Beyond Brexit

Many professional services firms will benefit from Brexit, according to top marketers in property, consultancy and the law. They spoke to Neasa MacErlean.

You would think that three senior marketers from three different sectors might have contrasting views on life for professional services post Brexit. In fact, they agree on the most important issues and several others.

Even though the majority of voters in professional services were probably against Brexit, there is much to be gained in this sector from the UK’s departure from the EU, according to these three marketing leaders. “In the long term really there is only upside to the UK steering our own trade deals given that we are far more likely to seek access for services,” says Alex Deane, of FTI Consulting. Formerly chief-of-staff to David Cameron, the former UK premier and man responsible for the Brexit Referendum, Deane now expects a “prioritisation of professional services in post Brexit free trade deals by the UK”. He explains: “The EU has not completed the single market in services and doesn’t make services a trade priority.” Services account for about 80 per cent of UK GDP, and – within that – ‘professional, scientific and technical activities sector’ showed the fastest growth in Q4 of 2018.

And, with his property sector perspective, Nick Hughes, of SEGRO, says: “Brexit is a bump along the way. In the long term we will be fine. Brexit bumpiness might last six months or two to three years but we have an incredible professional services sector in the UK.”

Claire Gosnell, of Clifford Chance, defines the Brexit challenge in a way that makes it less calamitous than many Remainers might believe: “Brexit is part of the complexity we are seeing everywhere.” She refers to other issues which are bigger than the UK’s EU departure – “shifting stakeholder expectations, new technology fundamentally changing how we work and wider geopolitical shifts”.

Each of the three believes that opportunities will vary from one sector to another. “If you can’t make money in political advisory services in the current environment, someone should put a bullet in you,” says Deane. He adds: “I see significant potential opportunity for financial services in a less bureaucratic UK environment.” Hughes says: “There will be tough times for some, and fantastic opportunities for others. I have no doubt that management consultancy will be doing extremely well in uncertain times like these.”

Of course, some services will benefit more than others in the same practice in terms of Brexit-related and post-Brexit business. Client advice around scenario planning has grown substantially at Clifford Chance, for instance. “Brexit is accelerating certain things in our part of the legal sector,” says Gosnell. “That includes the product mix – particularly as relates to risk. We are having lots of conversations about risk.” And some areas will be better insulated than others. In property, for instance, the 20-year long leases associated with UK warehouses, for examples, gives greater resilience to that niche (one SEGRO operates in) than to their colleagues in Central London office space where average contract length is closer to seven years.

Communications will become even more vital with clients and other stakeholders, if that is possible, post Brexit. “Explaining what’s going on to clients day to day” will be a constant task for marketers at all levels, says Deane. Hughes says that Brexit has created “a lot of disinformation out there”. An example in the SEGRO sector is the reported lack of warehousing space which, he says, is “simply not true”. However, disinformation is more likely to occur in the consumer press than in the trade press, he adds – meaning that business clients tend to have a good grasp of the real situation.

But in an increasingly complex, more uncertain and more volatile world, professional services firms might need to reduce their own risk by communicating very broadly. After all, the public’s backlash against banks during the global financial crisis shows how important consumer perceptions are regarding the role of professional services. This is one reason why Gosnell says: “Most people in the UK have no idea what Clifford Chance does. That creates some risk. We need to be really international in outlook and yet be thinking what are the contributions we can make to the economy and how we communicate that.”

Thinking deeply about how to communicate with clients has helped Clifford Chance deal with the huge uncertainties which we all face, including Brexit. “We have been doing loads around Brexit,” Gosnell says. “It’s enabled us to build on really good practices in the firm. The hallmark is our cross-firm, cross-practice, cross-product, cross-sector way of approaching things. We meet every week or two weeks. That is a significant investment of time. We talk about what we are hearing, where clients are needing help and how we can respond to that. This Input-Synthesis-Output approach has been very successful.” This process, which is based on continued, probing dialogue with clients, has been highly important in bringing in new products, particularly in the area of scenario and risk planning.

While all three agree that communications by individual firms is vital, they have less enthusiasm for collective strategies. Hughes says: “It’s incumbent on all of us, individually and maybe through professional bodies, to make sure people understand how strong we are in professional services.” Gosnell thinks that “perhaps” there is a role for professional bodies here but she says: “We have very different types of organisation.”

And how is the emphasis on marketing techniques changing now? FTI, for instance, is doing “more international, integrated servicing and more digital work” but, Deane adds: “It’s really not defined by Brexit but by trends.” In more detail, he continues: “We will be doing more “high and low” activity: more digital/social activity broadly, and more tailored, curated marketing events where the client/partner feels that we’ve considered their individual needs. And, perhaps, there will be fewer of the grand set piece big events with huge mailing lists – and fewer big conferences.” Hughes says that SEGRO is not “fundamentally changing anything because we don’t really need to”. He quotes his CEO, David Sleath, as saying that “the internet trumps Brexit” in terms of big issues facing many of SEGRO’s clients.

All three of these senior marketers have been at the heart of their firm’s strategy development on planning for uncertainty, including Brexit. “We’ve been all over it,” says Gosnell. Deane says that marketing has been “VERY closely” involved “because the most important thing is to provide assurance of uninterrupted continuity of service and that’s a reassurance job for which marketing is central”.

All remain decidedly optimistic on a wide range of issues. For instance, Deane says: “What we don’t talk about much is the vast network that’s grown over generations to service UK professions – accountants, secretarial and administrative services and, yes, marketing, for example. The headcount on that accumulated crowd that marches into London every morning to make services work is huge and exceptionally difficult for a competitor to replicate.”

So Brexit is not the only challenge in town. But it appears to be part of events which are fundamentally changing the game in professional services generally, and in its marketing in particular. “The uncertainty is particularly challenging,” says Gosnell. “Emotional resilience is needed. But change always creates opportunities. For many junior marketing people, for instance, Brexit has been great. They have had the chance to do new things – new ways of supporting partners and new digital channels, for instance. That all drives better communication.”

There is one lesson we really must learn, she says. “You’ve got to give up on the need for certainty.”

Alex, Claire and Nick were panellists at the PM Forum London event in February called ‘Beyond Brexit: Implications for professional services marketing’.