Making the Most of Digital Technologies: A Q&A With Barney O’Kelly, AlixPartners

Making the Most of Digital Technologies: A Q&A With Barney O’Kelly, AlixPartners

By Freddy Dobinson
June 24, 2022 | 10-minute read
Technology Management Website Management Communications Software and Platforms
Marketing Management & Leadership
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Barney O’Kelly, digital marketing director at AlixPartners, has spent more than 20 years advising business-to-business organizations on how to achieve successful business outcomes through marketing and communications. He has spent the best part of the last decade in professional services, including time as global head of communications at Freshfields. Throughout his career, he has driven change by successfully navigating the complex politics and culture of partnerships. He was therefore a perfect person to sit down with Freddy Dobinson, Passle Inc’s head of client success, to discuss his perspective on how best to make the most from digital marketing technologies at law firms.

How have you seen the world of digital marketing technologies evolve throughout your career in the professional services industry?

I find it somewhat frustrating that the word digital is still put in front of the word marketing as often as it is because by and large, they've become one and the same. The last couple of years of the pandemic has reinforced this.

When I started in digital marketing, it felt new and different; people were beginning to figure out how social media might work for their businesses. That’s no longer the case and it’s disappointing that a lot of marketers have allowed it to remain a specialism. 

Ten years ago, organizations were just starting to take their websites a little bit more seriously, realizing that they are (or at least could be/should be) business tools rather than something that you have to have because everyone else has got one.

We’re seeing this across professional services now, although the results are mixed. A professional services website is technically, and content wise, a pretty simple thing. Its core user journeys barely differ from firm to firm. Sadly, too many firms have become focused on slapping visitors around the face with what they think about this, that or the other. Few do a fantastic job in catering to the core user journeys or, in the worst cases, simply explain who they are, what they do and how they help clients. Fewer do a great job in conveying anything emotional or evocative about their firm or the experience of working with them. Admittedly, they’re getting better at reflecting what it’s like to work for them, but there’s still a ton of work to be done articulating the client experience in meaningful emotional terms.

Considering the growing importance of digital, if you were looking through the lens of a law firm and their approach to digital technology, where would your recommendations be in terms of where to start?

I would encourage legal firms to look at what they can buy, much more than what they can build.

It used to be that law firms didn't really care about their website. Then they cared too much but didn't really know how to care about it in the right way. They ended up spending significant amounts of money on either trying to keep up with the Joneses or replicating functionality that quite frankly, you could go and buy on the market.

What you've started to see now is a much greater intention to buy technology, to buy a solution to the particular problem. If you look at what a lot of tech stacks in law firms are comprised of now, there is a nice combination of software-as-a-service (SaaS) supporting some built stuff.

For example, there was a long obsession with buying heavyweight content management systems to power websites, but law firm websites and professional services websites are pretty straightforward in the grand scheme of things. The organizations are complicated — not always for the right reasons — but the websites by and large are pretty simple in terms of how they’re used (usually not in the way a lot of partners think!).

I'm fairly confident that the main user journeys to any professional services website are the same, regardless of the sector of professional services. SaaS can help here as frequently updated content (e.g. articles, marketing content [I hesitate to use thought leadership here as I would seldom characterize a lot of this in those terms]), can be delivered through it. This increases agility and slims the bespoke aspects of the site down so it’s really catering for a set of core user journeys (lawyer profiles for example). This also enables modularity in the architecture. You can chop and change with relative ease if you’re deploying SaaS (technologically at least!).

How do you prioritize getting those technologies to talk to each other and integrate?

It is important that they do. We need to find better ways to demonstrate the commercial impact of what we do to our internal scrutineers. So far, I think by and large, we’ve found multiple ways how not to do this, falling back on largely superficial metrics that don’t answer the “so what” question.

There are certain terms that I find compelling. I’m pretty pragmatic so phrases like “integrates with Salesforce” or “integrates with Microsoft Dynamics” please me. “Built especially for law firms” does not (save for in a few particular cases).

Big beast CRM platforms will sit at the heart of your marketing and BD technology stack — other things should work with them easily.

One of the challenges in integration is obsolescence. Most technology investment is sequential so you’re always out of sync. The right answer is to build the entire system in one go, thereby effectively creating an “engine.” I’m not aware of anyone with deep enough pockets and/or sufficient levels of ambition/lunacy to attempt this. I strongly believe the first firm to do it will enjoy a sizable competitive advantage.

For firms that are building out that online brand and footprint, is there anything you see that they're doing differently?

I don’t think “online” really matters in isolation. Those firms that realize that online and offline intersect and converge to create a sophisticated experience for clients, talent and other stakeholders, and approach accordingly, will be the real winners here. It’s hard work and we’re no longer in the world of “or” when it comes to channels, etc. It’s an “and, and, and” world and marketing teams have to partner with their client-facing teams to develop approaches that tackle the complexity of this world.

I’m not going to name names but typically those that do better tend to do the following:

  • They focus on their people. Engaging in a comprehensive personal brand-building program is incredibly brand enhancing.
  • They have a point of view. This tends to go hand-in-hand with personal brand work; it’s very hard for an organization to have an opinion and almost impossible for it to have one that’s thought-provoking, let alone provocative.
  • They’re thinking experientially. This covers everything from the website being a coherent and compelling reflection of the organization through to really rudimentary (but vital) things like timely and accurate billing. If we go super old school for a moment, each of these is a “moment of truth” with a stakeholder. I’ve used the expression “either everything’s marketing or nothing is.”
I would encourage legal firms to look at what they can buy, much more than what they can build.

What do you prioritize when it comes to measuring your digital efforts?

It honestly depends on what I’m trying to achieve.

If I’m being really outcome focused, I’ll want to know what someone is trying to achieve, typically quite specifically. That way I have an outcome to work towards.

Take for example, “I want to make some noise in the market.” What really defines the outcome? Did you get any data that suggested you were more visible in the market? Did you get more incoming requests from people, more inbound inquiries? That stuff has merit, but not necessarily for the reasons we always think.

The other thing that is harder to achieve is that I really want to be able to understand if I do X, what impact does X have on the commercial success of the organization relative to me doing Y or Z, because then I start to be able to be a bit more informed about the various activities I engage in. That's where technological integration starts to become really important.

However, I can be quite cynical in how I measure things. Sometimes I want to make someone feel good about doing something (particularly if it’s new to them and they need the boost to do more). Blogging is a good example of this. It’s much more raw than getting involved in the tortuous development of yet another dreary whitepaper. People in professional services find this challenging so we use data to a) show them it had impact, and b) if we’re being really cynical, showing them they did better than most of their colleagues. Both are very persuasive.

You've become somewhat of a connoisseur of acquiring SaaS technologies. Do you have any takeaways from those relationships and what you've implemented?

Connoisseur might be a tad strong. I think I’d prefer realist!

The world of marketing technology is frankly ridiculous. There’s a “map” that does the rounds every year. It’s vast and completely unhelpful. There are so many platforms out there that do a number of wonderful things for your business in professional services, but picking one can be overwhelming. And that’s before you factor in internal politics and fear of getting it wrong.

But, there is no wrong. There are different ways to approach a problem. I would argue that having a very clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve/fix will drive you towards the right solution for you.

The advantage of SaaS is that compared to building anything, it can be changed much more easily. What I tend to look for in SaaS are the following:

  • Quality salespeople who really want to understand what I’m trying to do
  • Comprehensive and available customer success — this is critical
  • Simple integration components (APIs, etc.)
  • Willingness to offer up existing clients for discussion

Finally, if you’re introducing something new to your firm, you’re really going to need to back yourself. Critics are everywhere and, as I mentioned earlier, the level of technical knowledge in your own function is below what it should be so you’ll get a lot of questions and a lot of doubt. You are also trying to engage busy people in something new. That’s change. Lots of people don’t like change (or in many firms have become somewhat desensitised to it). Add to that, one of the basic rules of change is successful people don't really like doing it, so you are going to have to drive the implementation of something new. Champion it and really show them how it works, tell them how it works and demonstrate that it does work.

So you really need to invest a lot of energy in making that thing work.

If you were to give one piece of advice to someone earlier on in their career, whether it's in marketing or specifically digital, what would be your key piece of advice?

One thing which has stood me in reasonably good stead, is just remain curious. The answers to your potential problems are out there. Take the sales call, meet the business, talk to vendors – who knows, it could be the solution to your next big problem! I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a casual meeting with a software company that’s led to business for them. Sometimes two or three years later.

Finally, learn about the business you're in, because that will help you come up with more effective solutions. Not just in terms of what it does (although that’s important) but the culture, the history, what’s worked/what’s failed and why. If you understand those things, you will be a better advisor. And frankly, you'll get more from the people who you're sharing curiosity in what they do.

Freddy Dobinson
Passle Inc

Freddy Dobinson is the head of client success at Passle Inc.