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15 November 2013
Clearly, the legal business is a global one. It is not just the law firms, their offices and globetrotting teams that make international law the norm, it is the fact that the very law they are dealing with is increasingly international.
And it is not just M&A lawyers who are running up against this global village. The techies in the basement are having to work with a global networking system navigating national systems; the marketers, too, face an international future.
On one level they are having to deal with creating marketing messages that are relevant and powerful in different cultures. Translating text is one thing - translating meaning is quite another. But as if those sensitivities and logistical problems are not enough, the marketers face having to work within an international regulatory framework.
The European Commission has just debated two proposals which could alter radically the climate in which marketers work across the EU. A sales promotion regulation that aims to do away with 'restrictive' national bans on value offers received approval from the 20 commissioners. If it passes national governments, it would force countries such as France, which bans promotions at below cost price and insists that promotional gifts be linked to the product they promote, into line with more liberal countries such as the UK. It will also do away with the pre-vetting of promotions by regulators.
If passed, Air Miles would be able to operate in Belgium, which has argued that only airlines can offer flights and the Financial Standards Authority (FSA) would not be able to pre-vet financial services ads. Law firms are not planning below cost offers, but may well consider loyalty/promotional schemes, perhaps offering services of a partner company. Such an international scheme could fit well with those global firms that are forming alliances with other professional services. This regulation would ease their marketing in Europe.
A more controversial proposal is a green paper that aims to set a single definition of fair marketing practices. It proposes a form of co-regulation by consumer organisations, industry and national regulators and a committee to work out a common code for all 15 states.
Clearly aimed at dealing with the situation where bans on alcohol advertisements in Sweden and France and television advertisements aimed at children in Belgium coexist with other countries' tolerances, marketers fear the worst. "This would fragment the single market in marketing and advertising," Phillip Sheppard of the Association International des Marques told Marketing Week. The worry is that individual countries could enforce any marketing ban they see fit in the interests of consumer protection as they wait for the committee to set a common standard.
At one level this is good news for firms - long battles in European courts are what billable hours were designed for. But for those whose job it is to promote a firm across Europe the future is not so promising. Legal marketers, like their fast-moving consumer goods equivalents, could face having to second guess a national definition of fair practice - as they do now - but also seeing those national standards shift and become more rigorously enforced as countries fight their corners. If the EU's definition is too loose, national governments will step into the breach to create their own tighter, more protectionist readings.
The green paper is some way from becoming law, but it shows how the EU is under pressure to harmonise regulation. Its focus is on the consumer, but unless its plans are workable and allow marketers to develop their messages along with their businesses, it could actually do more harm than good. Legal marketers who see firms developing innovative services, partnerships and packages and hope to position them internationally face the prospect of having to ring up one of the firm's EU law specialists to check the marketing of their own EU service.