Thursday 06 October 2016

It’s always striking how many professional service marketers face the same issues, no matter their sector, geography or business size. With that in mind, it’s particularly good to hear from someone with experience who can share their wisdom, positive stories and inspiring insights.

So it was that the latest Forum saw Laura Vernett discuss her 20 years in marketing at law firm Harper Macleod, at their beautiful offices in The Ca’dor’o in Glasgow. Starting as a grad, and now Marketing Director at a firm that has experienced significant growth, Laura makes the whole thing look pretty easy. She is an excellent person to listen to.

Questions were asked by our chair for the day, Steve Wright.

First steps

Laura joined Harper Macleod (HM) in 1996, not long after graduating, with an initial brief to establish a marketing function. It was a blank canvas, and her first steps were pleasingly nuts-and-bolts: things like setting up a database, increasing PR activity, and reviewing the firm’s publications for brand adherence and improvement.

She aimed, she said, to make herself indispensable, so that she’d be kept on beyond the initial 6-month contract. She was certainly successful in that. (“They haven’t let me go – yet,” she said.) She’s remained with the firm for two decades, rising to the role of Marketing Director, and Harper Macleod has grown with her.

Marketing at the top table

When Laura started, HM had six partners and a headcount of around40. Now, HM has 69 partners and a headcount of around 400. Laura has grown with the firm and vice versa; it means that, helped by her initial recruiting from the now-Chairman of HM, Laura has secured the really impressive credibility and authority for the marketing team – so much so that the team has a seat on the Management Group.

Laura puts that success, in part, to understanding people, their personalities and how best to work with  partners and senior figures. Lawyers can be demanding people, technically proficient and accurate and very interested in the details. Managing these needs, and presenting marketing functions in a way that partners can understand the benefits to them personally, has helped her build the marketing function into a team with nearly a dozen members.

The psychological element

One of the most revealing parts of Laura’s talk was her background – and use of – psychology. A ‘frustrated psychologist’ with a degree in Business Law and Marketing, she’s combined both elements of her uni studies and her interest in psychology in her role at HM.

She uses it in marketing team recruitment – of which more later – and in handling senior figures throughout the firm. She uses her understanding of techniques and personality types to communicate effectively to different people, and build effective working relationships for the benefit of the firm.

She also uses psychology in her day-to-day life. Asked about whether she’s had any bad enough days to make her second-guess her career choices, she said that she hasn’t, and it’s because she genuinely enjoys what she does and the people she works with. Even the lowest point of her career, when her young daughter was diagnosed with meningitis and she had to balance increased personal demands with a successful working life, she managed and coped (with the support of the firm) because she enjoyed her job.

Star of the Games

Harper Macleod sponsored the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The firm made the decision to tender for the legal work and sponsorship in 2011, before the success of the London Olympics was assured, so it was a bold move. But it paid off, and she says it is now undoubtedly the highlight of her 20 years so far.

Success was uncertain, the work was hard, and it was new territory for everybody – meaning a lot of research into how other brands made the most of their own association with various Games. Laura and her team made an activation-plan for clients that paid off handsomely; what surprised her, though, was the tremendous internal uptake and embracing of the Games’ spirit amongst colleagues.

What makes professional services so different?

A tricky question to answer – particularly for someone who’s been in the sector for the past twenty years – but here Laura again revealed her astute personal management and talent for reading people.

The answer, she said, lies not in an industry comparison. Actually, many things are the same across industries, and it doesn’t matter if marketing takes place B2B or B2C, it still relies on getting the basic principles right. The main difference with professional services, she said, is the partnership structure and often handling multiple agendas (and egos).

That isn’t harsh on partners; it is an observation of the partnership structure: working with 69 partners is a bit like working with 69 small business owners. Handling and managing the competing priorities, and demonstrating the benefits of joined-up marketing activity, is a task possibly unique to professional services.

Building the right team

Steve asked about the magic ingredient, which makes a good professional services marketer (something we’d all like to know!), and how Laura recruits for her team. She pointed out, though, that there isn’t one key ingredient. There are several.

Laura starts at basic skills. If a candidate is competent enough to do the work, then it becomes an issue, once again, of psychology. New recruits need to fit with the team, and this means getting the right blend of skills and personality types, as well as finding people who simply get on with each other. Laura is fan of personality types like the Myers-Briggs test, and believes in getting a blend of people in so that they all complement each other in soft as well as technical skills.

Looking back, looking forward

So much has changed in the past few years – as Laura points out, her team today is doing completely different things to what they were doing even five years ago – that it’s difficult to predict the future. She’s noticed the speeding-up of processes and trends: HM’s marketing strategies are now annual instead of tri-annual. This need for flexibility, and the requirement to respond to unpredictable breakthroughs and new technologies, means that teams need to be able to handle “whatever the market throws at us.”

Laura reckons digital will not stop becoming ever-more important. Customer relationships will continue to be crucial. But beyond that, no-one can reasonably say what the world will be like in 20 years’ time.

We’d like to thanks Laura Vernett once again for her time and her hospitality, and Harper Macleod for hosting us. Thanks also to Steve Wright for chairing the event and asking such fruitful questions. 

Stuart Millar,
Marketing Executive,
Chiene + Tait LLP