The Argument for AdvertisingBy
Greenfield Belser, a Finn Partners company
November 1, 2005
For many of us who have a certain affection for the profession, advertising may seem unprofessional, even unseemly. Moreover, we may suspect that advertising is unnecessary given that a professional service is a relationship business like no other. We may also believe that advertising is ineffective. Finally, we have little confidence that we can measure the return on our investment. So why advertise?
We have competitors—they are good, too.
If we believe that we are alone in offering terrific expertise and great service, then there is no reason in the world to advertise. But we’re not. There are many great professionals out there doing great work. Furthermore, the population of professionals is growing faster than there is work to be done. Competition.
Unless you control the market message, the market will be five to seven years behind the reality of the firm.
Clients and prospects don’t stay up at night studying our service list or carefully parsing the differences between our firm and other great firms. Unless you take control of market perception, market perception controls you. Our primary goal is to bring the market up to date with the value we can bring and the capabilities we have right now. Perception.
People don’t care unless you give them a reason to care.
Even advertising won’t affect perceptions unless you explain the benefit of working with you versus another service provider. So our advertisements explain why we are different from others; e.g., “our worldwide connections achieve results few others can.” (Remember, someone else almost always “can.”) Differentiation.
But guess what? Our most important goal may surprise you.
Our first goal is to reach our own professionals and staff. An advertisement is the distillation of a market position, so the exercise alone is worth the effort if for no other reason than to get hundreds of professionals in far-flung offices on the same page. Add the thousands of employees that support their efforts and it becomes clear that, in no small measure, our Ads-R-Us. If everyone in the firm is rowing in the same direction, we are certain to get there faster than our competitors. Alignment.
Our second goal could stun you, too.
Existing clients frequently tell us that they are glad to see our ads in industry publications where they are focused. Why? Because they are proud to be associated with industry leaders. In addition, research persistently shows that clients (and prospects!) wear their industry hat first when they approach: What do you know about my industry and its trends, opportunities and troubles? Industry knowledge trumps practice area expertise (all things being equal) every time. So our second goal is to affirm to existing clients that they have made the right choice; in other words, it is a defensive strategy to keep clients.
Our third goal is a no-brainer.
The future of our firm is the talent that chooses us. Attracting qualified laterals and merger candidates is critical to our strategic plan. Attracting students is also very important. Advertising can ease the effort to bring the best and brightest in the door. In fact, we’ve heard again and again that firms feel the most obvious benefit they perceive that comes directly from advertising is support of the recruiting campaign.
Name recognition is our #1 enemy.
A survey of 500 buyers of legal services asked, “When you think of commercial litigation, what firms come to mind?” The bad news? No single firm came top-of-mind more than four percent of the time. No matter how frequently variations on the survey are done, the bottom-line problem for professional service firms is name recognition. Advertising is expensive, but it attacks name recognition faster and with more efficiency than any other single marketing tactic. The goal of advertising is to get the brand into long-term memory so buyers will be familiar with our brand. In every study ever done, “familiarity” is inextricably linked to “favorability”; that is, if they’ve heard of you, they are highly likely to think better of you than if they have never heard of you.
Because our competitors are advertising.
In 1991, only 30 percent of firms were advertising, according to the Greenfield/Belser survey, Law Firm Advertising, but by the year 2000, 85 percent of firms included advertising in their marketing plan, although the ads were mostly black and white, small space ads and of minimal frequency.
Deming, the father of Total Quality Management, was asked when we would catch up to Japan? His response was, “Do you think Japan is standing still?” Do you imagine our competitors—yes, other great firms like ours—are ignoring the opportunities that come with advertising? Sun Tsu in the famous The Art of War, said, “Ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.”
What advertising does not do.
Advertising is not designed to change minds. Advertising, like all marketing, is designed to "precondition the sale." Another way of saying it is that advertising provides air cover for the ground troops. Advertising does not sell, but does create the platform for a relationship. Advertising does not close the deal, but does define the reasons why one should consider your firm over another. Advertising does not grasp your prospects’ hand in a friendly grip but does create a personality for the firm, an image that you can live up to. . .or disappoint. Advertising can work hard on your behalf if you let it.
Finally, the sticky question of ROI.
Return on investment is the logical question every businessperson should ask. And the logical answer is unsatisfying, but here it is: No matter what someone promises you about measuring return-on-investment, don’t believe it. You can’t. There are simply too many variables to create an effective equation. For example, create an integrated marketing campaign that includes advertising and you may discover your sales soar. But this may also be because your service hit the market in stride or that the economy went on a tear or that one new hire opened hitherto closed markets. Even the most devoted accountant cannot confidently ascribe this result to that tactic.
Business-to-business advertising is profoundly different from, and profoundly the same as, consumer advertising. Different? Many fewer minds need to be reached. The same? All the reasons why one should buy from this firm or that. Consumer advertisers are quite likely to have budgets far in excess of anything that B-to-B firms can even dream about. So we may never create the brands that are familiar to every household. But we can be bold. We can be clear. And we can try.