Rescuing accountancy’s image

No quick fix for tattered image

By Anthea Rose

The agencies asked to ‘fix the image’ of UK accountancy did a valiant job, but slick advertising campaigns will do more harm than good.

Downing Street was criticised recently for not realising that you cannot talk your way out of the accusation ‘you’re all talk’.

In a month that has seen the dreaded Consignia label has been scrapped in favour of a return to Royal Mail, it is clear accountancy needs its traditional values: technical competence, attention to detail and integrity.

Of course, the work has changed. Accountants are now forward-looking business partners not score keepers. Strategic vision and communication are high on the list of required skills. But the values have not changed.

How, then, to rebuild trust? The answer lies in the difference between advertising and branding. Many see rebranding just as choosing a new logo or name, whether a piece of cod-Latin or a day of the week. But at the heart of a brand is a promise, whose value lies not just in presentation but in behaviour.

A brand can be damaged in an instant, but it takes time and honesty to maintain. The word ‘profession’ is no accident – any organisation, which professes one thing while visibly doing another, can never sustain its brand.

The profession must accept that any changes designed to ensure that Enron cannot be repeated, even if they restrict accountants’ activity and profits.

Where the finger points at company boards, audit committees, standard setters, analysts or investment bankers, we should say so – but at all costs we must avoid appearing complacent. Sadly, we have not made a very good start.

And we must look at regulation. In the UK, we must look closely at how effective the new system of independent oversight will be. Above all, we must ensure that national solutions are co-ordinated globally.

We must support IFAC, IASB, OECD and others in their efforts to develop internationally applicable standards of accounting, auditing and corporate governance based on clear principles.

So thank you, agencies, for your efforts, but we will not be proceeding with the advertising campaign. In mid-World Cup, we need only one sound bite. Rebuilding trust isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s much more important than that.

  • Anthea Rose is the chief executive of ACCA.

Time to bang Accountancy’s drum
By Damian Wild

Go to Cuba and the first thing you notice is not the sun, cigars or salsa – it’s the complete absence of advertising.

Yes, there are political posters everywhere and, yes, there are brand names on shop fronts and beer trucks, but conventional promotional posters, hoardings and the like? Not a bit of it.

But Cuba is about the only exception to the rule – the rest of the world relies on advertising, branding and public awareness to shift units. In the UK alone, advertising spend is somewhere in the region of £15bn a year. And shifting units is not just about selling products – it’s as much about promoting services and selling reputations as well.

Take the ad that has been running in the US recently. It’s pictures a bottle of bourbon being poured into a glass. ‘Disappears faster than a Big Five accounting firm,’ quips the catchline.

So if others are using advertising to satirise accountancy’s problems to shift more of their products, isn’t it about time the profession itself harnessed the power of the medium?

At Accountancy Age, we would say ‘yes’. That doesn’t mean we believe that were the institutes to club together to fund a couple of ads on tube trains and perhaps a full page in the FT we think everything would be rosy in accountancy’s garden.

But a targeted campaign to tackle the current crisis of perception afflicting the profession is an idea that merits consideration. And some of the proposals from the leading agencies we commissioned show what can be done. Click here to see what they came up with.)

Having said that, Anthea Rose is right: accountancy needs to rely on its traditional values to regain public trust.

But equally it needs to remind the public of those values. And right now business journalists are hunting for stories that undermine them.

The public needs to be warned of failures where they do occur but unless the profession reminds them of the more positive side, no one else is going to do it for them.

And that reminds me of another advert. Remember the ICAEW’s effort some years ago: ‘It’s easier to sleep with a chartered accountant.’ We wouldn’t advocate something like that.

  • Damian Wild is the editor of Accountancy Age.

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