Owning Your Brand in a Digital World

Picture of David Toth and James Hirchak

Owning Your Brand in a Digital World

Summary: In this interview, David Toth from Winding River Consulting speaks with James Hirchak, president and co-founder of Astute Review. Astute Review provides brand compliance and productivity tools to accounting and consulting firms. James speaks about the importance of brand management, particularly in today’s digital marketplace, where AI is ubiquitous and there is a lot of noise. He emphasizes the need for consistency in branding and the importance of visual identity. James discusses how the lack of proper planning and organization can lead to a general lack of consistency, diminishing a brand’s reputation. He notes that firms can miss out on opportunities by not prioritizing brand management, including internal issues such as lost productivity and frustration, and external issues such as poor execution of the brand and monetary costs of branding issues.

DAVID TOTH: I’m excited to be here today with James Hirchak from Astute Review. For those that don’t know me, my name is David Toth at Winding River Consulting, and our goal is to have a couple of these conversations a month with different industry experts and subject matter experts around the profession. Today we have James talking about branding. James, nice to have you.

JAMES HIRCHAK: Great, thanks for having me, David.

DAVID TOTH: I want to hear a little bit about Astute Review, your background, and what you guys are doing.

JAMES HIRCHAK: I’m the president and co-founder of Astute Review. We provide brand compliance and productivity tools to accounting and consulting firms. I’m actually a finance professional that has fallen backwards into the world of marketing. I started out my career doing business valuation work and moved on to a lot of M&A and strategy work before coming up with the idea of Astute Review.

We started out trying to automate the process of cleaning up PowerPoint presentations, like spell-check or Grammarly, but for PowerPoint formatting and have expanded beyond that.

Essentially, we’ve got some real-time brand identity monitoring tools that can help marketing teams understand where their brand is being misused. We’ve got the PowerPoint automation tool that I described, as well as some tools that help manage digital assets and monitor your brand identity.

Ultimately, our goal at Astute is to really try and eliminate the disconnect between marketing and the rest of the organization.

Marketing teams work hard to put together templates and processes and brand guidelines in place, but they’re lean teams relative to the rest of the organization that they work for. So, our tools and resources hope to empower them to kind of create and maintain the brand they’ve worked so hard to build while making their colleagues’ lives just a little bit easier.

DAVID TOTH: Branding is a really interesting thing today. I think a lot of that focus around branding fell by the wayside during the pandemic. We got very tactical in nature, and now AI is everywhere, and it’s not going away. It’s accelerating. What does that mean? It means more noise in the marketplace in this digital.

So, the importance of controlling and owning that brand is going to be a huge factor for firms going forward and how we can differentiate ourselves online. Love to hear your thoughts a little bit more about what you guys are doing or what you’re seeing from a branding perspective within the profession and just becoming a front and center type of tool that we have to leverage better and just be aware of what’s going on out there.

JAMES HIRCHAK: I think it’s a really good point about the noise that’s coming into the marketplace as more content can be generated faster or without human interaction. You are going to get that noise because the problem I think that’s going to be creeping out into the digital world is just a general lack of consistency.

When dealing with sales and marketing materials, part of it is speed, having this ability to react and move so quickly because that’s what a digital economy looks like and requires.

DAVID TOTH: Absolutely.

JAMES HIRCHAK: So, now we have the tools that allow us to be faster and meet these speed demands that everyone is looking for. But unfortunately, I think unless some proper planning, getting your house organized with regards to the technologies that you’re leveraging, if that doesn’t take place, you are really going to diminish your brand when going to market because you’re going to have different resources within marketing, business development or even employees at companies that are cranking out content, utilizing all these tools, but there’s no cohesion amongst the employees within the within the firm um you know this is not insurmountable/

I just think there needs to be a little bit of planning up front with all the tools and resources that are kind of coming to Market and bubbling up um into our social media feeds. It’s like the new hot thing and how to use these to just maintain consistency. I think what’s very interesting for the accounting industry specifically, and Dan I think we’ve kind of talked about this in the past, is you know there are certain companies that are five ten years behind with regards to marketing and branding than other Industries out there. Um, and utilizing these new technologies is great because it’s going to be able to get companies up to speed, but they need to do they still need to focus on the importance of visual identity and branding and really getting things to kind of look and feel more modern. As they adopt these tools they kind of can’t take what they were doing that’s five to ten years old and throw it into this AI world that we’re living in and expect all their marketing and branding problems to be solved.

DAVID TOTH: Yeah, well said. What do you see some of the opportunities right now that firms can miss out on by not prioritizing or focusing on brand management?

JAMES HIRCHAK: To be honest, there are internal and kind of external issues that firms can deal with by not focusing on this. Internally, it’s really, you know, lost productivity, frustration with employees not knowing what documents or what they need to be doing in terms of messaging or how they talk about their firm, just general poor execution of the brand.

I think internal relates to external, it’s all co-mingled. Um, if you’re, you know, uh not productive working internally, if people don’t understand the brand internally, it’s going to creep out into the marketplace. And I think the monetary costs of branding issues are enormous and they’re starting to be quantified.

A recent study by McKinsey, a global blue chip consulting firm, has shown that companies that display a consistent and strong brand in the marketplace outperform their peers by 20%, and that’s a top-line number. So simply put, we’ve been able to quantify and link an inconsistent brand and how it hurts your business on a top-line basis because, at the end of the day, we are all consumers, you know whether the B2C and B2B world. I believe both are similar in terms of how we perceive companies in the marketplace. And if we do not maintain a brand that is perceived as strong and credible and modern as accounting professionals, it is going to hurt you in terms of new business, business generation, and your ability to grow. Um, you know I think relative to your competition.

DAVID TOTH: Well said. I think with AI tools so disposable to everybody at our firm, what people can do to our brand now is more detrimental than it’s ever been before. And when these journeys are being self-driven, people going to your website, going on your LinkedIn profile, going to Google, we can’t lose control.

JAMES HIRCHAK: I think it’s really easy for people to just gravitate towards and say, “oh my gosh”, chat GPT4, it’s amazing, why don’t we get copy out there and throw it up on our website and then David will do it and I’ll do it and then so and so will do it and we’ll put these on our social posts and our pages and into our BD materials, and there’s no cohesion between all of it because it’s just a bot spitting it out. You’re gonna have a have a serious problem. You’re going to crank everything out very quickly. But it’s not going to be, a brand identity that I think is going to be well received in the marketplace.

DAVID TOTH: I think the other thing that’s changing is this focus on niches. It’s not been a conversation, but the way that you go to market digitally, you know, with a brand today on a niche level has the ability to differentiate itself with the brand. Can you name your outsourced accounting services something different? I see Century Consulting. They each have a little bit of a different angle on how they’re branding their outsourced accounting services. How does that tie into the overall brand and how does that story, um, you know, emotionally interact with somebody that’s trying to make a purchasing decision, you know, as part of that process?”

JAMES HIRCHAK: “Yeah, no absolutely

DAVID TOTH:  Awesome conversation. Wanted to cover a few topics. We’ve got our WWRC top three, and so I just wanted to write off a couple quick questions for you. Favorite sports team, favorite sport?”

JAMES HIRCHAK: All right, so I am in the Chicagoland area, I’m calling from Chicago. I am a product of the Jordan era, so favorite sports team is the Chicago Bulls. Favorite sport though is golf. I just grew up golfing a lot. And now as kind of I get older, probably not as not as fast, not able to play all the sports that I used to as a child, you know, I’m really adapting golf as kind of the main thing that I do in my free time. Love it.”

DAVID TOTH: “Secondly, what do you think of the future of hybrid? Is it staying? Is it going? Are we figuring it out? Are we four day work week? Any any nuggets there?”

JAMES HIRCHAK: I think it’s absolutely staying. Um, I think there is a lot of tangible and intangible things um, that take place from being in person and communicating with people face to face. You know, understanding like social cues also just like developing relationships, it’s really hard to do it digitally.

So, I do think there is a huge component of in person that needs to be there, especially for younger people as they’re starting out on their careers and looking for mentors and friends and things like that, um, through the workplace. However, realistically, we do not need to be in the office five days a week. There are days where you don’t have any meetings or there’s no need to talk to anybody and you just need to kind of get your stuff done, and the benefits of, you know, not having a commute, being able to sleep in a little bit later. Being able to do laundry on your lunch break, I think these are really hard to quantify but they are huge. So, we’re not going back to five days. The question around, “hey, is it a 40 hour work week or less”, some of what the UK is experimenting with, I have no idea. But I just think too many people appreciate the benefits of being able to work remotely at least periodically to give them the flexibility they need to have to meet personal demands while also accomplishing their work tasks and goals.”

DAVID TOTH: “Kids, kids?”

JAMES HIRCHAK: I’m a girl Dad. I’ve got a three-year-old named Gwen and a little over one-year-old named Claire.

DAVID TOTH: Got your hands full launching a company right now.

JAMES HIRCHAK: Uh, yes absolutely. We are in the thick of it with sleep and all that good stuff, and managing a business on top of it all has been tough. But you know, I have a great and supportive wife, who has been very helpful throughout all of this. Honestly, we have hard days but nothing better than having these girls come home from daycare and you can kind of check out and really understand what’s important in life.

DAVID TOTH: Love it. James, if anybody wants to get a hold of you, what’s the best way?

JAMES HIRCHAK: You can reach out to me directly at uh, jhirchak@astutereview.com. You can visit us on our website at astutereview.com. We’ve got a chat in the corner, if you, hit us up on there, someone will get back to you in the next 24 hours. We also have a phone number on the site, so honestly feel free to email me personally. I will respond to any sort of outreach. Talk about these topics outside of our business, you know, always love connecting with new people.

DAVID TOTH: Awesome. James, well, I appreciate it. Not uh, only our conversations fun about the profession and branding but equally as much about college as uh, we both went to Miami of Ohio and uh, uh, Red Hawk alumni, so appreciate your time today and uh, great chatting all right

JAMES HIRCHAK: Thanks a lot, David.


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