Leading into the economic storm

CMOs of professional service firms can best help their firms in the coming downturn by forcing groups to rethink, refresh and reinvent their ‘go-to-market’ brand propositions

From nowhere, this pandemic has impacted our personal and professional lives in unprecedented ways. As people, our first concerns and actions are naturally directed towards our communities. Families. Neighbours. Coworkers. Clients. Friends. And of course those millions of health and care professionals continuing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect lives all around the world.

The next chapter 

While the health crisis continues, many of us are conscious that beyond the current battle, another looms — one for the financial security of our economies and businesses. Calmly, and quietly, while lives are still on the line, business leaders all over the world are beginning to get ready for that next battle — putting strategies in place to protect their organisations: their people, their customers and clients, their suppliers and their futures.

As people, our first concerns and actions are naturally directed towards our communities.

Leaders of professional service firms will face particular challenges: sudden and unpredictable swings in revenues and projections, fears among their hard-working professionals for their jobs and livelihoods, clients themselves facing massive disruptions, discontinuities in operations as governments around the world potentially phase in and out of lockdowns.

Muscle memory 

Perhaps one ironic silver lining — for the financial and economic battle — is that most of us still have very fresh memories of the 2008 crisis. Of course, this is different, but at least some of the experiences gained, and lessons learned from that crisis will serve us well. We might have observed other more experienced leaders at that time making decisions under pressure. And indeed, we have the evidence from that time of which strategies worked and which decisions — that were made on limited data — turned out to be correct, with the benefit of hindsight.

Engage with individual groups within the firm to rethink, refresh and if needed even reinvent their ‘go-to-market’ brand propositions

One crucial leadership perspective to draw on from the last crisis is that no matter how difficult and uncertain things seemed at the time — and economically at least there were some pretty dark days — eventually there was a recovery and after that a time when firms even flourished again. Leaders of professional service firms should reflect on this in relation to the significant challenges they face over the coming months.

Rethink, refresh, reinvent

As CMOs, one of the most important things we can do for our firms, as the financial downturn bites, is to actively engage with individual groups within the firm to rethink, refresh and if needed even reinvent their ‘go-to-market’ brand propositions. Those firms — and groups within firms — that went into the 2008 crisis with strong brand propositions were most likely to do well coming out of it. And those firms that survived and even thrived during the long months and years of recovery were those that worked out how to win more of the work that was available than those with weaker propositions.

Even in the depths of the coming economic downturn, there will be work — important, complex and premium work — there just won’t be enough of it. You can’t control the overall market size, but you most definitely can control — or at least positively influence — how you face into that market and your overall conversion rate.

Sharpening ‘go to market’ propositions is often easier said than done in the context of a professional services firm.

Sharper, benefit-led propositions, clear messages, client-focused proposals and innovative approaches are the most effective tools for winning more of the available work than you lose to others. Some of the dramatic changes going on for clients will also throw up the potential for new propositions as well as for the usual ones. Those firms that can tune into those changing needs first can gain more attention and even change market perceptions of their positioning as a result.

Build up not down 

As CMOs know, sharpening ‘go to market’ propositions is often easier said than done in the context of a professional services firm, where strong personalities hold strong opinions (and not always good opinions) and partners are often reluctant to challenge or disagree with each other even in the name of creating greater clarity and focus. But nonetheless no one is in a better position than the CMO to do it. Building a case based on client insight helps overcome misguided opinions and a process aimed at creating consensus by ‘building clarity on until everyone is happy,’ rather than ‘knocking corners off until no one is unhappy’, is the way forward.

CMOs that achieve this under pressure over the coming months will earn the respect they deserve from their fee-earning peers as they help drive the maintenance of top-line revenues.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's leading strategic consultancy specialising in brand-led transformation for knowledge-led businesses.