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Forging stronger bonds between marketing and compliance


Ask Richard Fitzgerald how a financial services firm’s compliance and marketing departments should work together, and he’ll tell you about having a new roof put on his suburban Chicago home last fall.

The senior compliance manager at BMO Financial Group hired an experienced contractor who, midway through the project, saw a few boards he wasn’t sure about replacing. He was inclined to leave them, but to be safe, he called the home inspector to take a look. The inspector came out, advised the contractor to replace the boards, and said he’d then sign off on the job.

Had the contractor finished the work before bringing in the inspector, he would have had to rip apart the roof and fix the issue—costing him time and money.

“The home inspector’s job is to make sure there aren’t further issues and that things are done by code,” Fitzgerald says. “That is like compliance.”

Marketing and compliance—if you’ve worked in financial services, you know how each perceives the other.

One entity strives to promote products and services in the marketplace. The other aims to protect the firm from risk. On some days, their relationships with each other can feel adversarial, but how it all plays out isn’t exactly the battle of wills that corporate lore would suggest.

Compliance officers are not the “no” people, insists Fitzgerald and others in banking. Banks understand they’re in a risk business and that there’s no such thing as zero risk. The key for compliance is ensuring there’s no violation of federal regulations and other rules and that the firm is staying within its own risk tolerance.

“There are very few things in the compliance realm that are hard nos,” says Pam Hulion, senior vice president of compliance at Grand Savings Bank in Grove, Okla. “You can really accomplish anything you want to.”

Really? Here are recommendations for productive relationships between marketers and compliance officers.

1. Marketers should make a case for compliance

Financial services companies hire Deborah S. Bosley, Ph.D., to work with their marketers and compliance officers, helping them produce written materials that comply with federal regulations that require the use of plain language. Some of these plain-language requirements were ushered in following the Dodd-Frank Act and include such items as mortgage disclosures, loan agreements and investor materials.

So Bosley knows how both marketing and compliance folks think and operate. Her advice to marketers is to do what she has to do when she meets with compliance: Make a case for why you want to write something in a certain way — say, without a bunch of legalese — or launch a certain marketing campaign. First, show that you understand the regulations and how your plan is compliant.

“If you are interacting with compliance, part of your job is to show that whatever you want to do isn’t increasing risk and falls in line with the regulations,” says Bosley, owner of The Plain Language Group in Charlotte, N.C.

Bosley also likes to make a case for how language can create or reduce reputational risks, citing reports and studies about how the materials a company produces affect consumers’ perceptions of the companies they do business with. For example, the No. 1 way financial services institutions gain consumer trust is by having easily understood terms and conditions, according to the financial services edition of the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer.

2. Compliance officers should seek to always say “Yes.”

Compliance officers shouldn’t assume that marketers are throwing open the door to all kinds of risk, says Hulion with Grand Savings Bank. Marketers shouldn’t assume that their counterparts in compliance want to shut down any and all attempts to market the firm. Further, every bank employee should want to protect the bank from risk, but also promote the bank and help it grow.

“Our answer should always be ‘Yes, but if you do it, these are the steps you have to take,’” she adds. “My job is never to create a barrier between marketing and wanting to expand our market share.”

3. Bring in compliance at the start.

The absolute best practice: include compliance in sales and marketing plans from the very beginning. Think back to BMO’s Fitzgerald and his home repair story.

“The more opportunity we have to be part of the initiative when it is early on helps us to have the time to gather the information we need and do the research we need to be as valuable and useful as possible,” says Emily Schoolman, head of corporate compliance at Raymond James in New York. “Think of compliance as an extended but independent member of the team. We want our various departments to trust us so we can help early on.”

4. Seek to understand each other’s work.

“The best firms are those where compliance and marketing have a very strong relationship,” says Tom Holly, U.S. asset & wealth management leader at PwC in Washington, D.C.

He recommends that professionals in both departments seek to understand each other’s work and stay current on what’s happening in each other’s respective fields. It might even be helpful to attend industry conferences together.

“There are times when there might be frustration. But you are going to get the most out of marketing and compliance working closely together,” Holly says. “They can’t be on two separate floors and at odds with each other.”


Amy George is a freelance writer who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. She’s worked as a reporter and editor at The Associated Press and The Charlotte Observer, and in corporate communications at Wells Fargo.