Legal firms court clients with ads

Consolidation and increased competition in Canada's legal field has impelled some law firms to court clients through advertising, albeit not always effectively.

Consolidation and increased competition in Canada’s legal field has impelled some law firms to court clients through advertising, albeit not always effectively.

Mary Ann Freedman, president of Toronto-based Freedman & Associates, who cousels professional services firms on marketing, estimates she has received more calls from lawyers in the last two months than in the past 15 years.

Traditionally there has been an antagonism towards marketing which stems from a time when provincial law societies forbade it, but those rules have loosened over the years. ‘The market is more competitive now,’ says Freedman, ‘and law firms have to grapple with the same issues as consumer products: how do we distinguish ourselves?’

Threats from sister industries have also helped propel the trend. Several years ago Toronto-based accounting giant Ernst & Young branched out with a legal practice. ‘The sense is that others, like Deloitte & Touche, will follow their lead, so law firms will also have to compete with accounting companies,’ suggests Lynda Monteith, director of marketing and communications for Fraser Milner Casgrain, which has law offices in six major Canadian cities.

As a result of heightened competition, Fraser Milner debuted its first consumer ad campaign last month. Produced by Toronto agency Cormark MacPhee, it launched in national newspapers. After conducting consumer research, Fraser Milner decided to give voice to its clients, including Petro-Canada and a small technology company called Jive Media Technologies. The testimonials outline how its attorneys helped solve each company’s business issues.

‘If you’re not telling your target audience how it will benefit from using you, the message is lost,’ says Monteith.

Some larger Canadian firms, such as Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, have been investing in print publications like ROB and National Post Business magazines for a couple of years, according to Judy Steim-Korte, director of client development at Oslers. In early 2001, the firm ran full-page colour ads in both publications boasting the fact that it had been involved in a series of high-profile mergers and acquisitions recently. The creative, by Toronto agency JKL, was followed up with a series of banner ads in the Globe and Mail.

‘Investment bankers do that type of advertising all the time, but law firms have been less deft at understanding it’s a message they can convey,’ explains Steim-Korte, adding that recently mid-sized practices like Fraser Milner and Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP (Gowlings) have also jumped into the marketing fray. ‘A number of them have merged so they need to get their awareness up. They are embracing tried-and-true [marketing] programs that the consumer products world embraced a long time ago.’

Certainly, a marriage with Toronto’s Smith Lyons was the impetus that caused Gowlings to turn on a nationwide marketing campaign, created by Toronto agency Interbrand Tudhope, in early September. ‘It was time to organize our messages under one umbrella,’ says Susan Elliott, director of marketing. The purpose of the ads, which are appearing in newspapers and the aforementioned business pubs, is to publicize the firm’s credibility, as well as its client focus.

In ‘Elevating,’ a black-and-white installment, the copy talks about how Gowlings brings the ‘best minds and resources together.’

Elliott says the firm will launch a second ad initiative in the first quarter of 2002, which will instill ‘a personal touch’ and in November, messages geared at business travellers will also appear on Air Canada ticket-holder envelopes. ‘We’re looking for different environments to communicate our message.’

That could be central to the success of any law-based advertising strategy, since the current propensity for attorneys to approach clients through newspapers and business magazines will only create ad clutter in those media. Firms need to be more creative in choosing their vehicles, rather than simply investing in the obvious, says Freedman. ‘Most advertising has been in trade journals – lawyers talking to lawyers, which doesn’t make sense.’

Toronto-based Weirfoulds is one legal practice that reached out of the box – or in its case, for the bin – to market itself. In July, it sponsored 30 recycling bins, maintained by its client OMG Media, which were decorated with Weirfoulds-branded signs, urging citizens to recycle. According to marketing manager, Samera Marei, the initiative fit into the company’s philosophy -Weirfoulds also backed the Toronto Olympic bid – to support community efforts. It was also highly visible to Weirfoulds’ business clientele because the bins were in the financial core in downtown Toronto.

The desire to reinforce a brand name outside of the legal profession, as Weirfoulds has, is essential if a law firm hopes to stand out among the pack, points out Richard Stock, a partner at legal consultancy Catalyst Consulting in Toronto. ‘I think differentiation is important in both the message and the vehicle used to communicate it, so you’re not lumped in with others.’

But Margaret McCaffery, president of Toronto-based professional firms consultancy Canterbury Communications, suggests that even though law firms have finally begun to invest in consumer media, the creative is often too similar. ‘Lawyers unfortunately copy each other rather than listen to advisers about how to reach a particular marketplace.’

Part of this attitude comes from an anti-advertising stance that still exists among professionals, something that Weirfoulds came to realize firsthand with its recycling bin ads. ‘The only question came from competitors who said, ‘how can you stoop to that level?” confides Marei, who says the firm will continue to push the envelope, albeit in baby steps. ‘But clients saw it and thought it was a great thing to do.’

And in the end, the client is the most important judge.