Thursday 24 January 2019, Bristol

PM Forum South West’s first event of the year at VWV was a busy affair, with many professionals showing up to network and hear expert opinion on the sector outlook for 2019.

The talk was split into two sections. First, Alastair Beddow, CEO of Meridian West, presented the findings of their Marketing Leaders Benchmark 2019 survey. Then Alastair led a discussion with an expert panel comprising Amelia Stirling of Foot Anstey, Matt Evans of Burges Salmon and Louise Edwards of Michelmores.

Marketing Leaders Benchmark 2019
Alastair predicted a year of change and of optimism, challenges and opportunities. He argued that if you look beyond some of the doom and gloom media headlines surrounding professional services there is good news too. For instance, the Magic Circle enjoying their strongest year in mainland Europe since 2012.

The report showed that the top strategic priorities for 2019 were growth, efficiency and transformation - in that order. So what will be the drivers of growth? The most common activity that will be embarked upon is investing in technology to deliver client service more efficiently and effectively. Hiring individuals or teams from other firms was also a popular planned activity.

Zooming in on marketing and BD priorities, improving client experience and obtaining client feedback were the two most common priorities, and also most often described as the highest. While a brand relaunch was not as broadly prioritised, for about one in seven firms it was the top priority.

On average, marketing budgets are up 2.4%. However, as is often the case, reporting only the average figures can be misleading. In this instance, Alastair observed that they do disguise the finding that a significant proportion of firms would actually freeze or reduce their marketing budget. The most popular destination for new spending was on website and online marketing. The events budget was the most likely area of spending to take a hit in 2019.

The final focus of this part of the presentation was on whether marketing professionals will have a strategic impact. The findings showed that there was still some work to do here.

For example, 58% of respondents agreed that the role of marketing is sufficiently understood by fee-earning staff in the firm. But Alastair pointed out that this figure had remained broadly unchanged for the past five years, showing that little progress is being made. And only 28% agreed it was easy to demonstrate ROI of time and money spent on marketing in the firm – highlighting a stubborn problem for marketing teams.

At this point the event shifted into part two where our expert panel were invited to share their thoughts. They began by providing their own outlooks for 2019 which were less positive that Alastair’s, ranging from cautiously optimistic to just cautious. After that, the topics were free flowing. But three of the main themes that were discussed were the impact of Brexit, technology, and how marketing teams were positioned in firms.

On what happens with Brexit, Amelia observed that no one knows how events will unfold, so knee-jerk reactions cannot have any reliability. However, everyone felt that there was a blockage in pipeline business, as clients were putting projects on hold while uncertainty reigned. The panel felt that it was important to be agile, ready to seize opportunity when it arose.

Matt added that to do this you need to stay as close to your clients as possible to understand what they will need when they are ready to move forwards. And Louise talked of an aim to encourage collaboration within the business – that the different departments don’t work in silos. Something which Matt seconded.

Legal technology proved to be an interesting topic of debate. It was acknowledged that legal tech start-ups were seen as opposition. But there was also a bit of pushback from the panel around all the noise that surrounds technological disruption.

Amelia said that Foot Anstey were looking at tech solutions within their innovation hub, but that they were disciplined in ensuring there was a business need for any tech developed. Matt talked of in-house development at Burges Salmon too, but that clients expected tech within “business as normal” parameters rather than innovative jumps. Louise pointed out that there is already a lot of AI within existing CRM systems that is underused.

Amelia talked about tech as being an enabler. It is a question of how you use it to add value to the client.

With all that said, there was an acceptance that professional services have been quite slow to embrace technology.

Someone in the audience with experience of using technology felt that the biggest gains had been in using automation and personalisation much more effectively. Asked to look forwards a couple of years, his view was that if you had not mastered automation and personalisation you would appear backwards to your clients.

How is the marketing team positioned in the firm?
The final stage of the discussion began with the question “How well is the marketing team respected in the firm?” One of the panellists described how some of their team were hugely respected and could fight their corner, but that others were not there yet. They felt it was important that marketers take responsibility for their own careers and prospects.

This stimulated input from fellow panellists. Combined, they stressed the need for ambitious marketers to assume more responsibility, ask for extra projects, and get out there at events like PM Forum and bring new ideas back to your firms. Demonstrating ROI is key so always measure what you do.

The talk concluded with a focus on marketing recruitment and the difficulty of finding the right balance between technical skill, diversity and cultural fit. Ways of bringing people in from other sectors were discussed in positive terms and how this could bring a fresh perspective to a firm.

Huw Bendon, On Point Copywriting