PracticeAccounting FirmsCalling in the image fixers

Calling in the image fixers

Three leading advertising agencies have been challenged by Accountancy Age to say how they would attempt to repair the image of the UK accountancy profession after the battering it has received as a result of the Enron scandal.

After applying their best creative brains to the task, they have come up with their proposals.

Each has provided an explanation of how they would approach the project, and provided a graphic that could be used as a poster or magazine ad.

The scenario we gave them was that British accountancy firms had banded together in some form to fund the campaign – a couple of the agencies have represented this grouping as the fictional UK Association of Accountancy Firms.

Each agency has taken a different approach – one emphasises the difference between the UK’s regulatory environment and that in the US, another focuses on the ‘value of accountancy’, while the third calls for a ‘product recall’.

To view each ad agency’s proposals, follow the links below:

AGENCY: Euro RSCG WNEKAGENCY: J Walter ThompsonAGENCY: HHCL and partners

Tell us what you think about their ideas, and whether you think such a campaign is a good idea, email us at:

AGENCY: Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper
SIZE: 13th largest agency in UK
CLIENTS INCLUDE: Peugeot, Cadbury, Credit Suisse, Evian, Abbey National

We thought this was a fascinating brief and while pitched as ‘entirely hypothetical’ is nonetheless clearly one that addresses a very real and very current issue for the industry as a whole.

There can be absolutely no doubt that in the wider business community people’s faith in the integrity and professionalism of accountancy firms has been severely shaken by recent scandals, particularly the Enron fiasco.

News of the Enron collapse and subsequent revelations about the degree to which Andersen appears to have been complicit in it will, for many, have been received simply as confirmation of what they had grown increasingly to suspect – that accountancy firms are no longer entirely to be trusted.

Massive consolidation within the industry, the desire for global reach and credibility combined with the pursuit of new consultancy-derived income streams has long been seen as a potential powder keg of conflicting interests and compromised independence.

That Enron happened and that one of the world’s largest accountancy firms was implicated in the scandal will not have come as a surprise to many people in the business community. The scale on which it happened perhaps, but not the fact that it happened.

And we think this takes us to the heart of the issue we are dealing with.

It’s fundamentally an issue of trust – the integrity of accountancy firms should be an absolute given, but unfortunately it is not.

Outside the industry this perception has been progressively undermined, to the point where the entire industry is now seen as suspect. Accountants are no longer perceived as ‘scrupulously honest’ or reassuringly ‘boring’.

They are increasingly seen as ‘untrustworthy’, ‘worryingly credulous’ or worse still, ‘corrupt’.

This prejudice has been fuelled by extensive and protracted media coverage of the industry’s failings. Unsurprisingly it is scandal, corruption and malpractice that make the headlines, there’s simply no story in integrity, professionalism and a job well done.

Worse, this prejudice has been allowed to grow unchecked in the media by any counter-balancing positive voice from the industry.

Advertising is one of the few things that can provide the industry with that positive voice and is certainly the most effective.

This is because one of the things advertising is best at is challenging perceptions. Well-handled, it has the power not only to confront issues but also to change the way people think about them.

With the right strategy and creative idea, advertising can be an incredibly persuasive and compelling tool. It has the unique ability to very directly and incisively strike at engrained prejudice.

With the right ‘insight’ it has tremendous stopping-power, it can pull people up short, penetrate their indifference and force them to reconsider their position on an issue.

Our approach to this brief was to attempt to do precisely this. Our thinking was that while there is a great deal positive to say, simply ‘saying it’ risked our appearing to ignore the central issue and more likely than not would result in relatively recessive, largely forgettable and cost-inefficient advertising.

It seemed to us that more than anything else what lies at the heart of the decline in confidence and trust are the few highly-publicised media ‘feeding frenzies’ centred on what are in fact a very limited number of ‘scandals’. Each of these carries with it a degree of notoriety, these scandals are ‘famous’ and in the advertising world fame is a potent weapon.

In advertising, fame can be exploited very effectively to deliver impact, the ability to cut through the advertising clutter, and create interest.

We began to wonder whether we might not be able to take the very scandals that have rocked people’s faith in the industry and exploit their notoriety to help restore it.

The best advertising is very simple. In the simplest terms what we are asking people to do is ‘not to tar us all with the same brush’.

That was the brief we gave the creative team. Put accountancy back in perspective for people, find an impactful and compelling creative idea that dramatically forces people to see things in perspective. Impress upon them the simple and incontrovertible truth that the few cases that make the headlines are the exception, not the rule.

The idea they came up with is simple, bold and, we think, incredibly powerful.

The agency’s website is at

To return to the list of adverts click here

AGENCY: J. Walter Thompson
SIZE: 2nd Largest agency in UK
CLIENTS INCLUDE: Kelloggs, Unilever, Kraft, Shell, Diageo

The Enron situation has suddenly placed accountancy – an often hidden or quiet profession – centre square at the heart of public debate about probity and honesty in public life. And the most voiced opinion is that change is needed.

While accountancy is the present focus of changes in society, we need to remember that for the last 25 years we have seen a gradual erosion in public confidence in all sorts of institutions – including the media, politicians and the church.

We live in a cynical age, where trust is no longer assumed, and where the traditional professions are having to operate in a more litigious and confrontational environment.

But the corollary is that we also live in an age where money and value are understood by whole swathes of the population better than ever before.

With so many people owning shares, or holding shares through pension funds and tracker ISAs, we are dealing not only with moral outrage, but also self-interest.

Now to appease a baying crowd, a fall-guy, or some sort of action is usually required – and we can rely on the US to provide several of the former.

However, it is unlikely that the UK profession can do anything directly to address the cries for increased probity, regulation and legislation, and without such a symbol of change any defence would have to be philosophical – either calling for trust, or promoting the view that cases like Enron are the exception.

And a philosophical defence is unlikely to be compelling. Consequently, we would suggest that a more informed debate is the way forward.

We need to update the view of what accountants deliver. Firstly, we need to discourage the view that accountants are mere beancounters who ‘report’ the numbers.

Secondly, we need to establish accountancy as being a multidimensional profession, where links between people with professional skills are beneficial to business, thus derailing the specious debate about the separation of auditing from other services. And thirdly, we need to talk about the good that is done and the value that is created, which benefits everyone.

Our chosen route starts with a number – as must all good accountancy practice – but shows the value of ‘a number well understood and used’. And the language we use is understandable to everyone – effectively translating numbers into strategies and actions which ultimately manifest themselves in everyday life.

The final element of the package is the tag line ‘Insights beyond number’, which sums up this particular approach, but also allows the idea to be stretched into all the different communication channels we will want to use (eg PR, lobbying, advertising), and across all the different target audiences we need to reach (eg shareholders, regulators, analysts, staff and recruits).

In conclusion, the profession is not in crisis. Our response should be as measured as the advice we regularly give to our clients. And that means educating all our stakeholder audiences and generally lifting the level of the debate.

Understanding the truth behind a number is a critical element of the auditing profession.

The agency’s website can be found at

To return to the list of adverts click here

AGENCY: HHCL and Partners
SIZE: 18th Largest agency in UK
CLIENTS INCLUDE: First Direct, EGG, Go, Texaco, Birds Eye

As an accountant, is this scenario familiar? A client approaches you and says something along the lines of: ‘Could you use your accountancy skills to make my numbers look good; my business has run into a bit of stormy weather and I just need to present things in a way that will keep my reputation intact. Don’t feel bad about putting a gloss on the real picture; next year, things will be back to normal.’

And maybe when you looked into things you discovered that there was much that was fundamentally flawed about the business. Sure you could massage the figures but you felt compelled, as a professional, to advise your client that it wasn’t their image that was the problem, it was their business, their product, their whole way of doing things.

So what if this is the state of affairs for accountancy? Certainly Enron has created an image problem, but has it also raised questions about the whole way the industry works? Is it the image or product that is the problem?

In this exercise, we have not done an audit so we can’t say for sure.

But most industries (including advertising, by the way) are having to ask fundamental questions of themselves. Whether you call it ‘corporate social responsibility’ or the ‘stakeholder society’ business leaders are having to rethink what it means to be a ‘good company’ these days.

And it’s hard to see why the accountancy industry should be immune to this shift within capitalist society. Any argument along the lines of ‘but we are the neutral and objective auditors of business, not part of business itself’ rather misses the point. Everything is inter-linked these days. Nobody is a bystander. All businesses are guilty until proved innocent.

We are not prejudging the profession’s guilt or innocence, but we do suggest that the accountancy profession needs to engage with its critics and the communities it operates in. And it needs to raise the level of debate with its corporate clients and its government regulators. Above all it needs to ask the question ‘what is the role for accountancy in this late-capitalist, stakeholder era’?

Thus we offer no ads to buff up your image until ‘business returns to normal’. Rather we issue a clarion call for a conference, a debate, a congress if you will. Here the profession, the clients and the critics, the public and the privy counsellors, the radical and the reactionary, can gather to decide the shape of what may come to be termed ‘The New Accountancy’.

Having done all that, if the ‘congress’ decides that it is just has an image problem after all, then we’ll talk about doing some adverts for you.

In the meantime we recommend that you use the power of advertising to make all the diverse stakeholders believe they must attend this congress.

Why a product recall? In part because it is an attention-getting ploy.

In part because in most product recalls 99.99% of products, upon inspection, prove to be flawless.

But (and think benzene traces in Perrier) the thing about a product recall is it demonstrates that the company takes responsibility for the problem.

And with a total recall it takes total responsibility.

In summary, the best ‘image’ accountancy can have right now is that of an industry taking full responsibility for the problems that beset it. So to be prudent, announce a product recall.

For more on the agency,

To return to the list of adverts click here

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