Continuing to experiment

Ranked 20th by revenue among UK accountancy firms, London and South East-based Kingston Smith wins prizes for its innovation and IT. So how do the human and high-tech systems work best together? And where will they take us in future? Head of Marketing Rebecca Buckley and Managing Partner Maureen Penfold talk to Neasa MacErlean.

From her desktop Rebecca Buckley can see the progress of every lead being developed across the firm. She can follow the open rate on every email campaign. And, in a few weeks’ time, the source of this data analytics (DA) information will be switched onto the desktops of all 60 of the firm’s partners.

What is more, the new DA system is being developed in harness with a revised CRM (Client Relationship Management) programme. “That will be a real game-changer,” says Buckley. And Maureen Penfold explains some of the thinking behind these moves: “We are trying to join up everything in this business.”

It is no surprise that the 560-person practice is winning prizes for its innovation and IT. Its cloud-based ‘mini accounts department service’ (KS Connect) was one of the leaders when it was unveiled in 2016. The voice recognition function that was engineered into the firm’s website this autumn was a first among the UK Top 20. It is now working with a robotics company to see how robots can take over on some of its process-led services.

But the point of using all this IT is really to become more human. “We are embracing textology but we are holding onto our human relationships as well,” says Buckley. “Using IT in this way frees up our people to advise,” says Penfold.

Like other accountancy practices, Kingston Smith could be alarmed by the range of uncertainties it faces – from Brexit to growing protectionism to the spread of the IT giants. But the firm is so used to planning and experimentation that its senior people do not blanch at the contemplation of any scenario. Every action taken by the 22-strong Marketing/Business Development team reflects the firm’s 2022 Vision. This road map followed on from a ‘value project’ that defined the top seven values of Kingston Smith, after extensive discussions with clients by a specialist agency. And these values – commitment, enterprise and empowerment, for instance – then informed a rebrand.

The rebrand has led to a “fresher, more modern, uncluttered and more consistent” feel, according to Buckley. It paved the way for an overhaul of the website in September. Out went “the things that people were not looking at”. In came a facility to highlight user searches that ended by producing zero results. A ready-made content plan underpinned by data analysis.

With all these central bases covered, Kingston Smith also has time to develop some slightly off-centre marketing approaches. For instance, the ‘Creative Vision Awards’ are now in their fifth year, offering a prize of animated videos worth £150,000 from Bournemouth University. Not only does this support brand awareness, according to Buckley, but it also increases “cross-pollination” between the two in-house teams working on the project, the Charities Unit and the Media Group. Buckley is increasingly aware that the human connection and human touch are often what make a campaign come alive. “The projects that work well come from collaborative working,” she says. “Our project teams have a cross section of different people and groups on them.”

Another recent initiative with a high success rate came out of discussions with a long-standing client of the firm. A growing business, it had taken strategic advice from Kingston Smith over the years, with the owner-managers eventually selling out in 2018. The glowing testimonial that they provided became the basis for a sales campaign.

However experimental it becomes in its techniques, Kingston Smith sticks close to its core approaches and markets. It is more than happy, for example, that some of its marketers work part-time. “We can attract some top level talent who need that element of agile working,” says Buckley. And, as for its core markets, the firm earned £52 million in 2017/18, of which about a third came from audit. “We will continue in audit – but in the top quality end,” says Penfold. “And we are actively involved in the debate about the future of audit.”

People who follow the accounting sector will know about the recent scandals in the UK, South Africa and elsewhere. And it is possible that audit could be separated out by regulators from consultancy in the UK, especially for the Big Four. “Having this debate could be good,” says Penfold. “We are not trying to be the Big Four. But, if this improves public confidence, that would have a good knock-on effect for us.”

She expects to see “a lot more consolidation” within the accountancy/ business advice sector. “The challenges involved in investing in talent and technology are moving all the time for multi-disciplinary firms such as ours.” That involves money and some risk-taking. For instance, Kingston Smith has six core offices within or around the M25 motorway that encircles London. There is also a very specialist office further north, in Macclesfield – with a niche in managing professional bodies and other associations. And, the firm also has a joint venture office in Los Angeles. This fits in with the strong media practice that is run out of the office in London’s West End. “Being able to operate in LA is very important for our West End services,” says Penfold.

In 2017/18, Kingston Smith had one of the highest growth rates – 13 per cent – of the UK Top 20. About 10 per cent of that relates to organic growth, and the remaining 3 per cent to the acquisition of a theatre-specialist firm. A crucial part of future increases will also come from international work and Kingston Smith is keen to emphasise its commitment to its global network, Morison KSi.

Used to expanding into new areas, approaches and technologies, Kingston Smith will remain a pioneer. “We are continuing to experiment,” says Penfold. She seems ready for anything. “Who knows?” she says, talking of the firm’s activities. “Maybe Google and Amazon will provide some of these services in future.” Would anyone be sure enough to contradict her on that?