Than Is Dreamt Of In Your Philosophy

            I recently received an e-mail from Professor Philip Kotler, author of a great many books on marketing, in response to my review of his latest book on marketing professional services. An abbreviated version of that review appeared on Amazon, which prompted the following response from Professor Kotler. Because we are dealing with significant philosophical differences about marketing professional services, and in the best interests of fairness, I am publishing that correspondence. I welcome, of course, any discourse on this and any article in The Marcus Letter – or any other article I write anywhere else, of course. Your comments are invited.

                                                                                    Bruce W. Marcus

On July 7, 2002 , Professor Kotler wrote…

I am puzzled about your review of Marketing Professional Services. Five out of six people agree with the 5 star positive review that it received from someone. Your review suggests that the book is useless and misleading and yet many large law firms have received our seminars based on the manuscript with enthusiasm. You also say that the book is loaded with factual and conceptual errors. Could you share them with us? We would like to improve the book by learning whatever we can.
My general feeling is that you had a deeper reason to damn the book which I can't fathom. Also I would never do that to an author and at least I would give a more balanced review of its good and bad points.
Philip Kotler

I responded as follows…..


            You have obviously seen only the abbreviated review in Amazon. The full review is in The Marcus Letter on Professional Services Marketing (, my online newsletter. It will answer your questions about why I reviewed the book as I did, and list some of the mistakes and inaccuracies you ask about.

            It will also explain the reason for my taking the trouble to do the review. I have been involved with law and accounting firm marketing since 1951 – well before the Bates decision. In The Marcus Letter, you will see a summary of my background, especially in this field. I have seen the process change through the years, reflecting an increasing understanding of the distinctive -- and frequently unique – characteristics of marketing a professional firm. You will see, as well, many articles on various aspects of the process, every one of which is written from experience, not from theory. I write about what works, not what theoretically should work.

            I review a great many books on marketing (see the review in The Marcus Letter on the book by Larry Smith), and normally do not review books that I view negatively. However, I’ve spent a great many years trying to fathom and resolve the mysteries of the distinctive characteristics of professional services marketing, and I feel that your book, particularly enhanced by your reputation, sets the process back to the mid-1970s. Those of us who work with professional firms have a difficult enough time building marketing cultures in firms and for professions in which competition, and the means to compete successfully, are not traditional, without the active distractions of anachronistic theories. That is my “deeper reason” for the negative review.

            Look at The Marcus Letter, which is read internationally by more than 22,000 lawyers, accountants, consultants, and the marketers who serve them. If you have a rebuttal to my review, I will happily print it, verbatim, in The Marcus Letter.

To which he responded…

I will put the following question to you. Suppose a mid-size law firm has had flat revenue and profits for a number of years. The firm decides that it is time to create a plan to bring about stronger growth and improved profits. Advise them on ten steps they ought to take to grow their business.
I would bet that at least 90% of your advice would be found in our book. I would go further and say that our book would give professionals a marketing mindset, something beyond thinking about products, prices, places, and promotion. It would get them to think about what market(s) they want to go after, how to make contacts, how to gain visibility by joining organizations, giving talks, writing articles, developing a customer database system, improving their branding, developing strategic plans, and so on.
In short, I believe that our book would give them useful ideas.
If you don't agree, you are in a minority one, since the book has received kudos from many lawyers who saw the manuscript.
And let me know what book you would advise this hypothetical law firm to read that would better equip them with a marketing mindset for developing their business.
I wish that you had written such a book so that I can see what profound things that you have to say that we haven't said.
Philip Kotler

And herewith, my response to him…

My Dear Professor Kotler…

            Your questions puzzle me. I, and a great many marketing directors for law and accounting firms, face and solve the problem of building marketing programs every day of our working lives. We solve them with approaches that may, in several areas, appear to be contiguous with your ideas, but hardly use your ideas as blueprints.

            Yes, of course a marketing program begins with the prospective clientele at its core. Objectives are indeed defined. Positioning is invaluable – not as you describe it, but as it’s defined in my article (A Fixed Position In A Moving World) on the subject in The Marcus Letter. And yes the tools of marketing are used to meet the firm and marketing objectives. All of this we do, and have done since the Bates decision made marketing viable for professionals in 1977. We do all this and more without reference to the four P’s or the four X’s or the four any other abstract academic theories that are drawn from product marketing. We even deal with pricing concepts, although not as described in your book.

            No question that many of the concepts I use and endorse are addressed in your book. But your context is wrong, and the ideas distorted through theoretical views that come from a lack of direct experience and understanding of the unique problems of professionals. Giving advice, particularly to people who have no frame of reference nor tradition of marketing, is easy. Taking responsibility for the results of that advice – which I and most working marketing consultants have always done and must do – defines the validity of that advice.

            The secret, which is missing from your book, is that the differences between marketing a product and marketing a professional services must be recognized before any marketing effort can be made. Those differences have nothing to do with intangibility – a constant irrelevancy – but with the nature and culture of the professional. Understanding these differences, and the nuances involved, is crucial. A few specifics, for example...

There is another problem that gives reality to my review of your book. Since Bates, and since you first delineated the principles of marketing you espouse, many crucial things have changed (beyond the obvious effects of technology, which is profound)…

        The nature of the markets served by the professions, and indeed, the entire commercial world, has evolved substantially.

        As experience has accrued in professional services marketing, the nature of practice itself has changed. It is now much more dynamic, calling for greater innovation. Law and accounting firms have learned to compete in ways we never thought possible 20 years ago. Today’s professional services marketers are infinitely more sophisticated than they were just after Bates. Your book, as I suggest in my review, freezes the process as it might have been in 1977 – the year of Bates.

There is some sense of this, by the way, in my article, Ten Myths That Impede Professional Services Marketing, which your Professor Hayes has seen.

As to your other points, there are sophisticated lawyers, and there are unsophisticated lawyers (and accountants as well). There are lawyers who understand the points I’ve just delineated, and there are the nave ones. Good lawyers and accountants they may be, but sophisticated marketers they rarely are (with notable exceptions, of course). I am not impressed, then, with the fact that there are some lawyers who accept your concepts of marketing. With no marketing tradition, nor true concept of competition, they have no frame of reference.

As for better books on the subject, there are a great many. There is, of course, the material in The Marcus Letter, which reflects my own experience (I do not write theory – but only what I know from experience works.) Larry Smith , whose book, Inside/Outside, I review virtually adjacent to the review of your book, has written one of the best books on the subject. Anything David Maister has written on the subject is superb as is anything written by Patrick McKenna and Gerry Riskin . McKenna and Maister just wrote a magnificent book on practice groups. All these books are reviewed and listed on The Marcus Letter. My own books on the subject, Competing For Clients (1984) and Competing For Clients in the 90s, (1992) were among the earliest books on the subject and are still considered as primers, although they are out of print and somewhat out of date, because we’ve learned a great deal since then. I’m sure you can find them, though. They’re around. (Currently in print is New Dimensions in Investor Relations, my best-selling book on investor relations, focusing on the marketing approach to it.) The American Bar Association has a marvelous publication program. As an academic, you should know these books. And incidentally, why is there no bibliography in your book?

No, I’m not a minority of one. I’ve discussed your book with a great many colleagues in the professions. I don’t think I’m even a minority.

As I told you, out of fairness, I’m publishing your rebuttals, including any you have to this response, on The Marcus Letter. I disagree with you, but you have a right to be heard.

                                                                        Bruce W. Marcus

On Saturday, July 13, 2002 , Professor Kotler wrote…

My Dear Marcus:

    I want to express my appreciation to you for airing our debate publicly in The Marcus Letter.  You are a gentleman.

    I would like to respond to your last letter.

     1. You take the word "product" too literally. It encompasses services as well, as in the expression, a "service product."  Perhaps a better term would be "offerings." The term product is a shorthand that covers anything that might be produced and offered for sale, such as  "physical goods, services, experiences, events, persons, places, properties, organizations, information, and ideas." (See my new 11th edition of Marketing Management, pp. 5-8).  Throughout this book, I emphasize how the characteristics of different "offerings" affect how they are sold.  I wrote a whole chapter 15 ("Designing and Managing Services") that shows that services must be handled differently than physical products.  I go into how services can be positioned and differentiated, how service quality can be measured and improved, and how service productivity can be enhanced.

     2. When you talk about thousands of people behind the manufacture and distribution of a product, you again are thinking physical product.  American Express, Citibank, and Marriott have thousands of people behind the manufacture of a service.  Our book addresses the problems facing a one-man professional firm to law firms that number in the hundreds. Some very large law firms are run on manufacturing principles but this is not our emphasis.  In all businesses, people deal with people.  You can bet that Boeing's chief engineer is as much a professional service provider who stays with United Airlines (its client) as a lawyer is to his client.

     3. You suggest that no one can properly write about marketing professional services who hasn't been a practitioner.  In my case, I have been a professional consultant for over thirty years and have advised dozens of professional firms on how to develop a marketing strategy and business plan, including dental and medical practices, architectural firms, engineering firm, law firms, accounting firms, and so on.  In this regard, our experience is not much different.  I might add that I never thought that experience is a sufficient indicator of intelligence.

     4. I agree with you that some very good material has been written on professional services marketing.  I am a fan of David Maister 's writings and in fact we cite from his Managing the Professional Service Firm five reasons why firms tend to neglect their existing clients on pp. 392-93 of our own book, Marketing Professional Services.

     5. I don't think you should imply that the reason a number of professional firms respect our advice is that many professionals lack the sophistication to know good marketing from bad marketing.  You know that if you put six economists in a room, you will get eight opinions (and this applies to marketing).

     6. You suggest that our book freezes the marketing process as in 1977.  I disagree with you.  Most professional services firms are frozen in 1977 and our book aims to bring them into the 21st century, showing them how to grow their client base and their profitability.

     7. You suggest that companies with physical products can afford to have a marketing department to take responsibility for marketing. The truth is that marketing departments cannot do the whole job in any organization.  David Packard of Hewlett Packard exclaimed "Marketing is far too important to leave to the marketing department."  Most companies recognize that every employee can affect customer attitudes and satisfaction and all of them must participate in marketing.  They must all "think customer."

     8. The marketing discipline is a powerful framework to remind people of the variables and forces that affect demand. It is used by firms making physical goods and services and those marketing celebrities, cities, ideas and causes.  It is not limited to physical products.  Do you know of a better framework for bringing together all the aspects that need to be considered in building growth and profit plans for a professional services business?

     9. I still would like to see you list some best advice points that you have given to professional firm that we haven't listed in the book.  We would be glad to add them in the next edition.

     As I said, you are a gentleman to include our letters along with yours in The Marcus Letter.  We hope that you can include this letter as well.


Philip Kotler

To which I replied…

My Dear Professor Kotler…

            One of the things I know from my extensive work in knowledge management I learned from one of the smartest clients I’ve ever had. He noted that different people process the same information differently. A simple, and almost obvious, observation, but absolutely true. And herein lies a tale of the difference between us.

            I know quite well what a product is. I know, as well, what a nonprofessional service is. I’ve done considerable work for Citibank and other banks, and for the travel industry. I even understand that there are aspects of professional services that are at least commodities, if not products. Look at the marketing for personal injury lawyers, and for tax services.

            But there is no way to equate professional services – for lawyers, accountants, physicians and many consultants --  with products. Simply put, the next tube of toothpaste in my favorite brand will be, I know, the same as the last one. The next matter I have with my lawyer will not be the same as the last, nor will it be the same if I switch lawyers.

            More significantly, I can sell toothpaste by brand when the product is the interface, as I mentioned, between the manufacturer and the consumer. That’s why branding works so well with product, but not quite so well in professional services. And while the line between professional and nonprofessional services is sometimes blurred, the differences can be profound. I can sell you a vacation when you hadn’t planned on it; I can’t persuade you to sue somebody just because that’s what I sell. No matter how good a marketer a matrimonial lawyer may be, he can’t persuade a happily married man, to get a divorce. Marketing a product or nonprofessional service sells a product. Marketing a professional service sells a concept, a reputation, a distinction between your firm and others. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, “What I really need today is a good audit.” Or “It’s a great day to write a contract with someone.” This substantially colors the nature of marketing a professional service.

            When you talk of the Boeing chief engineer who sells his services, you confuse, I think, professional with professionalism. This is a long-standing debate that I’ve addressed in the past, and that frequently arises. When we speak of professionals we usually mean accountants, lawyers, physicians and some consultants. They serve a distinctive purpose, have specific professional degrees, function under canons of ethics that are prescribed by law, regulation, or professional governing bodies, and serve specific social or governmental needs. It is assumed that they function with a degree of professionalism, both by regulation and law, and with professional pride. Professionalism was best defined by a friend and former client, the head of the then in-house think tank at AT&T.  He said a professional – a pro – was someone who was thoroughly proficient in his or her trade. A given, I suggested. Then he added, “A pro is somebody who functions at peak capacity and ability even when he doesn’t feel like it.”  And, by the way, not every professional is a professional equal of other professionals.

            I think you misread what you take to be my suggestion that no one can properly write about marketing professional services who hasn’t done it. It helps to have not only the experience, but the responsibility for results as well. And intelligence is not a factor here, nor is experience an indicator of intelligence. I never said that. There are accountants and lawyers who are more skilled than others, and consultants who solve some problems and not others. Experience means practical rather than theoretical, although theoretical is often the precursor of the practical. But the two are not automatically interchangeable.

            I think I’ve addressed the key points you raise in your note to me, but one. Our differences are not on points of advice, they are in conceptual framework.  There are contiguities between the marketing processes for selling a product or nonprofessional service, and selling a service. But there are more significant differences, and they color the ways in which marketing functions for a professional service. I continue to believe that equating the framework for selling a product with that of selling a professional service may do no harm, but it will do no good, either.


                                                                        Bruce W. Marcus  

Dear Marcus:
Thank you for including my last letter on your site.  I appreciate your openness and our discussion will be useful to your readers.
Philip Kotler

    This has indeed been a useful exchange. And if I remain firm in my beliefs, at least this exchange afforded me the opportunity to reevaluate and rethink them. Thank you, Professor Kotler. See the new article entitled A New Era In Competing For Clients.

                                                                    Bruce W. Marcus

On July 15, Professor Kotler wrote….

Dear Bruce:

Thank you for the note. If any of your clients write about our debate, and give their views, I would look forward to hearing about it.

I still feel that while you rejected the marketing discipline framework, you didn't provide any alternative framework that brings all the variables and forces into consideration that face a professional firm. Nor did I see how you would package your advice to a mid-size law firm wanting "wisdom" on how to grow.

Philip Kotler

And on July 16 he added…

Now that you feel that our discussion has "helped develop (for you) an insight into new directions for professional services marketing," I was wondering if you would be kind enough to send another customer review of our book to Amazon with or without your name naming its strong and weak points (if you wish) but giving it a rating of more than 1.

To which I reply…

Dear Professor Kotler….

            I think you have completely misunderstood and misconstrued my remarks. Reexamining my concepts and positions is something I do regularly. I enjoy being challenged, because I try to understand the dynamic of the professions, and the markets they serve. Change is the only constant, and how we serve the professions now is considerably different from how we served them in the early post-Bates years. Marketing in this distinctive arena is particularly challenging, because of the singular nature of the professions. If you are under the impression that my basic positions and views have changed, or in any way resemble yours, then you haven’t been listening.

            I understand that opposing views can sometimes be valid, but I continue to insist that my original impression of your book remains.

            As for your challenge for an “alternative framework”, I refer you to the extensive literature on The Marcus Letter, as well as elsewhere, and by many others. My views are perfectly clear. See, for example, my article entitled, A NEW ERA IN COMPETING FOR CLIENTS. The fact is that there is no one alternative framework, any more than there is a single bullet to cure cancer or a single contract for all transactions. Of the very large number of marketing programs I’ve developed for law and accounting firms over a great many years, no two are the same in strategy, because no two firms in any profession are exactly the same, nor are their markets and clientele.

            I believe that in marketing a professional firm, there are four basic points that should be addressed, and included in developing a distinctive functional strategy for each firm…

        Know your market. Not merely demographics, but its needs and wants, relevant to the service you offer.

        Know your firm. Not merely as an organization, but its structure to meet the needs of the market it seeks to serve.

        Know your tools. These are the tools and devices of marketing – the press release, the brochure, the seminar, etc. They are tools, and not the marketing program itself.

        Manage your tools. Use the tools as communications devices to project your understanding and ability to serve the needs of your market.

These principles work for me, and have successfully served a great many clients over the years. They are not esoteric nor derivative theory, they are working tools. They leave room for a great deal of latitude to serve the needs of a firm, and for original thinking.

Professor Kotler, the complex world of professional services is changing rapidly. Those of us who serve that world must change as well, if we are to stay relevant to the needs of our clients, as we help our clients stay relevant to the needs of their own dynamic market.


                                                                             Bruce W. Marcus

           I believe that this debate addresses several important aspects of professional services marketing. I also think that there may be no last word on this subject. Therefore, any comments from readers will be published, assuming I have your permission to do so.