Accenture: The touchstone of professional services branding

Yesterday, Accenture announced that Jim Murphy is retiring as the company’s chief marketing officer. 

Accenture is the consulting and technology company that began as a division of Arthur Andersen & Co.  When I went to work there, it was still called administrative services.  Within the year, under the leadership of one of my favorite bosses, Victor Millar, the division became "management information consulting."  After Victor left, despite the building turmoil with the audit and tax divisions, the now-business unit decided to start advertising — still a pretty new tool in the positioning arsenal of services firms.  Jim Murphy was one of the key figures on the external team that was to guide the strategy.

In fairly short order, and quite shocking for some of the traditional types, Murphy was showing the managing partners the importance of establishing a separate identity for the unit.  For me, a young manager, it was all very new — including the general style of the external PR and advertising teams, which was aggressive and sometimes even bullyish.  Not what I had seen in the gentlemanly, hushed halls connecting the executive suites.

Sixteen years later, I understand that what I perceived as aggression was the same sort of conviction I had for my work as a speechwriter — just packaged differently.  And while I still don’t agree with several aspects of how the independent unit-building was accomplished, for the most part, the combined professional skill of the external teams and the vision of the partners managed to overcome the personality "junk" to steer Andersen Consulting down the right path for what it had to do to serve clients and position itself at the top of the heap.

One of the reasons I left at the time was my recognition of the fact that the way I did speechwriting was vastly different from the agency model.  When my managing partner in Andersen Consulting asked me to flowchart the speechwriting process, leaving the CEO, still inexperienced with speaking, with only two weeks to both learn and deliver the content, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  My new boss was much more up for putting words into the mouth of the CEO, the total opposite of my principles and my practical knowledge of what creates memorable messages.  Since the agency knew where its bread was buttered, they delivered the flowchart.  And I delivered my resignation.

Still, I could see what the new marketing advisors would bring to the table.  And I applauded the injection of fresh blood into what was essentially a snakepit, not a marketing function.  By now an outside observer and a consultant myself, with the "other" business unit as a client, I had the vantage point of watching what Andersen Consulting was doing right.  And Jim Murphy was one of the drivers.

Within a few years, my flowchart-loving ex-boss was gone and the company made what I think was a brilliant decision:  retaining Murphy as its outsourced marketing chief.  And it wasn’t just a title.  He sat on the executive team and the company’s executive council — a true equal.  Because of that and Murphy’s straightforward yet elegant approach to "doing" marketing, Andersen Consulting was able to attract, by and large, a high caliber of marketing talent.  People who actually understand that the business of marketing is to be a bridge between a company and its markets.  People who can actually do more than manage a PR agency and deliver PowerPoint presentations.

Most important, the Accenture marketing story tells us that marketing can indeed be the strategic force that so many marketeers like to assert it is when they’re having cocktails at their MBA reunions.  At Accenture, marketing is not rocket science, but it’s instrumental in bringing a new message to the marketplace — while leveraging the unique strengths of the Andersen legacy and pursuing a strategy of differentiation.

Yes, there’s a country club feel to Accenture marketing, with the heavy golf emphasis and ties to the traditions of speaking blarney to power.  Yet, much more is right in how Accenture brands itself.  For four reasons.

One.  Accenture understands that research into evolving markets, buyers and technologies is the foundation of good business, and thus good marketing, strategy.  It uses its marketing function to inform every aspect of its business model.

Two.  Accenture morphs its message platform as the marketplace morphs, and that platform is re-purposed in every external and internal marketing activity.  The execution is consistent.  As a result, every one of the 158,000 people affiliated with the company is an evangelist immersed in the Accenture story.  This is the easiest — and most powerful — branding tool of them all.

Three.  Accenture invests in marketing.  It’s not the first thing to go when money is tight.  That’s because the company’s leaders and board understand the function’s contribution and hold it to the same performance standard as the profit centers.

Four.  Accenture knows that a primary way to keep marketing fresh is to use "outsiders" shrewdly and without apology.  The marketing staff doesn’t become insular and too political because the outsiders help them to remember to stay close to the marketplace.

Much of this is due to Jim Murphy’s relentless drive to build a memorable brand via good marketing and to get recognized for it.   And because of that — which many out-of-step marketeers might wrongly label as pure ego — upon Murphy’s retirement, Accenture is left with a stellar marketing force that is more than a legacy and no less than a benchmark.

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