Split decisions

Henry Brookman has recently had the sort of press coverage that many advertising agencies dream about. Front page of The Guardian, page five of the Daily Mail, in addition to most of the other national newspapers, discussed on daytime television and follow-ups from around the world.

For those struggling to place the name, he is the sole partner at Brookman English and International Divorce Lawyers, the firm behind the “Ditch the bitch” and “All men are bastards” adverts that got the Daily Mail so hot under the collar. Why? Because the adverts were to advertise Brookman’s services as a divorce lawyer.

Commissioner Ingeborg Hughes of the Salvation Army wrote to The Guardian to express his concern that “divorce is being ridiculed in the name of commercial advertising”. A spokeswoman for Women’s Aid said the posters were “derogatory to women”, adding: “These posters do not help the causes of equality and respect and the fact they are being shown in bars and toilets is very offensive.”

Not bad for a tiny-run advert that featured in a mere 50 wine bars around the City and came to prominence through a Tulkinghorn piece in The Lawyer.

So what sort of man do you think gave the go-ahead for the adverts? I was imagining a bit of a flash Harry, quite bombastic, one who would revel in the inevitable attention.

But bombastic isn’t Henry Brookman. He is a slight man, older than I had expected, quietly spoken and cringing at all the attention. His offices are in an office agency building which would be unremarkable were it not for a beautiful wood-panelled lift with a leather seat, which is apparently listed.

He certainly does not seem overly pleased at all the coverage he has received, even though Brookman says enquiries have increased “several fold” since the furore hit the press.

The advertising campaign has now ended its four-week run and Brookman says the sudden media glare surprised him

“I predicted a lot of humorous entertainment would be caused by the adverts. There will always be a minority who don’t like them but they are the people who are offended by other material in the newspaper.

“I have had interest from every continent on the planet – although I don’t remember any calls from Asian newspapers,” he says, smiling rather weakly. And as for the Daily Mail’s typically robust outrage – well, he says, his clients are not those who would read that newspaper anyway. As to what newspaper they would read, Brookman cannot be drawn.

The adverts were created by advertising agency Joslin Shaw and, as Tulkinghorn originally reported, given the final go-ahead by Brookman’s wife who insisted that the campaign should run. The brief he gave the advertising agency was that he was trying to target City-based clients and, Brookman believes, the campaign achieved that aim, Daily Mail outrage or not.

Although he insists that he has no regrets about running the adverts, Brookman hesitates when I ask him whether, knowing what he knows now, he would run the campaign again.

“I don’t regret the programme but it went beyond where I had anticipated it would,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “My wife was surprised [by the coverage] but quite amazed by some of the supposed moral outrage, a feeling that was shared by the comments of many of our friends whose reaction was distinctly positive. That is partly what makes me think that, although the press naturally wants a story – and controversy is a story – that doesn’t mean that the majority of people see it that way.

“For the majority of people in a happy, stable family it doesn’t have any emotional edge – they see it as funny and pass on.”

Brookman believes that the adverts recognise the emotions felt by people going through divorce and encourage a willingness to compromise.

Now, I’m just speaking personally here so bear with me, but if my other half started an argument/debate by calling me a bitch, I would not presume that they were in the mood to compromise. But perhaps I’m just overly sensitive.

Anyway, back to Brookman’s rationale: “I can understand why people got upset [by the adverts] and I think that they are wrong. It’s an emotional business and it doesn’t help to try to pre-condition people into being non-emotional.”

By using the terminology chosen for the adverts, argues Brookman, one is merely recognising the extreme emotions that people go through during a divorce and validating them as normal. He himself is fortunate never to have gone through a divorce but believes that his 25 years in the field have given him enough experience to know the score.

“Actually non-emotional people cause the biggest difficulties [in the divorce process],” muses Brookman. “They tend to be less willing to compromise, and view in any compromise situation that they have lost their family, their friends and their self-esteem.”

If this message is perhaps less than clear on the posters then it is only because you cannot, says Brookman reasonably, plan out a full manifesto on a poster.

“Every one of the clients who have contacted me after the poster has been talking compromise,” he adds. “It hasn’t brought people out raging with aggression.”

It would be a lazy conclusion to put his terribly un-British advertising approach down to Brookman being Australian, a nationality that, rightly or wrongly, has a reputation for getting straight to the point. He moved to London four years ago because his wife is English and it was “her turn” after living in Australia for several years. He originally joined a solicitors chambers but moved out last year to set up his own practice.

Brookman would like to see other lawyers follow his less-than-conventional approach to advertising. He says: “Lawyers are unnecessarily conservative in their advertising. Producing the dull tombstone style of advertising doesn’t seem to me to do any credit to the profession.”

In fact, he adds, many of the enquiries he has received since the campaign started have congratulated him on being proactive and “giving people a bit of a laugh”.

One of the firms that has got its advertising strategy right in Brookman’s eyes is Shoosmiths, for its “restrained” adverts in Country Life.

“They have a clear idea of what they are trying to aim for – I don’t know how successful it is but they keep running it so I would imagine it is working,” he says.

The interview is over fairly quickly. Whereas I had supposed that Brookman would be as outspoken as his adverts, I was proven wrong. He answered each question politely but hardly verbosely and, you may, dear reader, find this difficult to imagine, seemed keen to get me out of his office. So keen, in fact, that he had pulled the cage door shut on the lift before I had a chance to shake his hand. I guess he has probably had all the press coverage he wants to handle for the moment.

But before I end this piece, I would like to offer my own recommendations for future Brookman-style campaigns. Herbert Smith’s renowned litigation department could run “Screw the bastards” – not very post-Woolf I admit, but then those reforms took away a lot of your fun anyway didn’t they? Simmons & Simmons’ employment department: “Get your coat and push off!”. Bird & Bird‘s IP department: “Oi copycat, I thought of that first!”. Allen & Overy‘s insolvency department: “Get your pound of flesh”. And finally Clifford Chance, a multi-departmental approach: “My firm’s bigger than your firm so come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.”

I await your calls.
Henry Brookman
Brookman English and International Divorce Lawyers