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Law firms arrived on the advertising scene at a time when people were already getting bored with adverts. In the early 1990s the legal sector was finally given the go-ahead to use advertisements to attract clients and build their reputations, but advertising was already long in the tooth, with a history stretching back thousands of years - it is often called the world's second oldest profession.
In modern times, the saturation of every form of media with advertising messages led one luminary to comment: "Consumers are like cockroaches. The more you spray them, the more resistant they become."
To get your message noticed, you have to use increasingly extreme, and some would say desperate, techniques to stand out from the crowd. And as law firms consolidate and become increasingly competitive, their advertising has become steadily more extreme. They have mimicked some of the methods used by experienced advertisers targeting the youth market - such as French Connection's foul-mouthed 'FCUK' campaign. But middle aged senior partners from the sheltered world of legal services have been left looking somewhat out of place with their own shock ads and can be as embarrassing as watching William Hague 'getting down' at the Notting Hill Carnival, complete with reversed baseball cap.
There is no limit to how low law firms will go to get their message across. After a recent spate of bizarre, offensive and downright poor campaigns from law firms, legal marketeers must be wondering where it will all end.
Divorce lawyer Henry Brookman's 'Ditch the bitch' campaign obeyed the basic rules of shock advertising - it tried to be humourous and use swear words that might get certain people riled, and it milked the publicity from the campaign as much as possible. That way, a little money can go a long way in garnering maximum effect, which in this case is the all-important name recognition that so many law firms crave.
But Brookman claims that he was more surprised than anybody by the effects of the campaign. Posters featuring the 'Ditch the bitch' slogan appeared in just 50 male toilets in wine bars in the City, and corresponding "All men are bastards" posters appeared in ladies loos. The campaign was revealed by The Lawyer and then picked up in the national press, and reviled by the Daily Mail. Brookman says that the campaign more than met its objective, unexpectedly attracting a high number of inquiries from people who had read about it in the press rather than those responding to the posters. "It would be fair to say I achieved the objective in a different way than I had envisaged, but it worked," he says. "The important thing with a provocative campaign is that if you mean it to be funny, it ought to be. If you can't add a bit of humour, it's better to be cautious - I have been selective with the ideas I have been looking at since then."
And if you found 'Ditch the bitch' offensive, you can be thankful that Brookman has been more censorious with other campaign ideas. Brookman says that he has rejected some advertising ideas because he felt they might upset clients, or stir up bad feelings in the already difficult arena of divorce. Brookman says that his great advantage is that he is a sole trader in a single-specialism practice. If there were other partners and other areas involved, what might be appropriate for a divorce lawyer would project the wrong image for another area of business.
Advertising experts say that in these days of seemingly endless supplies of any of the goods or services your heart desires, just getting people to remember your name is work enough, especially if your advertising budget is small. It does not matter too much about the image you project - such brand-building work can be undertaken at a later date, preferably when a prospective client is either on the phone or sitting in your office listening to your highly professional sales patter - but there are limits to how offensive you can be, as people can be put off.
There is no stopping some law firms once they get the bit between their teeth. Shoosmiths, not content with an advertising campaign that it has run regularly in Country Life, also ended up sponsoring the category for the best overall retailer in the FHM/Menswear magazine awards. But the sponsorship was quite accidental. Gary Assim, partner and national head of the intellectual property and IT group, says: "It approached us. For a long time, we've had close links with Menswear magazine and Drapers Record because our intellectual property clients are either fashion brand owners or retailers. We'd started talking to trade papers at the time. Menswear had been running awards for two years, but one of the sponsors pulled out with six weeks to go. They were scratching their heads and they called me to suggest we act as a sponsor. It was a fantastic opportunity because it was such a good deal."
Other law firms may balk at the cost - some £15,000-£20,000 a year for the three-year sponsorship - but Assim says it had a highly beneficial effect in terms of staff morale and recruitment. "There doesn't seem to be any great benefit, but internally we are 1,200 people, the majority of whom are pretty young, except the senior partners. They think we're not a stuffy legal practice, a closed legal firm in the old sense. The internal PR has been incredibly beneficial," says Assim.
It all sounds rather painful, with senior partners trying to get hip with their young staff, but just because it hurts doesn't mean it has not worked. After all, one of the most successful TV advertising campaigns of recent years was the kitsch and wooden ambassador's party advert for Ferrero Rocher chocolates, which was so achingly bad it achieved cult status.
In terms of rebranding, law firms have to tread a delicate tightrope between grabbing the attention of their staff and clients and attracting ridicule from them, or worse still, from the press. Many law firm marketeers are only too aware of how negative sentiment in the trade papers and even the national press can demolish much of the work carried out during a rebranding exercise.
Take the case of Hammond Suddards' (now Hammond Suddards Edge) mysteriously disappearing rebranding campaign. In autumn 1999, the firm appointed advertising agency team Saatchi, a division of Saatchi & Saatchi, to create a campaign. The campaign was dropped suddenly after only a few weeks and Hammond Suddards refused to comment on why. Some thought that the campaign was more likely to make a potential client cringe than pick up the telephone. It used the strapline 'lawyers with attitude', and had three executions which ran in the national press, playing on Hammonds' northern roots. One read: "We've done more mergers this year than tha's 'ad ciabatta butties." Other adverts were created for specific practice areas and compiled into a brochure that was sent to clients and distributed among staff, such as one promoting its alternative dispute resolution business, which read: "Should we sue our advertising agency?"
One of the most significant campaigns of recent times has to be Rowe & Maw's perimeter board advertising at the Greece v England World Cup qualifying match in June, alongside Rizla among others. It cost some £30,000, but the firm claims it worked wonders with many clients and staff, and denied it was a desperate move.
But whatever lengths law firms go in their campaigns, it is unlikely that they will ever plummet to the depths of their counterparts in another corporate services field - advertising. Direct marketing agency Grey Direct once got 35 members of staff to strip off and pose stark naked for a photograph to appear in the trade press. The advertisement brought widespread derision, though the agency insists that it showed that it was transparent and honest. Soon after, the agency changed its name to Joshua when it merged with another company.
Thankfully, the world has been spared the sight of law firm staff baring all in the name of advertising. But the day might not be too far off.
For however bad you may find some of these campaigns, it is important to never overestimate the intelligence or concentration span of the recipients of advertising messages. People really do respond to the most obvious, the corniest and the most offensive adverts. The majority of law firms crave a bit of recognition - to be known rather than to be loved. So in the struggle to get their names known, do not be surprised if law firms plummet to previously unimaginable depths.