It has been said, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose — it’s how you play the game.” But, what if you are competing against an opponent that far outweighs your capabilities and resources, making your odds of winning more than unlikely? Is it still worth it to even play a game you can’t win?

This is a daily battle many RIAs face as they strive to compete with big brand name wirehouses. Regardless of how qualified an RIA may be, their ability to capture top-tier clients is always an uphill struggle as they try to distinguish their brand and offerings against the multi-million dollar branded power players of Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. Because in the game of marketing, money is king.

The reality is, RIAs don’t have the capital to brand themselves like a big wirehouse. In fact, out of 63,240 records, our data show that 72.2% are below $500 million in assets under management, and simply do not have the bankroll to advertise with pay-per-click sales like the Wall Street top dogs it’s too expensive and there is no guarantee it will even result in sales!

Another fruitless effort: putting time and resources into lead generation sites (think WiserAdvisor and GuideVine) that are mere blips on the advertising screen when it comes to successfully engaging worthwhile clients. The strategy is a flawed and passive marketing model, with little-to-no ROI. These services can even go as far as to cheapen a RIAs value. Successful investors are looking for advisors that are in high-demand due to their reputation, not advisors very publicly and actively seeking clients to build up their assets under management. For example, if you require surgery and you have the choice of being seen by Doctor ‘A’ tomorrow or wait six weeks for Doctor ‘B’ (assuming your condition will not materially change in a few weeks), which one do you choose?  The correct answer is to wait… wait for Doctor ‘B’ who is in high demand and most likely has performed more surgeries than Doctor ‘A’. Remember that scarcity sells.

Additionally, high net worth (HNW) investors are likely not seeking their financial counsel from online database programs, nor will they follow up on a referral from a clerk at your custodian’s branch office.  They are not “first-timers” when it comes to searching for financial advice, and more importantly, probably already have a team: advisor, accountant and attorney working on their behalf. An amateur video and cookie cutter website is not going to contrast well with the marketing prowess of the large wirehouse. 


There is no marketing panacea for your business development woes any claim to the contrary is likely snake oil. Although this can be a tough pill to swallow, it is important for RIAs to recognize they do have a fighting chance when it comes to gaining a competitive edge against the major players that is only if they are willing to shift their focus from advertising and marketing campaigns, to the very fundamentals of any successful business strategy sales.

A successful RIA attracts a HNW client not by pay-per-click ads, but by actively getting in front of investors and sharing a philosophy that resonates with the wealthy entrepreneur. For the most part, today’s millionaires have achieved their level of success through a series of private real estate transactions or after selling a private operating company. If RIAs would just pay closer attention to the original wealth source, then they could better relate to the HNW client. This is done by presenting investment opportunities outside of the overcrowded public market, and in the private marketplace.

In order for RIAs to gain a leg up in the competition against the larger wirehouses, it is imperative they take on an active sales approach and sell their wealth creating philosophy that shows successful entrepreneurs “they get it” when it comes to their objectives. Consequently, this proactive sales strategy and face-to-face mutual understanding will create a bond between an advisor and a potential client that takes the large wirehouse and Super Bowl TV ads out of the running. 

Bill Militello is founder and CEO of Militello Capital in Leesburg, Va.

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