New thinking for old problems and bursting the bubble of conventional wisdom, Kim Tasso reports on this year’s PM Forum conference.

Lucy Canning, of Grant Thornton UK, kicked off proceedings by challenging the “echo chamber of assumptions” in professional services marketing and suggesting that we “tear up the rule book”. She urged us to look beyond commoditisation and competition and rethink our role and wider social contribution – mentioning the Grant Thornton mission of “Shaping a vibrant economy”.

JP Hanson, of Rouser, and the ‘Laws of marketing’
From mainstream marketing (Marketing Week and The Drum) came a robust approach to evidence-based marketing from the first speaker. Suggesting that people often say “I didn’t think about that”, JP urged us to question the integrity of statistics in the media. He offered the following laws of marketing:

  • Brands have a predictable buyer distribution, even for professional services firms
  • Buyer behaviour follows regression toward the mean – heavy buyers become light buyers and vice versa (which has interesting implications for KAM programmes)
  • Net reach is critical – impressions are always significantly higher than valid and viewable posts and, in turn, audible and completed views. The goal is to reach as many category buyers as you can afford
  • Brands compete in physical and mental availability – “Be easy to buy and easy to remember”.

I was delighted to hear him say on targeting “The smaller you are the more segmentation you have to do” and also “Advertising either sells or makes something sellable” (Faris Yakob).

Christie Guimond, of She Breaks the Law, on ‘Innovation’
Christie talked us through a number of interesting stories on blood testing, aeroplanes, smart suitcases, Canadian retailers and spinning toys.

These demonstrated that innovation isn’t about ideas, efficiency or technology but empathy and human-centred design – which she illustrated with female-friendly workspaces and child-friendly MRI machines. I admit I hadn’t heard about Millennial Pink. When asked about examples of innovation in professional services she talked about Design Thinking being used to understand clients’ problems and co-create solutions.

Sarah Barrett-Vane, of SBV Consulting, on ‘Pitching to Procurement’
A former lawyer at The Royal Mail and a legal panel reviewer, Sarah whizzed through an information-intensive session on how to submit winning tenders. Her rules were simple:

  • Understand the client’s operating environment
  • Know the client’s procurement strategy
  • Answer the questions with the scoring guide in mind and avoid generic answers
  • Understand the power of impactful storytelling
  • Avoid meaningless buzzwords (she shared three slides full of these) and reflect the client’s language
  • Bid to win and avoid common pitfalls.

She didn’t pull any punches with her reflection that many tenders were: “Mediocre, dull, turgid writing style with no personality or oomph”.

Daniel Sullivan, of KPMG, on an ‘award-winning multi-channel campaign’

The morning overview session was a fascinating look into Big Four accountancy marketing. Aiming for ‘fewer, bigger, better marketing programmes’ Daniel took us on a step-by-step journey through the amazing ‘Changing Futures’ campaign using imagery from nature to signal the firm’s human approach to tech.

He started by explaining the business context (changing strategy, propositions, client needs and competitors) and the need to get the partners excited with a big idea. He demonstrated the application of a strong marketing framework with a SWOT analysis and a campaign strategy that included a proposition demonstrating business outcomes, integration with sector campaigns, advertising to drive market impact, leveraging existing thought leadership, role specific messages and a long term commitment to the brand.

The campaign structure included:

  • Awareness (print, digital, display – at Canary Wharf tube station – and social media advertising)
  • Engagement (E-comms with regional and sector focuses and C-suite campaigns) and partnering with Forrester (a digital transformation event), the FT, podcasts and seven client case studies on a campaign hub
  • Conversion (webinars and syndicated content).

Commenting “We remembered our stakeholders were accountants” he stressed the need for significant effort to achieve buy-in (three months to achieve buy-in and three months to implement the campaign) and shared an impressive list of objectives with quantified results in reputation building, relationship development and revenue.

Other workshops included:

  • Sam Clarke, of Shooting Star, on measuring what matters, by working backwards from business goals and framing marketing as an investment with corporate, operational and execution metrics.
  • Andrew Tenzer, of Reach, on ‘Why you shouldn’t always trust your gut instinct’ – Effectiveness is in decline and a possible reason was offered by cross-cultural psychology and the difference in mind sets between marketing folk and the general population which distorts empathy. Five moral foundations were explored: care/harm, fairness/reciprocity, In-group loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity.
  • Gareth Price, of Wunderman Thompson, on marketing communications – The value of big brands in the future, getting more people to buy what you’re selling, establishing collective meaning around brands and being tight in your portfolio and positioning.
  • Deborah Fleming, of Walker Morris, on pitches and how to add value through the stages of engage, plan, articulate and learn.
  • Ben Sutton, of Grant Thornton International, on client experience that works in the real world – Client loyalty (NPS) drives profitable growth and the untapped potential in client insights were explored. “55% of the final B2B purchasing decision is based on emotional factors” (B2B International).

David J Hall, of The Ideas Centre, on ‘Creativity’
After a wonderful lunch of street-food and networking, we were whipped up with frenzied fun by David and his passionate approach to promoting creativity.

He argued that we often make sense of our world by looking backwards but that this is often a flawed approach and causes mental blocks towards creativity. He urged us to be more playful – moving from “what is” to “what might be”. He described creativity as the generation of novel and useful ideas, while innovation is making money, or adding value, out of creativity. He then looked at how our patterning systems work by showing us blob images and then ran through some creativity techniques (including one of my favourites: superheroes).

Jo Cooper and Owen Williams, of Simmons & Simmons, on ‘How to say No’
Jo and Owen started with Steve Jobs quote “Focusing is about saying NO”. They also used Glisser to provide some interactive polls where we shared our views and experiences of pushing back and challenging partners. They talked through their useful model of data, facts and mind set and reframing for positivity – the event, the meaning I give it, the action I take, the impact on them, the impact on me.

Hearing from the clients
The client panel – Chet Behl, Director at Chet Behl Group; Natalie Salunke, Vice President & Head of Legal – UK, Europe & ANZ at Fleetcor; and Khalid Talukder, COO at Elemental Financial Holdings – discussed the role of marketing in creating a consistent culture where the people differentiate the firm. The negative impact of a revenue focus and billable hours was mentioned.

Commerciality, pace of change, creating products and investment in new areas (eg. cryptocurrency) were needed in pitches. Proactivity and investment in relationships are also areas requiring attention. The firms doing well appear to have a greater investment in internal networking and provide a seamless service and co-ordinate advice across different offices.

There was a call for more diversity and rounded people – for example, the O-shaped lawyer. Directory entries were seen as useful but not critical. Cultures needed to adapt to allow people to develop during the ebbs and flows of their careers. There was a feeling from the panel that law firms are more stifled than the larger accountancy firms which were moving faster. There was a request for more feedback (eg. post-mortems), secondments, training and bravery to sometimes not take the gig.

Big thanks are due to the break sponsors: Studio Mercury, HighQ, Vuture, Mytton Williams and Passle. And it was great to catch up with Lexis Nexis on InterAction CRM and Acuigen on client insight technology who had stands in the refreshment areas.

So. Another conference and another year have passed. As you would expect, many of the topics were familiar – campaigns, client experience, measuring effectiveness, winning new business and dealing with the usual onslaught of demands for marketing support. The interesting themes for me were the greater use of rigour, data and evidence, and the impact of the underlying psychology on much of what we do every day.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s 25th anniversary conference – 24 September 2020 is in the diary.

Kim Tasso is a consultant, psychologist and author. Visit