STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND
Advertising As A Marketing Tool That Sometimes Works
Advertising, in professional services, has a strange history. More words, and more dollars, have been wasted on it, and less seems to have been learned from its mistakes, than from any other marketing tool.
In the early days – the few years post-Bates (1977) -- advertising was still anathema to law and accounting firms. Arthur Young was probably the first to do it after Bates, which was an exercise in courage (I was there – I remember) and then came Deloitte’s Beyond the Bottom Line campaign. The more likely scenario at the time was typified by the then-managing partner of Price Waterhouse, who said, about advertising, “Over my dead body.” Now they spend millions. Marketing for professionals, as we know it today, didn’t come easy. I’m not so sure it’s much easier today. Certainly, getting it right in advertising is no slam dunk.
As more firms now advertise, it becomes increasingly important that the advertiser, as well as the advertising agency, understand the process. To be passive in the process, and to allow the agency to guide the decision, is as dangerous as eating unidentified mushrooms, simply because the process is so different for professionals than it is for products. Your agency may be a good one, but if they don’t understand that difference, then your ad may be clever, and attractive, but irrelevant.
Bates, remember, was ostensibly about advertising, which dimmed the excitement because nobody in the professions advertised, or knew anything about it. (In fact, what Bates really meant was that now you can go after my clients and I can go after yours, which took a few years for the professionals to grasp.)
Certainly, the current crop of ads tends to be better than the earlier ones, although we still have such weirdies as Accounting Is Our Passion. (Passion is the current fad word). I thought passion to serve clients is more to be desired. There’s so much wrong with that ad that one hardly knows where to begin. How many words will be wasted to explain the link between their passion and their ability to meet your need?
Then there’s Financial Restructuring Without The Bitter Aftertaste, for a law firm. The copy’s ok, but the illustration of three executive with faces screwed up (presumably from the bitter aftertaste), looks as if they’ve been drinking doctored Kool-Aid. Pretty inviting, isn’t it? A good rule is don’t try to be funny in public until at least six strangers, none of whom is related to you, laugh at what you’ve written. Nothing sours an ad more than unfunny attempts at humor.
Another law firm has a picture of a maze on one side of the ad, with the title Legalese beneath it, and in the other side, a picture of a bright young lawyer (a real partner), and the caption, Practical Advice. The message is that you’ll understand what the firm is trying to tell you. Surely, the firm has greater and more valuable expertise than that? Isn’t being understood by clients a basic in the practice of law?
A more elegant and effective ad shows a large picture of a Go board, with both white and black stones. The caption says, Finding The Right Balance Between Risk And Reward Isn’t Easy. Working With Your Law Firm Should Be. Good ad, but when they say, At Winston & Strawn our focus is results (huh?), they move right back into the realm of obvious, lazy and wasteful copy writing. Do they expect you to believe that other firms don’t focus on results? That’s missing the point. It also comes under the rubric of telling the reader what to think, without crafting the path that leads the reader to arrive at your intended conclusion. It comes under the rubric of “Sez you,” which means, essentially, don’t say it unless you can prove it. Complex, but more of that in a moment.
An ad for an accounting and consulting firm shows a New Yorker Magazine-type cartoon in which three men are standing in front of a desk, apparently being interviewed. One is very tall and gangly. One is a button-down business type. One is a bald little man, barely able to see above the desk. The caption reads, Secretly, Dave suspected that only one of the consultants would really fit in with his team. But which one? And the copy, which is headed Need Deeper Understanding?, gives no clue – nor does it in any obvious way link to the cartoon. Strange.
But aha! There is one Midwestern ad agency that knows how to do it. They do the ads for Jefferson Wells, a finance and accounting firm. A big picture of a real person – full page. A caption -- Pragmatism shows. The copy then goes on to describe the fact that the woman in the picture has tackled multiple Sarbanes-Oxley engagements in the past two years, and has had fifteen years of audit experience before that. This is a woman who obviously knows. The implication is clear -- she brings experience and expertise and a pragmatic approach to your problems. Best of show.
A classic example of a rare corporate style ad that works for a law firm is seen in a recent ad for Zuckerman Spaeder, a litigation boutique. The illustration shows a lion looking at a bird in a bird cage. The headline reads, “There’s a fine line in litigation between safe and sorry.” The copy reads “The world’s business leaders strengthen their defense with the litigators at Zuckerman Spaeder.” Beautiful. It doesn’t say, “We’re better silver tongued devils in a court room than the other guys.” It makes no promises, other than by implication. And it has the endorsement, strongly implied, of “the world’s business leaders.” Its impact resides in its subtlety – in what the reader is led to believe, without being told what to believe.
Generally, ads for professional services fall into two categories –the story, and the boast.
The story ad describes a situation that demonstrates a distinguishing factor about a firm, or – without blatantly saying it – leads the reader to a point of understanding and the conclusion that’s responsive to the important question, “What do you want the reader to know, think, or feel after reading the ad?” When this is accomplished, the ad is most likely to be successful. A good example of this is the Jefferson Wells ad. It’s impossible to not be drawn into the ad’s story, and to not grasp the firm’s expertise.
The boast is the self serving ad that demands that you accept their claim, without offering proof. The “… we focus on results” is an example. Similar ads in this category are those that talk of a firm virtue as if it was exclusive to the firm. There has been a rash of ads that boast of speaking plain English instead of lawyerese, or practical advice, as if these were exclusive virtues. The problem with boast ads is that they tend to be seen as empty promises. They tell no credible story, and in fact, the firms may do better to simply advertise, “We are lawyers (or accountants). We do good work. (Sez you.)
There are, I think, some very clear points that seem to escape the advertising folk, so many of whom, I believe, simply don’t understand the professions. Nor do most of them seem to understand the difference between selling a professional service and selling a product, and why that difference matters.
Some things to consider, then. Not rules – advertising is an art form, and frequently, the best advertising (and art) comes from breaking rules. But artists know that to effectively break the rules, you have to know what the rules are. Just some basics to clear the way for originality, relevance, and effective advertising to function.
Fairness dictates noting that, through some anomaly or another, bad ads sometimes seem to pull (or impress readers) better than good ads.
At the same time, There are some basic advertising principles that are indigenous to all advertising.
· Know your market. Not only who your prospect is, but what kind of service your market really wants and needs and is willing to buy, and what kind of problems they’ll look to you to resolve.
· Know your service, in terms of what the prospective client is willing to buy, not simply what you’re offering to sell.
· Every ad campaign should begin with a stated objective. Again, “What do you want the reader to know, think, or feel after reading the ad?” The objectives are not general, they are specific to each firm, each campaign, each ad. They dictate that the copy, and all other elements of the ad, are focused and relevant..
· Obviously, truth is basic. You don’t promise what you can’t deliver. That, as the British say, is a mug’s game.
· The purpose of a headline is to attract attention and to bring the reader to the ad. A headline that offers nothing to the reader in terms of either benefit or interest may effectively mask the cleverest ad, and one that's offering the most useful service.
· The text should spring from the headline, and follow through the promise it offers. It should explain and clarify the facts and claims. It should be a logical progression of ideas, covering all of the points you mean to cover, even if it's done only with an illustration.
· Copy can appeal to the intellect and reason, or it can appeal to the emotions, or it can do both.
· Writing is not the manipulation of words -- it's the expression of ideas. Words, grammar and punctuation, are merely the tools and devices we use to express ideas most clearly. To think of copy as a configuration of words is the same as thinking of a symphony as a configuration of notes.
Why do ads that seem well written sometimes not work? Because they miss these points of advertising. Because they attempt to merely translate somebody's idea of persuasive talk into the ad medium, which can sometimes be like wearing a tuxedo to the gym.
An interesting caveat. Advertising, as I’ve said, is not a science, it’s an art form, and sometimes the best advertising in the world comes from ignoring the rules or the conventional wisdom. One day, a client showed me two ads they had been running for a product. He asked me which I preferred – A or B. I said B. He said, “ I agree with you. But A is substantially outselling B.” In other words, don’t get carried away with cleverness. Look to the basics. You may still be surprised, but not as often.
But a product ad, to use the jargon of the ad business, pulls. A professional service ad informs. It will be rare, and perhaps serendipitous, that somebody calls you and says “I saw your ad and want to hire you.” It happens, but you can’t build much of a practice on serendipity. Another significant difference. How, then, do you measure results of a law or accounting firm ad campaign?
· If the campaign is part of a larger marketing program, which it should be, you’ll ultimately see the effects in talking to prospective clients.
· Existing clients will also tell you, as either a complement or a criticism, whether or not the ads square with their experience. (Pay attention to clients.)
· Your staff – those people who are responsible for delivering on the promise the campaign makes -- will tell you, loud and clear.
· Ultimately, if the campaign is a good one, it will be because your marketing people understand the process, and will carry it through to other aspects of your marketing. This means your practice will grow, even though you may not be able to specifically credit any part of the program.
Advertising is an humbling experience.