Mr Whatsisname strikes again

You could call it ‘the son of Mr Whatsisname’: it is related, it will bear similarities and it will almost certainly have an identical effect in dividing the profession.

The offspring in question is the Law Society’s proposed advertising campaign to raise the public profile of solicitors. And in its aims it follows the same path as the society’s first initiative, in which a fictional busybody called Mr Whatsisname claimed to have enough legal expertise to solve a punter’s problems.

The pioneering campaign, run almost two decades ago, is widely recognised as having succeeded in its aim of improving the image of the legal profession in the eyes of the general public. Yet its levity infuriated many members of the profession and the campaign was scrapped half-way through.

Now Martin Mears, the Law Society president, is determined to resurrect generic advertising for the profession in some shape or form. He sees it as a key element in his plans to sell legal services to a wider audience.

Last year, he set up the president’s public relations working party, to consider advertising and other publicity initiatives. And in March the group heard proposals and consulted the profession on a possible campaign. “The problem we have got is one of image,” says Mears. “Lawyers are unpopular, so what can we do about it? We can improve our service – and we are so – but we must also project ourselves better.”

Mr Whatsisname first made an appearance in 1977, as the profession, keen to shed its stuffy image and drum up business, embraced the mass media to deliver its message. The thrust of the campaign was a string of TV adverts, but an adaptation was made for radio and backed up by billboard posters. The advertisements sold the need for sound legal advice by demonstrating the problems caused by the guidance of the Mr Whatsisnames of this world.

As well as winning an advertising trade award, market research afterwards showed viewers and listeners felt the campaign made them more aware of the services offered by solicitors and less afraid of approaching a lawyer.

Sue Stapely, a former member of the working party with wide experience of programme-making, says: “It was a disastrous experience.

“It was specifically to make the public aware that solicitors are consumer-friendly and to promote the services available. It won the award, and the public liked the campaign. But a large number of the profession objected to the jokey approach. They saw it and disliked it, failing to appreciate it was meant to sway the hearts and minds of the public, not solicitors.”

The proposed 12-month campaign was scrapped after just six, and the issue of generic advertising for the profession was shelved for over a decade. Its more recent resurrection has included the society’s use of PR guru Sir Tim Bell to oversee the legal aid counter-offensive against the Lord Chancellor.

When formulating his plans, Mears considered a more recent advertising foray by lawyers north of the border. Five years ago, the Law Society of Scotland began a campaign with a similar tone to Mr Whatsisname, stressing: “It’s never too early to call your solicitor”.

Fronted by Scottish actor Russell Hunter, the eight 30-second television adverts showed clients in various dilemmas requiring legal advice. Crime, personal injury and divorce were all covered in a poster and press campaign.

The initiative ran its full length of two years and was regarded as a success. But again, although, fulfilling its objectives, lawyers were still suspicious about the project.

“It met its objectives,” comments John Elliott, vice-president elect of the society, who played a key role in overseeing the campaign’s success. “The public’s perception changed over the period it was shown. Members of the profession were a bit suspicious at first, but once it had been running for a while, the idea took hold.”

The cost of the campaign was met by a £100 levy on partners of supporting firms and the programme developed a more commercial focus in its later stages, with practices advertised on the back of the more general campaign.

Other flirtations with broadcast advertising have included the Law Society’s TransAction promotion of conveyancing, six years ago, using a cinema commercial, a cartoon during breakfast television, and a slot on Post Office television.

The objections to generic advertising come from practitioners who are conservative by nature and react against the profession being portrayed in a populist fashion. But Mears thinks solicitors will have to learn to live with the concept. “You will always get objections,” he says. “If you get effective advertising that appeals to ordinary people, you wouldn’t expect something which would appear in the Financial Times.”

However, another misgiving held by some lawyers is the absence of short-term gain from generic advertising. Ian Skillen, managing director of Rileys, the agency which designed the Scottish campaign, says: “There is no immediate rush of business through the door.”

It also follows that the firms which benefit most are those whose clients are members of the public – they favour profession-wide promotion more than big commercial firms who deal with corporate clients.

There is also the vexed and related question of finance. Big campaigns can cost millions of pounds and many believe the Law Society cannot afford to fund one from its budget. Instead, there may have to be a levy along the lines of the Scottish funding plan.

Given the many objections, Stapely, now a director designate with PR company Fishburn Hedges, believes the Law Society must take the issue forward with caution. “I am far from certain that the timing is right or that the profession as a whole would think it the best use of limited resources.”

With the advertising plans on hold until after the elections, Mears adds: “My job was to come up with proposals and to listen to people.

“I have done both. The society would not be going ahead if everybody was against it.”