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Funny videos helping KatzAbosch woo new clients and employees

Accountants aren’t exactly known for their senses of humor. And during the stress-inducing, labor-intensive tax season, that may even be doubly so.

KatzAbosch Marketing Director Graham Dodge (left) and CEO Mark Cissell check out the company’s YouTube videos.

But at Timonium-based tax and accounting firm KatzAbosch, marketing director Graham Dodge is bucking the trend, using humor to promote the company and draw in perspective clients and employees.

A YouTube series of sketches created by Dodge in 2011 also won the firm its first award for advertising.

A year later, he is pumping out a second season of accounting humor as the firm’s web traffic grows and both clients and potential hires cite the series as a selling point for the company.

He’s produced nine episodes in total, including three new ones this year. The episodes are scheduled to wrap up by the end of tax season: April 17.

But if it wasn’t for his naiveté, Dodge said the series may have never happened.

“I probably wouldn’t have thought to do this now, having already been steeped in the culture of professional services in general. … I don’t think I would have been brave enough to do what I did,” said Dodge, who created the pilot episode in his first month on the job.

The 36-year-old Baltimore native came to the firm with a background as distant from accounting as it is diverse: Dodge moved to Los Angeles at 19 and spent 10 years working in online advertising and web development, followed by television set design and art direction. When he returned to the East Coast, he worked as a trade show and event marketer before joining KatzAbosch.

Not having been “steeped in the culture” is what Dodge said gave him the guts to create the “Gotta Love Tax Season” YouTube series.

That’s also one of the reasons CEO Mark Cissell hired him.

“The last thing you want is somebody to come in and say ‘I already tried that with so and so and it doesn’t work,’” said Cissell, adding that one of his goals was to hire a marketing director without preconceived notions of what an accounting firm was like.

“We try to hire the right person for the position, and, in my words, just let him go,” he said.

Needing to find a way to increase the company’s search engine rankings and social media presence on a no- or low-cost budget, Dodge took inspiration from Geico advertisements that use Xtranormal, a website that allows users to create animated clips using preset characters and backgrounds.

So Dodge, who studied with The Groundlings, the Los Angeles improvisation and sketch comedy group that touts alumni such as Will Ferrell and Lisa Kudrow, tapped into his funny chops and created the pilot sketch.

Like other professional services — including lawyers — advertising used to be a taboo for accountants, Cissell said.

In fact, the Association for Accounting Marketing, which gave the firm the award, was founded in 1989 — 20 years after KatzAbosch.

“There was a perception that [firms would] lower their professional esteem” if they advertised, said Laurence Minsky, a professor of advertising and marketing at Columbia College Chicago. Minsky, who was one of the judges of the 2011 AAM Marketing Achievement Awards, said the stigma has passed.

While Dodge said he knows not everyone likes — or even understands — the humor, the positive feedback has been enough to keep the series going.

“We didn’t want people to see the video, laugh so hard that they called us, and then sign the contract with us,” Dodge said. “We wanted it to just sort of help push the brand, help elevate the brand.”

In a year, the firm’s seen a 125 percent increase in visits from search engine results and a 340 percent increase in visits directed from non-search engine websites, or visitors coming directly to the site. The YouTube channel Dodge started has received more than 10,000 views.

The campaign, which has cost less than $50, also helped hook Joshua Heller, a senior accounting major at Towson University and one of the firm’s interns.

Prior to a fall open house for the university’s accounting majors and area accounting firms, Heller researched who would be attending the event. When he pulled up the KatzAbosch website, he saw Dodge’s series and spent an hour watching and rewatching the videos, he said.

“That showed 100 percent that that was the accounting firm where I would fit in the most,” he said, noting that he never expected “to see that kind of humor in an accounting firm.

“That was the first place that I went to at the open house, and I wanted to go there and make an impact on them so that they remembered me.”