Jonathan Ebenstein, Skoda Minotti & Crystal Mapp, KPM CPAs & Advisors
While many accounting marketing professionals may only see themselves as being able to market accounting services within their firm, it is possible to develop a marketing consulting practice. Jonathan Ebenstein proved this, as he was determined to build a new niche around marketing services and was instrumental in launching Skoda Minotti Strategic Marketing. This area of their firm has a dedicated client service staff and features branding, online marketing, and strategic marketing services. They also, as you might imagine, specialize in providing marketing services to accounting firms. Jonathan, while spending the majority of his time on this part of the firm, also oversees the internal staff that market Skoda Minotti. This keeps him incredibly busy but somehow he has managed to keep both teams running smoothly; his success resulted in him being named the firm’s first ever non-CPA partner. After he provided me with a little background on himself, we discussed how he transitioned to accounting marketing and how he successfully led the charge to develop a marketing niche.
What made you decide to explore a marketing niche within an accounting firm?
Having started my career as an ad agency professional, the idea of trading in my jeans and
T-shirts for jackets and ties had my agency friends thinking I was crazy. However, in January 2006, I did just that and became Skoda Minotti’s vice president of marketing. While my former co-workers were all stunned I was willing to give up agency life to be an accounting marketer, it is important to note that it was never my intention to give up agency life completely. In fact, the first question in my interview with Greg Skoda, after, “How to pronounce Minotti?” was, “Would you be open to offering marketing services here one day?” Lucky for me, the answer was, “Yes.”
How did you get started?
After establishing a three-person marketing team upon my arrival at Skoda Minotti, my first order of business was to develop a new brand for the firm, which was launched in 2007. One year later, we started receiving inquiries from clients and business contacts about what agency we used to complete our rebrand. After discovering that it was completed in-house, clients would ask whether they could hire us to assist them with their marketing. This told us two things: Offering marketing services was a valid option and even though we were an accounting firm, we had brand permission to offer marketing services. Thus, in February 2009, during the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we launched Skoda Minotti Strategic Marketing.
What advice would you give to others who may be interested in launching their own marketing niche?
Obviously, a lot is involved with building a successful niche, but I have found the following five ‘building blocks’ to be especially critical.
1. Brand Permission
No firm can be all things to all companies—there are obvious limitations to what your firm’s brand can do and achieve. When planning to start a new niche, it is important to understand what you have brand permission from your clients to do. For instance, a bad niche idea for a CPA firm would be turning someone’s passion for landscaping into a landscaping niche. While some clients may have a need for landscaping services, the likelihood of a brand-loyal client base engaging their accounting firm to mow their lawn and rototill their beds is well beyond the reach or “permission” of your firm’s brand. However, offering niche and advisory services such as business valuations, financial services, and yes, even marketing, are all permissible service extensions that clients could trust your firm to perform.
2. Build Trust & Rapport with Your Partner Group
When I first joined Skoda Minotti, I was entrusted to run a newly created ‘cost center.’ I would estimate that about a third of the partners thought hiring a veteran marketer was a good idea, a third were on the fence, and the remaining third would rather have spent the money on other things. While some in my position would have focused their energy on keeping the middle third away from the last third, I took a different approach. In my first few years, I focused on building and maintaining strong relationships with my partner group. By the time I was ready to launch the marketing niche, I had earned the trust of my partners, and by extension, their most guarded and valued possession – their clients.
3. Build an Outstanding Team Around You
If the firm and its brand are the engine, than your team is the gas and oil required to make it run. To build a successful niche, you must have a strong, driven, and dedicated team of individuals who share the same passion for building the niche as you. When I launched the marketing niche, I did so with two other team members who were every bit as dedicated as I was. Today, we have a team of 15 marketing professionals, all of whom are rowing in the same direction.
4. Develop a Strategic Business/Marketing Plan
A strategic growth plan for the development of any service or industry group is essential. For the marketing niche, I created a strategic niche development plan template that we now use across the firm for niche plan development. Below is a sample of items it asks our niche leaders to consider:
- Build the Right Team – determine who the ideal team members are, what their roles and responsibilities will be, and what the required time commitment is
- Define the Business – think about how the niche will solve your clients’ problem(s), and determine exactly which service(s) you will provide, as well as which ones you will exclude
- Determine your Competitive Advantage – develop the niche’s core competitive advantage
- Outline Opportunities for Growth – define the three most significant opportunities for growth
- Outline Goals & Objectives – establish the business, sales, and marketing goals and objectives and determine how you will measure success and maintain accountability
- Describe the Ideal Client – define your ideal client and target markets (it based on revenue, employee size, geography, industry, etc.?)
- Leverage Existing Relationships – Consider what clients and contacts you, your firm, and your team members have in place (which relationships can be leveraged to secure introductory meetings?)
5. Secure Buy-in From Your Family
The decision to start a marketing services niche was the right one for my family and me, as it led to higher earning potential, unimaginable professional growth, and being named the first non-CPA partner at my firm. However, when the time came to officially launch the niche, it was my wife, not my managing partner, who I asked for permission from. The benefits of running a niche profit center are many, but there also is a cost. You must consider the reallocation of your work-life balance. This is an incredibly important decision and must not be entered into lightly. Make sure it is the right decision for you and your loved ones.
For more information on the Skoda Minotti Strategic Marketing practice, visit http://skodaminottimarketing.com.