Do you find yourself in an uncomfortable bind when it comes to attracting customers?  On the one hand you want to present yourself in a professional manner.  But on the other you desperately need to grab attention.  Doing both at the same time is virtually impossible – and this is why.

You can be any colour you like so long as it is grey

What is a profession?  Loosely defined, it’s a group of practitioners in a particular trade who demand that their members behave in a certain way and uphold the standards prescribed by the governing body.  So, if you don’t do things the same way as all the other members you are deemed “unprofessional”, judged to have “brought the profession into disrepute” and you will have your professional status revoked – doctors, for instance, are “struck off”.

So, “being professional”, especially in a sector that is strictly regulated (Law, Accountancy, Medicine), inevitably means you have to behave the same way as everyone else in that select group.  In the past such conformity was not a problem.  The profession had an absolute monopoly so there was plenty of work to go around.  This created a cosy but lucrative environment where competition between members was very gentlemanly.  So, actively attempting to differentiate yourself, and conspicuously trying to attract attention, was considered unprofessional.

It’s time you made yourself a bit more interesting

Now, however, professions are becoming de-regulated and their markets are being opened up to outsiders.   Lawyers, for instance are getting concerned that the new Legal Services Act (comes into effect October 2011), dubbed “Tesco Law”, will expose them to unwelcome competition from companies in sectors such as retailing and banking.  When voracious newcomers, well versed in the wicked ways of marketing, start to eat their lunch, lawyers are going to have to fight back – and that means we’ll start to see them differentiating themselves, and competing for attention, more aggressively.

Every industry, even those not deemed to be a profession in the strictest sense, is experiencing increased competition thanks to globalization.   Whether you are offering outsourced HR services or providing marketing consultancy, in engineering or software development, there has never been such an intense need to differentiate yourself, stand out from the crowd, and get noticed.

As I’ve repeatedly pointed out in earlier posts, markets are now so crowded it’s hard to distance yourself from your peers.  What’s more, consumers are punch drunk with information, so to get their attention you must do something pretty dramatic.

The bland leading the bland

This begs the question we started out with – is it possible to be “professional” whilst managing to get yourself noticed?  “Professional” means you conform to expectations, and that you go about promoting yourself in a gentlemanly, restrained modest manner.  Getting noticed in today’s world means doing the unexpected, breaking with convention, and challenging those around you.   I don’t see many accountants, lawyers, architects, engineers, surveyors, medical or dental practitioners doing the latter.  In fact I don’t see many people or companies across the entire range of B2B (boring to boring?) sectors doing it either.

Who dares wins

Having said that, I have recently discovered one exception – an accountant who dares to be different and who has the courage to challenge convention.   Jennifer Psyche Coderre has successfully become a member of the Association of Accounting Technicians, yet she certainly stands out from her grey suited colleagues.   

A self-confessed “20-year veteran of the goth/alternative scene” with purple hair, big boots, long flowing robes and assorted piercings, she set up her practice in 2009.  Calling it “Death and Taxes” with the strapline “keeping you in the black”, she has successfully differentiated herself.  As she says “My unique selling point is that I’m not a conformist corporate accountant. London is full of creative types…who may not feel that a suited accountant can understand their business.”

I contacted Psyche to see how things were going and she replied that “The approach is definitely working. People have a stereotype of accountants and the fact that Death and Taxes is the exact opposite really seems to resonate both with alternative and non-alternative sorts. It’s good that instead of having to “tone down” my appearance to fit into a corporate accountancy role, I can actually play up my image, and use it to my advantage. It certainly gets a lot more attention than your typical accountancy firm!”

So, what next?  The hippy architect, the punk solicitor…bring it on!

Say “bollocks” to boring

Marketers like to think of themselves as professionals but there is little in the way of regulation or a recognised code of conduct.  Anyone with a Mac can call themselves a designer (and most do), there are no formal qualifications that you have to attain before declaring yourself a copywriter, and there is no single body to which most practitioners belong.  However, certain types of behaviour are frowned upon – it seems that you have to present yourself, even within the creative industries, in a very conventional manner to be taken seriously.

I have a folded business card with the message A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS on the front.  Open it up and splashed across the centre spread is scrawled the word BOLLOCKS.  On the back it says Jim O’Connor Copywriter (if you want to see how it works on the web go to  When I hand this card to people at networking events, most laugh.  But not all – it’s obvious that a few are shocked by it.   My job is to help my clients get themselves noticed.  If I can’t do this for myself how can I promise to do it for them?  And yet some people seem to think achieving this is somehow unprofessional – crazy, eh?

Returning to the dilemma I identified at the beginning, is it possible to blend in whilst standing out?  I think not.  You either worry about what your peers will think, and go for boring conformity.  Or you worry about having no clients, and do something that attracts attention.