By Liz Gold
Over the next few months, Katie Tolin has a challenge on her hands.
As marketing director at Rea & Associates, she'll be meeting with partners at each of the firm's eleven offices across Ohio to talk about how their marketing dollars are being spent. And while the partners have been prepped for these conversations, Tolin anticipates the challenge.
"I don't foresee this being easy", she said. "They just put together a business plan for their offices, so they're really looking at here's how we're going to grow at a local level. What I want to do is go in with a list of their spending and then talk to them about what's in the business plan, how they're going to grow, compare the spending to that, and hopefully it will start lining up more."
Tolin, who will take the reins as president of the Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) in July of next year, said that when she joined Rea in 2003 as the first marketing professional, there was no formal budget; however, there was money allocated toward marketing on the firm's financial statements.
"From that, what we decided to do is slowly move away from activities that don't have as direct of an ROI and to allocate those dollars to those activities that do", Tolin explained. It has become less about the individual offices and more about the six to eight niches the firm drives, she added. "Over time, we were taking a bit away from here and putting it into campaigns, those types of activities."
One of the first things Tolin axed were Yellow Pages ads, which she described as an easy thing to eliminate. But some spending wasn't as simple to cut - especially in some of her smaller offices.
"There are a lot of things like ads in high school football programs and on place mats in restaurants, and we golfed at everything under the sun that anybody asked us to", Tolin said. While the firm still spends money on those activities because they're important to the communities the firm serves, the key is to create a framework around them so they translate to lead generation, she added.
"If we're going to attend a golf outing, there are certain things we can put in place", Tolin said. "For example, if we have four people going out - golfing, drinking, having a good time on their own - we say we're going to pay for it, but we also say you guys are going to play in four separate groups to give you a chance to network. So for that $1,000 we're spending, we're addressing what we're doing pre-event, during the event, and post-event to make it as worthwhile as possible."
Integrated marketing campaigns have brought better results as of late, with one generating $750,000 in leads after spending only $10,000.
"Having things that you can directly tie back to revenue is important", said Tolin. "Marketing is about lead generation, which hopefully translates back to revenue. When you're able to justify the $10,000 that you spent, I think that makes a good budget."
Rea's clients are solely privately held businesses, with a sweet spot of usually $10 million in sales and above - depending on location. One of the firm's offices is in the heart of Ohio Amish Country, where clients obviously need different services than clients who live in metropolitan areas.
Still, she said every organization has its sacred cow. For Rea, it's the corporate newsletter - something that Tolin wishes she didn't have to spend money on, yet knows without it, she wouldn't be able to communicate with a huge portion of the firm's client base.
"We had two people in the past two weeks list our newsletter as one of the top places they turn for news", Tolin said. "Not only is it about communicating with our Amish clients, there aren't many places for small communities to turn to for business news. I was excited that these people count on us, and it reinforced to me that this is spending we are not yet in a position to get rid of."
The meat of the conversations Tolin will be having with her partners this fall will be about the ROI on their marketing spending. For her, it's not only about the dollar return - there has to be some return, for say, nurturing client relationships or brand building, for an expenditure to be worth it.
"There isn't an appetite to increase overall marketing, so we'll be having those discussions to figure out what people are willing to give up to help further the cause of the overall firm", she said.
The economy has, of course like for many firms, impacted the dollars allotted to marketing, as hers is the "department of overhead", as Tolin jokingly describes it. But she was still able to move forward with a firm rebranding last year - with extra money added to her budget to pay for it. Typically, Tolin's marketing budget is between 2.5 and 3 percent - which includes marketing staff - of the firm's revenue.
"I was lucky that I didn't have to give up money in my marketing budget", Tolin said. "Had I had to cut from my budget to do the rebranding, it probably wouldn't have happened."
Still, Tolin is continuously combing over the budget to search for savings, and she allows for flexibility when creating her budget. As her firm's fiscal year-end is October 31, she's moving toward creating a rolling budget - where in October, she would go ahead and budget for September of the next year.
"I come from the mind-set that you can't budget out every dollar because we're in an environment that is too rapidly changing", Tolin said. "You need to have money for what you don't even know about yet."
About the author:
Liz Gold owns Rhino Girl Media, offering writing and editing services to companies of all sizes. A published journalist for sixteen years, Liz writes about business and culture. She can be reached at [email protected].