A few months back, Jordan Furlong penned one of his annoyingly insightful articles (“The Problem With Lawyer Advertising”) in which he noted the lack of client focus in most legal advertising, and suggested that marketing is one area where the coming wave of competition from “non-lawyer” entities will soon have them eating your lunch. It is a provocative thesis, and Furlong buttresses it with a link to an extremely compelling 90-second TV spot for British legal franchise Quality Solicitors.
I thought it would be worthwhile to dig a little deeper into WHY legal advertising isn’t consistently better than it is. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. It’s made by lawyers.
Lawyers do a vast array of things incredibly well but the sad truth is making ads is not one of them, and in my experience law firm marketing campaigns frequently have their genesis on a partner’s desk. Richard Susskind has spoken about it being part of the “hubris” of the legal profession that lawyers think we can pick up another discipline over a weekend. There is no shame and much merit in knowing where your expertise ends and calling in the experts in other disciplines to work their magic on your behalf. After all, that great Quality Solicitors ad wasn’t done in-house – it was created by one of the world’s biggest ad agencies. Watch this 8-minute “behind the scenes” video with the spot’s creative director to get a glimpse of just how much marketing strategy and specialized work in areas like casting, music direction and technical development goes into a spot like this. Then ask yourself if Don in the corner office of your firm who bills 2200 hours a year structuring international tax treaties has the time, aptitude, experience and mindset to do that kind of thinking. The evidence to date suggests otherwise.
2. It’s made for lawyers (or more specifically, committees of lawyers).
We all agree that clients are great things to have and that the purpose of advertising is to attract more of them. But before any law firm ad or marketing piece can go out into the world to do its noble work, it first has to make it out the front doors of your firm. That means running the gauntlet of the law firm marketing committee. Whatever the size and scope of the official committee, the unofficial approval authority is typically most (or in smaller firms all) partners in the firm. What survives is frequently lowest common denominator work that doesn’t unduly ruffle the collective partnership feathers. This is where the relatively flat management structure of law firm partnerships is at a significant disadvantage to more hierarchical corporate entities where a small handful of executives call the marketing shots. One of Canada’s better-known ad agencies is named Taxi. The name reflects the founders’ view that any advertising project has the greatest likelihood of success if key decision-makers are limited to the number that can comfortably share a cab together. Because the internal approval process within law firms is usually so daunting, the larger mission of attracting clients with a compelling ad often gets lost in favour of meeting the immediate challenge of getting SOMETHING past the phalanx of independence-minded partners with veto power. It’s an old saw – too many chefs spoil the soup – and it is especially true in legal marketing.
3. It’s About Lawyers.
More from Furlong:
With few exceptions, lawyer-formulated or lawyer-approved marketing campaigns focus on lawyers’ qualifications and accomplishments. . . the QS ad succeeds precisely because it appeals to what consumers will respond to, not lawyers. You’d think that would be elementary, but for the legal profession, this kind of insight seems almost revelatory.
Most lawyer marketing and advertising campaigns are about what lawyers think is important, not what clients feel is important.
Why does this happen you ask? See points 1 & 2, above.
4. It tells me instead of showing me.
Lawyers are verbal. Words and documents are our lifeblood. Call up the three most recent powerpoints you’ve received from lawyers and chances are they will be completely awash in text (with a few bullets thrown in for style) despite the fact powerpoint is a visual medium. Most good advertising has a very strong visual component. Most legal marketing doesn’t. It should.
5. If your ad were a person, his name would be Blandy Blanderson.
I’ve already spoken of the lowest common denominator phenomenon that hinders legal marketing. Unfortunately, creating an ad that can make it through the internal approval process usually means creating an ad that fits multiple partner perceptions of what lawyer marketing should be – resulting in the frequent perpetuation of legal marketing clichés galore – handshakes, columns, partners at the boardroom table. Adherence to precedent is incredibly important in law and incredibly unhelpful in marketing. Bill Bernbach is widely considered one of advertising’s all-time greats. I thought I’d close with his thoughts on why creativity fuels good marketing:
"The truth isn't the truth until people believe you, and they can't believe you if they don't know what you're saying, and they can't know what you're saying if they don't listen to you, and they won't listen to you if you're not interesting, and you won't be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly."
- William Bernbach, quoted in “Bill Bernbach said . . .” (1989), DDB Needham Worldwide.