I’m catching up on Mad Men, AMC’s period piece about advertising executives in the 1960s. As I round the midpoint of season 5, I can’t help but notice that somehow, despite Don Draper’s brilliance as an advertiser, Sterling Cooper Draper Price is perpetually struggling to find clients. Is this some sort of leap of faith the writers, who are otherwise so diligent, have added for dramatic effect? Are we really supposed to believe that they can sell baked beans, but never their own services?
The truth is that most professionals face this same issue. They achieve success because they’re experts in their field and great at what they do. But too often, that narrow expertise keeps them from successfully managing their own businesses. Lawyers aren’t managers, and accountants aren’t marketers. Even those with seemingly relevant expertise, such as advertising or public relations agencies, struggle when it comes to the unique aspects of marketing professional services rather than more transactional industries.
Successful professional firms build on four key tenets to market themselves and grow: they focus on what they do best, develop a unique point of view related to their expertise, build presence in their field, and foster trust with clients and prospects. So does this framework explain SCDP’s issues? Let’s take a look and see.
The biggest players in the industry can say they do everything, and solo practitioners can be nimble. But anywhere in between clients seek professionals because they’re experts, and you can’t be an expert in everything. When firms market, they need to focus on the work they can do better than anyone else. Focus lets you demonstrate expertise and build an association between your firm and your practice area by repeating it across many channels. Focus also helps clients understand why they should work with you. A clear identity means that when they have a problem in your area of expertise, you’re the first person they think of.
Point of View
Most of Sterling Cooper’s success comes from Don’s vision: his insights into consumers, but also his ability to manipulate their emotions and get them to buy new products. They know what they’re selling (Don), but Don doesn’t scale. Especially as the professions have matured, marketing your firm means communicating how you think about problems and what makes you unique. Clarifying your point of view requires focus, and it also lets you demonstrate expertise, building trust by showing you know how to solve the client’s problem. Figuring out your point of view takes a high level of self-awareness, which is why most firms benefit from having an outside party help clarify their thinking.
Professional services marketing is all about being visible. When Don Draper wrote an open letter criticizing the tobacco industry, he attracted a wave of publicity for the firm, won an award from the American Cancer Society, and earned the opportunity to network with some of the biggest names in industry. For most firms, you don’t need to upend your industry, but you do need to publish. Write and speak on your area of expertise, contribute back to the community, and be visible where people who have problems you can solve are likely to look. And don’t shy away from controversial statements if you can stand behind them. Controversy attracts eyeballs, and eyeballs help sell, but be careful with it: after the Don’s letter, Lucky Strike fired SCDP, which leads into my last point.
Ultimately, Don’s letter helped the firm build presence, but by turning on a client, it undermined trust. And no amount of expertise will help you win new business if clients and prospects don’t trust you. When clients purchase professional services, they’re at their most vulnerable. They have a problem, they don’t know how to solve it, and they had to bring someone in to help. Your focus and point of view help to convince them that you know what you’re doing, your presence makes them aware that you can solve the problem, but ultimately without trust, they’ll never sign a contract. Trust is the currency of all corporate brands, but especially professional firms. When the public lost trust in Arthur Anderson, their business collapsed. Most firms don’t meet such a dramatic end, instead they wallow like Sterling Cooper in a state of ambivalence: not so distrusted that clients flee, but not trusted enough to attract new business.
When you break it down along the dimensions of Focus, Point of View, Presence, and Trust, it’s obvious why Sterling Cooper Draper Price is stagnating. They have a brilliant mind at the top, but they’re growing beyond his ability to work on every project. Without an area of expertise and a point of view, their work is inconsistent and they can’t differentiate. But most importantly, while the firm has used controversy to garner visibility, in doing so they undermined trust, and ultimately, their ability to attract new business.