Budget season has begun: Where’s the smart marketing money going?

October 6, 2020 • 5 minute read

Budget season has begun: Where’s the smart marketing money going?   

For many professional services firms, it’s budget season. It’s that time when marketers peer into their crystal ball, set priorities, and make the case for resources to make their visions come to fruition.

Of course, these are no ordinary times. After enduring a once-in-a-century pandemic, we’re all unmoored, unsure what business will look like next month, let alone in six months.

But even though God may laugh when marketers make plans, plan we must. Yes, a budget may blow up before the ink is dry, but the budgeting process is instructive. It forces a reckoning with the world we live in and the one we expect to emerge.

Clearly, in a post-pandemic world, the playing field has shifted—and will continue to shift. But the questions marketers need to ask haven’t changed: What are the goals of the business? And what are the marketing resources required within the total pool of resources to achieve those goals?

With the backdrop of the pandemic looming over this year’s budget season, we wanted to hear from clients at law firms, accounting firms and others about their approach to budgeting. How are they thinking of their priorities? What areas are they focusing on? Where do they see opportunities in this new environment? What about budgeting shouldn’t change?

The idea was to draw out some of the best thinking and share it. Here are a few themes that have emerged.

When advocating for a budget, don’t forget to tell a story.

When it comes to making the case for a budget, data is the coin of the realm. Management naturally wants to know the spending helps the business. Marketers know they need to be ready for those questions. And with more tools than ever to measure key performance indicators, they are better equipped.

But they also should not forget to tell a story that looks forward. How is the world changing and where are the opportunities to grow the business in the new environment? Who is the hero of the story and what journey are they on?

Focus resources on the most distinctive services.

In a world of limited resources, marketers must make priorities.  So where can they best optimize their investments? One way to answer that question is to look for the most exceptional services the firm offers. Generally, marketing resources are most effective when spent on those services where the firm has a competitive advantage.

How do you know which services are the firm’s most distinctive? One of the best ways to find them is to look at profit margins. These are the services that allow the firm to charge more because of their quality or distinctiveness.

Make focused, small-stakes bets with significant potential upside. 

In destabilizing economic times, it’s tempting to retreat to the familiar. But in the post-pandemic world, innovation and experimentation must be part of the mix. With the collapse of in-person networking and relationship-building opportunities, there is no choice.

Digital advertising, which has not historically been in the toolbox of marketers, is one example. If finding clients that need and can afford high-end professional services is more competitive than ever, then why not try something new? Digital adverting doesn’t require a major investment, but it can lead to new business. At a time when potential prospects are spending more time online, it’s a bet worth making.

Double-down on content, leverage it across channels, and integrate it into your PR plan.

In a post-pandemic world, content is king. As traditional marketing channels like live events have been sidelined, it’s hard to overstate the importance of establishing a reliable stream of engaging and helpful content for clients.

“The most important thing is to have timely content for your stakeholders to share in the first place,” notes Leor Franks, who leads external relations and was previously chief marketing officer of Augusta, the U.K.’s largest litigation funder by case volume.  “I think content is the key battleground in professional services right now.”

But for content to pay off, every piece should be leveraged across multiple channels and integrated into your PR plan. You’re planning a webinar? Great, make sure key soundbites become part of a media pitch. You’re making an award submission for an innovative transaction? Wonderful, now go and adapt to a case study.

It’s 2020. Drop the idea of a “digital” budget.

Once upon a time, the internet was new, and marketers began carving out “digital” and “internet” budgets. Well, it’s 2020, and those now sound…outdated. It also potentially paints you into a corner, obliging you to spend against something that is just an artificial construct.

Remember: marketing is about helping the business identify, acquire and retain clients. The most important thing is to show you’re doing that cost-effectively.

“I don’t understand when people remain bonded to budgets notwithstanding dislocations or material changes that are occurring inside the business or in the economy,” says Malcolm Fried, chief marketing officer at Investec. “We have to be flexible and we have to stay ahead of the curve and be commercial and then we are in a happy situation.”

Fried adds: “For me, there are two kinds of marketers,”. “One is the kind that would say at the outset, ‘What’s my budget?’ We don’t like that kind very much. The other is the kind that would say, ‘What’s the objective of the business?’ That’s the question we want to ask.”

Invest in social media training.

Some of the best marketers at your firm may not be in the marketing department, so make sure they have the tools to promote the firm. One cost-effective way to do that: provide social media training.

Yes, as marketers know, there will always be pockets of resistance when it comes to social media training. But the payoff in brand awareness can more than justify the cost of the training. And for the most senior people who aren’t willing to adopt or don’t have the time, consider outsourcing their accounts to content professionals.

Understand the value of outside vendors and make sure their mandate is clear.

What marketing expertise should be outsourced, and what should you bring in-house? It’s a perennial question facing marketers, especially in challenging economic times.

That’s why marketers must make sure their agencies have a clear mandate and can produce metrics to demonstrate their value. Budget season is a good time to revisit these issues.

Of course, not all value can be captured neatly. Besides asking what it would cost to bring capabilities in-house, it’s worth asking what would be lost doing so. A trusted partner who brings an outsider’s perspective is highly valuable but not easily quantifiable.

“We place a very high premium on avoiding groupthink, which means that we insist on taking the views of a number of strong agencies, outsiders, anyone, who’s not part of us,” says Fried. “Why? Because the moment you become part of an organisation, there’s an inclination to start thinking like the organisation. Unavoidable. I am very respectful of the need for a variety of views required in such processes as the creative process, the media buying process, the research process.”

Andrew Longstreth is Head Writer at Infinite Global, where he creates custom content for law firms. He can be reached at andrewl@infiniteglobal.com.