I interviewed Sam Davies, Group Head of Marketing at Haines Watts (HWCA), to obtain an accountancy marketing case study on the firm’s thought leadership campaign “For Love or Money – the secret life of the business owner”.

About Sam and Haines Watts

Sam has worked at Haines Watts for over 18 years and in her current role for national marketing for 10 years. The 25 strong marketing and business development team is organised regionally and spread across the firm’s 60 UK locations although Sam is based is the West Midlands. When she joined the firm from a large software company the group’s turnover was £45.7 million. Today there are 104 partners generating over £69m turnover and the firm is ranked 13th in the top 50 accountancy firms.

The strategic roots of the campaign

I’ve always been impressed that the firm took strategy seriously, In 2010, it sent Board members to Cranfield University to participate in its highly regarded Business Growth Programme (BGP), this resulted in a clear strategy for the group. In 2011 Haines Watts then followed this by taking 20 partners to Cranfield to build a clear plan to deliver the strategy.

Sam commented “Like many accountancy practices we knew compliance work would shrink in the future and we were trying to grow into a full service advisory business. When the partners returned from Cranfield we had a a clear strategy as a group and defined plans to deliver it – this also resulted in a purpose statement and value proposition”.

The Cranfield experience also helped the firm to develop a new advisory product. It did this in conjunction with the academics and business counsellors at Cranfield to produce the Value Plus product which provides a structured review for growing businesses to find out where and how to create value in their business.

The research leading to the birth of the thought leadership campaign

Sam continued “Two years ago, we decided to step back and take a more strategic look at our marketing – we had a business challenge which was to find a way to position ourselves in a mature accountancy and advisory market. Our value proposition is “To people who own and run businesses Haines Watts is the accountant most able to meet your needs for advice and support in achieving your business goals and personal aspirations.” This focuses on helping business owners make better decisions to increase the speed and certainty of their progress towards their goals”. 

“Like us, other large accountancy firms were already talking about business owner challenges such as growth, efficiencies and risk. Our marketing at the time was covering these areas but wasn’t joined up – there was no overall theme. So we took a step back and did some detailed analysis. We looked hard at the competition and we talked to our business clients. During this research we developed five personas for our business owners. These included Fledglings, Ambitious Disrupters, Empire Builders, Established Lifestylers and Seasoned Generals but we needed that unique and big idea that would be relevant to business owners and differentiate us. So we did further research – really drilling down into our commercial client conversations”.

“We looked at the market – other accountancy firms, and companies such as Sage and Xero. Whilst there were lots of salary surveys there wasn’t much information about business owner earnings and wealth. We also looked at the more emotional side of running a business – here we found that whilst many organisations were providing information about macro-economic issues and legislation there didn’t appear to be anyone reporting on the more personal aspects of business owners”.  

“So we came up with the idea of “For Love or Money” and went back to the market to see if there was a space there and whether there was an appetite for such research amongst our clients and growing businesses”.

Selecting the right agencies to work on the thought leadership campaign

Sam knew that they would need external expertise to create the big idea and develop the campaign. They gave a detailed brief – with clear objectives – and asked four agencies to pitch for the work. Three of the agencies had worked with Haines Watts before and one hadn’t. Two board members spent considerable time face-to-face with the pitching agencies describing the outcome of the Cranfield process, explaining the group strategy and talking about the clients and the business.

“We picked Man Bites Dog – the only agency at the pitch who hadn’t worked with us before” said Sam. “They really impressed us with their clear process for coming up with the big idea. Also, we had never really done national PR and they had a strong PR background. They got us from day one”.

However, Man Bites Dog doesn’t have in-house design and creative capability and Sam had an excellent relationship with an agency that the firm had been using for online and digital creative work so appointed realityhouse for this element of the campaign.

Developing the thought leadership campaign

Once they had the big idea, they spent time looking at how to break it down into manageable elements. The money side – business owner earnings and wealth – was clearly one element. But they were also interested in the emotional side – how running a business impacted both the physical and mental health of business owners.

There was a lot of material available on the motivation to start a business, but hardly anything on the motivation to keep running and growing a business. The loneliness of command was another key concept – and Haines Watts had already done work around helping clients build the right team around them and developing appropriate support networks.

Opinion and psychological research

“We went out and did some traditional opinion research – asking questions about the emotional side and building a database of information on the financial side of things. But we also worked with a neuromarketing research company, Neurosense which did implicit testing. This measures the unconscious reactions by timing the responses to how quickly business owners agreed or disagreed with key statements. This insured we really got into the head of business owners like never before. We conducted the opinion research with 500  business owners and a sample of 100 on the psychological assessments”. Sam used professional research agencies to ensure that they obtained a balanced sample reflecting the different sizes, sectors and ages of business owners and also to get the appropriate split across the firm’s regions.

Brexit delays the launch

Haines Watts was due to launch to the media and clients in June 2016 but the Brexit vote happened and they decided to delay because of the heavy press coverage of this. However, there was an intensive internal launch of the campaign – to test the unusual tone of voice used in the campaign and the creative work which really stretched the brand. There was also then time to refine the online tool containing all the wealth information – there was a lot of data to incorporate.

The internal response was the best the firm had ever experienced and “the partners welcomed it with open arms”. They were already having conversations and supporting clients about the emotional aspects of running a business and they now had the hard data to back these up.

The first peak of the campaign was in October 2016 – with media relations, emails, blogs, a full report and infographics campaigns – and focused on the money aspect (“For money”). The client response was significant and positive – there were a lot of unsolicited emails from clients commenting “A good read” and “The wealth tool and infographic are brilliant”.

The second peak of the campaign – containing the psychological research (“For Love”) was issued in January 2017. The client response was even stronger with comments such as “Really appreciate the information “ and “Really good article – I’ve shared it with the MD and am talking to him about taking some time out” and “Good to know that everyone else has to deal with the sort of stress that I deal with every day”.

The results

The campaigns – including a 10 page report on both the money and the emotional and psychological aspects – generated over 15,000 hits to the “For Love or Money” microsite. Whilst open rates (25%) and click through rates (12%) were amongst the industry standards, the firm was pleased with them as the content was not the typical time-sensitive Budget or legislative driven material.

Haines Watts also generated a significant amount of press coverage – where previously the firm was pretty much unknown to the business and accountancy journalists. There were articles and interviews in: Mail Online, This is Money, Forbes, Real Business, SME Insider and Management Today. Both Man Bites Dog and local PR agencies across the UK also used the regional breakdowns to obtain substantial regional business press coverage.

The national campaign has also fuelled multiple campaigns in the regions. The materials and content were given to the local offices who were encouraged to tailor it to their areas and use it throughout the client relationship cycle. It has also been used in conversations with banks and third party referrers and helped to position Haines Watts in the important professional referrals market.

Some of the local offices have drilled down with the information – they were all given complete access to both the financial and opinion data – and used it to shape local events, local PR and to run competitions.

The way ahead

Sam talked about the future of the campaign: “We will obviously continue with the overall theme. We want to figure out how to dig deeper into some of the issues identified in the initial research – to find out more about the secret life of the business owner. We will do further research on the wealth data – so that we can build insights into the trends over a number of years. We will probably re-run the entire opinion and psychological research programme again in 2017. But we may do some top up research into the ambition and aspirations aspects of business owners – continuing the deeper dive into business owner secrets”.

Sam concluded “The Board and the partners are completely in support of the campaign – it met all its objectives and really provided a strategic focus through original and valuable thought leadership. But it was the most challenging campaign I have ever managed. There was a balance between our brand strategy, tone of voice and values and the need to really reach out to the business owners in language that they could relate to – rather than using a voice for journalists and the internal audience – especially in the blogs and emails. It was also tough managing two agencies – some of the creative work and imagery went too far to the point of shocking and we had to pull it back. In retrospect, the Brexit delay meant that we were able to develop both the materials and the online data tool more – so it was a good thing”.

Haines Watts “Love or Money – The secret life of the business owner” microsite: https://www.hwca.com/for-love-or-money/