Creative Corner: What advertising can — and can’t — do

by Andy Edelstein on October 20, 2012

As budget season approaches for what many predict will be at best a so-so year in Lawland, I humbly ask that you consider — possibly for the first time in your firm’s history — advertising.

I plan to spend the next few of my quarterly rants discussing various aspects of this subject, but let me start by saying this will not be an easy sell to your management. Lawyers traditionally have enjoyed a hate-hate relationship with advertising. They hate the very notion of hawking their wares as if they were a tube of toothpaste or a light beer. And they hate the idea of budgeting for what they perceive to be an expensive and ultimately wasteful proposition.

Still, economic pressures would seem to be urging them to get over this. Other professional services categories — brokers, accountants, real estate, etc. — have long since accepted advertising as a valid, even necessary, part of the integrated marketing mix. So have plenty of law firms, whose ads now regularly populate the pages of both horizontal publications (targeting mostly GCs) and vertical trade magazines (targeting industry sectors).

But first, let me clear up a few things about what you’re getting into.

What advertising can do for your firm:

  • Build awareness over time — Some advertising proponents think it’s enough just to get your name out there. It’s not. But carefully crafted messages about what your firm stands for can gain important traction in the marketplace. It won’t happen overnight, but if you do it right, it will happen.
  • Amplify your reputation — Note the word “amplify.” Your reputation is already out there. Ads will not create it — only your work can do that — but they can create a multiplier effect in terms of how — and by whom — you’re perceived.
  • Put you into the consideration set — Once potential clients are aware of your existence and reputation — never a given, as you know — advertising can put you in the mind of a potential client when an actual hiring event occurs. This alone will probably not get you the job — but it might get you into the pitch.
  • Work with other marketing communications — These days, there are so many ways to communicate to your audience — both online and off — that actual ads have come to serve a dual purpose. First, they deliver messages in their own right. Second, they drive your audience to other places — i.e. your website — where other information can be found. Especially effective is to drive that audience, not to your home page, but rather to a minisite set up specifically to elaborate on the advertising. This idea could take up a whole article in itself, but not now.
  • Accentuate the positive — As Don Draper says in one of the first MadMen episodes, “Advertising is happiness.” Ads are what you use to put your best face forward, to give people the good news about your firm. They are relentlessly positive, and, when used properly, they can help you build a “reservoir of good will” in the marketplace — a reservoir you may someday need to tap when the news is not so good.
    • Rally your troops — Never underestimate the prestige and pride that accrues to your people when they can say “Did you see our ad?” Think of it as an instant elevator pitch they can point to at any time. If advertising does nothing else, this sort of “cocktail party cachet” is almost worth the cost.

What advertising cannot do:

  • Make the sale — No client will ever look at an ad and say “Hire that firm.” The sales process is far too long and involved for that. But your ads can get you to the point where you can do the other things that ultimately lead to a hiring situation.
  • Provide instant gratification — The buildup of advertising awareness is a slow process. You need to be in front of prospects often if you want to make an impression. If you’re not willing to put an entire year into an advertising program, don’t bother. A single ad in a single publication will do nothing for you.
  • Come cheap — Even when advertising is cheap, it’s not very cheap. You’ll need to spend for creative (writing and design), production (readying it to run), and media (the place where you run it). Corners can be cut, but there’s usually a price to pay when you do — a non-monetary price that might come in the form of fuzzy messaging, ugly design, ineffective media, or all three. In the long run, saving money usually ends up wasting it. You should be prepared to spend at least $100K over a year — $300K is even better.
  • Show a clear ROI — This has frustrated the biggest advertisers in the world for as long as ads have existed. But you simply cannot put a pile of dollars into one end of the pipe and know there will be a bigger pile emerging at the other end. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a slow buildup and there are no guarantees it will work. But what those same frustrated big guys all have in common is their total confidence that advertising did — and will continue to — successfully build their brands.
  • Replace PR (or other marketing communications) — Advertising always works best when it’s part of an integrated marketing effort. For law firms especially, PR will always be at least as important as advertising, and ads can never get out the sorts of granular, in-the-trenches information that good PR provides on a regular basis.
  • Overcome bad work — Bad news will always travel faster than good news, and if you have perception problem with your work product, your people, or your reputation, advertising will probably not help you — and it could make things worse. That said, advertising can help you recover from the problem. When it’s part of a coordinated crisis management initiative, it can definitely accelerate your comeback.

Advertising is not for everyone. If you can’t commit to a real program — designed and executed by real advertising professionals — you are probably better off not doing it.

But it’s important to realize that law firms have been painfully slow to grasp what other industries already know: there is simply no better way to raise your visibility among the prospects you want to attract.

Andy Edelstein is a copywriter specializing in law firm advertising and marketing communications. Reach him at andrew.edelstein@verizon.net.

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