiness.  In the professional services world, we look at it in terms of integrity, service and fitting results.

Analyze the steps of counsel, judgment and action in your firm. Identify where your firm does well and where it falls short. Once you recognize the firm’s weakness, you can work on that area of prudence and become a contemplative in action.

Be prudent.

The Spring Doldrums of Professional Services Marketing

Spring Doldrums in Professional Services MarketingMost firm’s marketing plans are screeching to a halt about this time of year:

  • The big tradeshow has sucked up more time and money than expected.
  • The new product or service was launched and is now languishing.
  • The big research study has not gotten a statistically valid sample.
  • The brochures have been produced and placed on the shelves.
  • The firm’s thought leaders are too busy serving clients to produce that seminal piece of thought leadership.

There are many excuses or perhaps just silence. The May-June doldrums mark the point when the energy of most annual marketing plans begins to run dry. Why does this happen? Quite simply: it happens because most marketing plans are not informed by strategy, and are not plans at all, but are instead a list of discombobulated tactics.

Strategies define clear markets and clear objectives. Think of things like penetrating a market, achieving a certain market share, attaining a certain number of clients, reaching a level of brand awareness, producing X amount of leads or achieving a net promoter score. These objectives are easily measured. Either you have achieved them or you have not. Marketing does not end because tactics have run out.

Now is the time to evaluate actions to date. Firms should be asking: How did we measure up, where did we exceed our goal, where have we fallen short? What have we learned? What is fuzzy? Where do we need more clarity? Where do we need to reallocate resources?


Marketing is about a relentless pursuit of understanding, anticipating and meeting client needs. If firm leaders are not holding marketing accountable throughout the year and accept tactical actions instead of strategic results, the firm has no one else to blame but itself for the ROI on its marketing investment. Do not let marketing slow down now or at any point when trying to achieve the vision for the firm.

Be prudent. 

Six Beliefs Of Hazardous Firm Cultures

DangerContributed by Ted Harro

Some organizations should have a warning label: Caution, working here can be hazardous to your health. Complications could include high blood pressure, weight gain, insomnia, and bleeding ulcers.

Behind every hazardous work culture there’s probably at least one dangerous leader who sets the tone. Crawl a little further into these leaders’ heads. Probably, they live with beliefs that make counter-productive behaviors seem totally rational and healthy. I heard those beliefs vocalized by an administrative assistant a while ago in such bald terms it took my breath away.

I was about to start a strategy session with a leadership team. She was organizing the otherwise-empty room, setting out breakfast, dropping off snacks.

She said quietly to me, “I wish I could be here in the meeting.”

I paused, sensing something else was coming. “I mean, how do you do it?” she asked.

It’s a good question. How do I do it? I wondered.

Wait, do what?

So I asked her, “What do you mean by ‘do it?’”

She smiled slyly. “How do you get a group of senior leaders to actually work together? It must be a huge challenge.” She blinked at me knowingly. I stared back, puzzled.

“Ummm. Well, it has its moments but which challenge are you referring to?”

“Well, let’s face it. All of these people got here by stepping on others, by using and abusing people, by watching out for themselves. How do you get them to turn that off and start working together?”

Her belief system was stunning. Leaders use. Leaders lie. Leaders scrap. Because of their inherent selfishness, leaders are highly unlikely to work together.

I later learned that she had cut her teeth at a top professional services firm, one equal in reputation for excellence and aggressiveness. I couldn’t help but wonder if those formative experiences had shaped her view of leaders and work and what’s possible in a company.

Just like family backgrounds have a profound impact on how we see the world, so our early companies often shape how we see life. We pick up their beliefs and attitudes like lint – or sometimes we have an allergic reaction to them and choose to go the opposite way.

Unlike family backgrounds, we can exercise some choice about our companies of origin – at least early on in our careers. So now, when talking with young people entering the workforce, I’m going to give them a little advice: choose your company of origin carefully. We all like to believe the myth that we’re independent thinkers, impervious to the influence of those around us. It’s a lie. And we should get over it.

Here are a few beliefs you might pick up from the behaviors around you early in your career:

  • Cut-throat vs. Collaborative: If your early companies allow colleagues to be cut-throat, you’ll start to believe that you have to watch your back if you want to survive. But if your early companies expect people to help each other out – sometimes sacrificially – you’ll start to believe that loyalty and teamwork will help you thrive.
  • Corner-cutting vs. High Integrity: If your early companies are willing to bend the truth to sell stuff, you’ll start to believe that the sales goals justify the means. But if your early companies only make promises they can keep to customers, you’ll start to believe that integrity leads to long-term success.
  • Perfectionistic vs. Learning-Driven: If your early companies punish people for making mistakes, you’ll start to believe that you should keep your head down if you want to survive. But if your early companies encourage people to take smart risks, you’ll start to believe that accelerated learning is the best path to long-term earning.
  • Passive-Aggressive vs. Straight-Talking: If your early companies carefully avoid confrontation, you’ll start to believe that it’s smarter to passively resist things you don’t like instead of dealing with things head-on. But if your early companies practice constructive truth-telling, you’ll start to believe that caring enough to speak the truth is the smartest policy of all.
  • Takers vs. Servants: If your early companies only care about customers because of the profit they bring to the company, you’ll start to believe that customers are conquests or even opponents. But if your early companies show radical concern for customers, you’ll start to believe that all great work starts with the attitude of service.
  • Hype vs. Substance: If your early companies do token “community service” or “social responsibility,” you’ll start to believe that work is primarily about making money and keeping up appearances on everything else. But if your early companies have woven social responsibility into the very fabric of their business models, you’ll start to believe that great work always serves the common good as well as the bottom line.

Many of us are past those days of choosing our companies of origin. We have a stack of beliefs we’ve picked up along the way at our various employers and clients. But we aren’t powerless about this either. We aren’t doomed by the attitudes we picked up. We just have to challenge them a little bit.

Here’s how. Start by recognizing beliefs when they pop up, often in statements that begin with “all” or “none.” For example, the assistant I described above had a belief, stated bluntly as “All leaders are self-serving, Machiavellian liars.”

  • Ask yourself, “Where did I get that belief?” Play back the situations and characters who shaped that thought.
  • Ask yourself again, “Is that belief really true now? Does it need to be true now?” Does that belief pertain to your current situation or are you saddling today with yesterday’s beliefs?
  • Think for a moment about how those beliefs might be holding you back in your work today. Are they making you less trusting, less giving, more cynical, more defensive? And are those responses helping you do your best work?
  • Choose models and mentors for your future who help you do your best work with your most constructive mindset. They shouldn’t be pollyanna-ish any more than they should be hardened cynics. They should be those who are at home with the way things are, while still being their best selves.

Wherever you are, do all in your power to create your own exemplary workplace – a place where you’d want your child or your best friend’s child to have her first work experience.

Be prudent.

Four Keys To A Successful Breakthrough – contributed by Ted Harro

Four Keys

“I’m worried about where you’re going here!” It had taken the CFO a day and a half to finally burst. He had been watching our planning session proceed, only commenting when his financial expertise seemed relevant. But after the CEO’s description of his expansive vision for the company, the CFO had finally had enough.

“What are you worried about?” Chris the CEO said, a little stunned that his normally taciturn financial sidekick had been so direct.

“You’re telling us all of the beautiful things our organization should be doing. It sounds great on the surface. You call it vision. I think it’s really mission creep.”

I felt a familiar mix of reactions to this exchange. On the one hand, I was rubbing my hands together with anticipation. This moment in the planning process can precede a breakthrough, that moment when we climb beyond superficial solutions and find creative alternatives to deep issues. This company desperately needed a breakthrough. Its market was depressed. Its products were aging. Business as usual could end up badly.

On the other hand, this moment can get messy. Though I’ve never personally experienced labor beyond witnessing the birth of my two sons, the process of a leadership team achieving breakthrough can look like collectively giving birth. There’s pain. There’s pushing. You get stuck for what seems like an eternity.

The whole experience sometimes scares people off. Teams fear getting stuck. The leader fears giving up control. Many teams either avoid the whole chaotic affair or they do a sanitized, superficial version of the process that promises safe outcomes. While tidier, there’s no baby after that approach. Maybe you get to cradle a doll that looks and coos and even pees like a baby. But the real thing comes from the mess.

After the CFO’s outburst, I called a break. I knew what was going through Chris’s mind. He had had private reservations about opening up his strategic planning process to his team, fearing that the group would slam on the brakes when he wanted to go in a different direction.

Out in the hall, Chris asked me, “How should I handle this situation?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “In the end you won’t have to lead a charge in a direction you don’t believe in. But we might just be on the verge of a breakthrough.”

Chris took a deep breath. We agreed that he would listen carefully to his team members, to understand where they were coming from, to try to find that place where their points of view intersected with his.

In other words, to wait for the breakthrough.

After the break, I called the group back together. “I’ve been talking with Chris over the break. Here’s what it looks like to me: Like many visionaries, Chris wants to stretch your organization to achieve more for your customers and stakeholders than we’ve ever even imagined. He sees possibilities. Beyond that, I think he believes that holding pat is actually a risky path, maybe even a slow death.” Chris nodded his head.

“Others in the group are worried that this expanded vision will set unrealistic goals that they will never meet. They’re worried they’re being set up to fail.  You want to succeed. And success means hitting realistic goals.” The CFO and a few others in operational roles gave knowing smiles.

“OK,” I continued. “We’re at a point in the process where it’s time to go for breakthrough. This isn’t on our agenda because you can’t plan for when it will happen. It’s a detour. But if you’re up for it, it could be very productive.”

We dove in to a rigorous and difficult conversation that had an unusual outcome: everybody got a version of what they wanted. Here’s why:

  • The team members vocalized their concerns. They needed coaxing at first. They stumbled around with their thoughts. They trod carefully, aware that they were dangerously close to stepping  on Chris’s toes. To support the process, I took their point of view and agreed with some of what they said, trying to get them to extend their necks further.
  • The leader listened. Chris hung in there on his own vision but he listened to their concerns. He supported their desire to be successful. He avoided the two usual tactics of leaders in this situation: he neither shut people down nor did he shut himself down. Together, they kept digging and waiting and believing that an answer would emerge.
  • They were honest and skillful. This is very different from being honest and unfiltered. If Chris had been unfiltered, I think he would have said that he was about to blow his stack and that he was bound and determined to expand the mission of this organization whether the team liked it or not. If team members had been honest and unfiltered, they would have rolled their eyes and said, “There you go again. You always do this. And it winds up creating messes that we have to clean up.” Neither of those approaches would have been helpful. Instead of being their worst 5-year-old selves, they were their best grown-up selves. That made a difference in how long they could hang in during the mess.
  • The mission was clear and compelling. Though it may have seemed a throw-away exercise at the time, we had spent a good chunk of time earlier in the session talking about why each member of the leadership team chose to work at this organization at this time – besides the chance to earn a paycheck. They had a surprising amount of commonality in motivation. They all wanted what was best for the company and the community it was serving. The mission was important and highly personal to each of them. Most of all, the mission was way bigger than themselves.

Even when you persevere in the labor for a breakthrough, it doesn’t always happen – at least not on schedule. And when you do get a breakthrough, it will need tender care and feeding until that fragile new life is ready to leave the hospital and venture into the big, bad world. But you dramatically increase your chances of seeing that breakthrough burst into life, seemingly out of nothing, when you navigate the mess skillfully like these folks did.

You Don’t Have a Marketing Problem

Head in the SandIn 2002 Rajat Gupta, then managing director of McKinsey, pushed the firm’s head of marketing and public affairs, Javier Perez, out of the firm. The reason: multiple partners had shared their dissatisfaction with the firm to writer John Byrne in a wide-ranging feature in BusinessWeek.

Gupta had spent his tenure refocusing the firm on growth. He put a halt to what he considered money-wasting research, implemented what was known as “100 percent cubed”—bringing 100 percent of the firm, 100 percent of the time to 100 percent of the world. The firm had grown from 58 offices to 81; from 3,300 consultants to 7,700 and it nearly doubled its revenues from $1.2 billion to $3.4 billion.

The average tenure of a Fortune 500TM CMO is around 18 months. While the tenure may be longer for marketers in a professional services firm, life can be a lot more messy. I have held senior marketing roles at some of the world’s best consulting firms and have consulted at many others.  A theme that arises time and time again is how ineffective marketing is—whether the problem is strategy, organization, leadership or something else.

Firms’ actions swing like a pendulum as they try to drive growth and get marketing “right.” They hire “doers” and then they hire “thinkers.” They fire the “thinkers” and then hire “doers.” Partners want only marketers who understand law firms, accounting firms, architectural firms, then they want anything but. They centralize, and then they decentralize marketing. They align marketing with geography, and then they swing to lines of business. Firms buy technologies, hire cold-callers to get leads, add budget and take budget away. The pendulum swings back and forth desperately searching for a solution to their “marketing” problem.

When these activities and the co-morbid destabilization are in a firm, it is a telltale sign that the firm is not focused on the right “problem.” After achieving its results, McKinsey’s directors had begun to worry if the focus on growth had cost the firm its soul. Do you believe that Gupta’s firing of Perez had any impact on the quality of press coverage the firm was getting? Do you think it appeased the dissatisfaction of the McKinsey managing directors?  Do you think that bringing in another marketer changed the trajectory of the Gupta’s vision?


Marketing is a visible and easy scapegoat for problems that the leadership of a firm may be unwilling to address. True: there are incompetent marketers, but let’s be honest about how much pull any non-partner marketer likely has inside most firms.

At the heart of any thriving firm is a culture of integrity, leadership, authenticity, stewardship, client-focus and great people. Market opportunities come and go. Brand relevance ebbs and flow.  Competencies grow and die. Culture remains.

What was the culmination of Gupta’s tenure at the top of McKinsey? It was his indictment and ultimate conviction for insider trading.   While your firm may not be dealing with insider trading, ask yourself, “Do I have a marketing problem or is something else going on?”

Be prudent.