Even as far back as 2005, members of the UK's Institute of Chartered Accountants were being advised to work on their personal brand. Addressing that year's prizewinners and the Institute's annual awards, Steve Easterbrook (UK CEO of McDonalds) said: “Chartered Accountants are in such high demand due to their well-rounded flexibility. [Accountants] learn from and observe business management competencies, behaviours and soft skills - both good and bad. To be respected today you have to be authentic. You must understand who you are, your strengths, your weaknesses and your personal values. By being open about these and by being consistent you will be able to build and protect your own reputation.”
The interesting thing is that four years on, at least here in the UK, the message still hasn't got through. In the US even the Big 4 firms are thinking about their personal brands. Here in the UK the attitude is still very much that accountants are sold first by their professional qualification, next by the firm they work for, and finally by the raft of legislation and regulation that pretty much forces companies into using their services. Nothing much has changed, in fact, in the 15 years since I left professional practice!
Back then, audit was seen as a loss leader. The big firms (back then there were 8 - which says an awful lot about the effectiveness of the strategy!) undercut each other in what strategy authors Kim and Mauborgne describe as a 'Red Ocean' (read bloodbath). That's the problem when your selling proposition is identical to all your competitors: you have nothing to compete on but price.
The same held true in 2000 when I moved into consultancy with another of the Big 8 6 5; thought leadership (research and writing designed to position you as a subject matter expert) was encouraged only as a way of promoting the firm.
It's a situation that has to change. An accounting firm (or for that matter the major consultancies and law firms) only thinks it is selling advice. In reality, it is selling the skills, experience and personality of its partners. Yet those partners tend to share the same background as their peers both within the firm and in competing firms: they have the same skills, attend the same schools, take the same exams, join the same clubs; they even serve the same clients (given that the law in most countries requires rotation of most professional advisers). That leaves only two things for the firms to compete on: cost (which is a lose-lose for the both the firm and the client), and personalities. Firms stand (or fall) on the personal brand of their key figures.
So my challenge to the Big 8 6 5 4 here in the UK is this: which will be the first firm to follow the lead of your US counterparts and put in place a structured programme to build the personal brand of your partners? Not image consultancy, not PR, not a flurry of white papers and conference appearances, but a planned, ongoing programme to market your senior staff as the real product that the firm is offering to the market. Will it be my old firm PwC? Or Deloitte, who I worked for as a consultant? Maybe KPMG or EY? Or will you all be beaten to the post by a major consultancy such as McKinsey or Bain? Or one of the law firms?