The need to be agile

How does the marketing team drive change in a time of upheaval? And how does a UK network of independent accounting firms work together as if it were one firm? Zoë Paradine is both Marketing & Business Development Partner and National Executive Director at UHY Hacker Young. She talks to Neasa MacErlean.

When Zoë Paradine speaks about marketing it is clear that no areas are out of bounds. “You have to rip up the job description and become involved in areas that M/BD wouldn’t be in historically,” she says. And, in fact, the more that she discusses the far flung activities of her six-strong team, the more obvious it is that marketing is helping the firm negotiate profound change.

One example is the way she is working out how to communicate with 17- and 18-year olds. “You have to think about your messaging and what appeals to your audience. We are speaking to 18-year-olds — and working with focus groups to understand what they like.” Appealing to school leavers is becoming increasingly important to the 23-office network of 12 independent firms. Year-on-year it is recruiting more trainees at the school leaver, rather than graduate, level. The younger age group can qualify faster and with fewer debts than the older ones — and UHY Hacker Young is in at the early stages of this galloping trend. Members of Paradine’s team sit on a ‘Talent Working Group’ and have helped set up an ‘early careers’ website for potential recruits, redeveloped the careers section of the main site, introduced video testimonials and set up a national induction programme. Getting the tone right is vital, as there is a marked difference between 18-year olds and 21-year old grads.

Part of the logic for taking in younger recruits is that the work of the network and its 100 partners and 670 other personnel is changing fast, becoming more high-tech. With the advent of ‘Cloud Accounting’, advisers such as UHY Hacker Young are actively advising clients in real time rather than simply checking their historical accounts. Since this mainstream service area is changing so fundamentally, it is clearly crucial that the Marketing /Business Development team is at the heart of this transformation. “We are trying to transition as many clients as possible to Cloud Accounting,” says Paradine. “The skills sets will be different. We are recruiting people to support Cloud Accounting.” Hiring 18-year-olds fits into that agenda.

Giving real time advice feeds into a trend in accountancy, which takes firms away from the traditional emphasis on the compliance function of audit and into the wider, more proactive roles of business advisers. UHY will still carry out audits as an important part of its practice but no top 100 firm would today market itself primarily on this ‘ticking and bashing’ side of its work. The debate over the role of the Big Four’s audit role is an area where Paradine believes UHY could win new business. UHY is one of the few mid-tier firms still happy to take on public interest entity audits.

Back in the more mainstream area of her work, the marathon-running Paradine highlights sector focus and digital content as the main achievements of her team in recent years. The network now has over 400 academy school clients, for instance — up from the two it started with in Birmingham a few years back. And the national head of academies, Allan Hickie, is such an active blogger on topical issues that he is becoming a recognised name among head teachers. The academies team produces an annual benchmarking report and numerous other analytical reviews and releases. “We encourage everyone internally to share posts – on LinkedIn and Twitter, in particular,” says Paradine. “That’s had huge success in guiding referrals back to the website. We have blog rotas. People have allocations of time for it. We send them diary invites reminding them that they have to produce that week. That has had a substantial impact on traffic to the website and both the quality and quantity of new business leads… Success breeds success.”

Sector analysis went into the strategic plan back in 2015. Six sectors have been up and running for a while, and three new ones — technology, property and healthcare — are just coming onstream, each led by a proactive sector head with a personal interest in the area. Others will be created over time, especially as the network moves to recruit new member firms. Paradine is also involved in the search — now speaking to practices in Scotland, the far North West, Leeds and the South West. Turnover in 2017/18 was £52.1m and — excluding the Scottish figures as the member firm there left to join Baldwins — showed a rise of just over 8 per cent, with five member firms achieving double digit growth. Paradine is “confident” of seeing revenues go up again this year, with sector focus being the biggest contributor to organic growth.

Also on the up curve and changing with the firm is its external PR consultancy. Paradine sings its praises. “They’ve been with us over 10 years — and we see increases in coverage year after year. They come to us, 90 per cent of the time, with ideas — rather than the other way round. They do data research, Freedom of Information requests and the drafts. We are streets ahead of competitors.” Sky News, BBC radio and TV are places where the comments of UHY Hacker Young experts are often heard, she adds.

The stretching of Paradine’s marketing role pushes her into territory covered by her other position, that of ‘National Executive Director’. Under this second title, she drives strategy and growth, maintains the standards and looks for new members. There is clearly considerable overlap between the two positions.

Having that extra power and sitting on the main board give her the quickness of response that a marketing head increasingly needs in today’s markets. She has worked hard to explain the role of marketing and its centrality to the firm’s leadership. “Our partner group is completely invested in M/BD,” she says. And, from the circumstances she describes, it needs to be. For instance, the Cloud Accounting site went from being new to obsolete in two years, and has now been overhauled. “The pace of change is one we have never seen before,” she says. “But we don’t have fixed ideas. Everyone understands we need to be agile.”