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The Marcus Perspective

What Works and What Doesn’t in Legal Advertising

By Bruce W. Marcus

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In advertising, itís amazing what works and what doesnít work. It isnít always what you think it is.

If youíre an accountant, a lawyer or a consultant with a marketing program, you donít have to know how to write an ad, but you should know some things about how to judge one written for you. Advertising is expensive, with an uncertain return on investment. You should know also that what you think works, may not.

While a great deal is known about what works in advertising, thereís even more we donít know. What makes it difficult for the uninitiated is that what you may judge to be great copy because of the sheer poetry, imagery, sound and lyricism, maybe lousy for accomplishing the mission of the ad. Ultimately, advertising, especially for professional services, is more complex than it appears on the surface.

Nor are academic copy rules decisive. When the advertising legend, David Ogilvy, was told that copy should be short and terse because nobody reads more than a few words of an ad, he wrote the classic ] ďAt 60 miles and hour the only sound you hear is the clock.Ē It was a full page of text, describing the features of the Rolls Royce. It sold a lot of cars.

Perhaps the hardest thing for people who are not marketers to understand is that the process is a function of not only training, but skill, intelligence and imagination ó all of which are what we usually mean when we use the peculiar word ďcreative.Ē There are rules, and there are ways to break the rules. But like the best abstract artists, who know better how to abstract because they are fine realistic artists, itís likely that those who know the rules best are those who break the rules best.

Some Basic Concepts

Understand that with great advertising you can sell a product to somebody who hadnít known that product ó or a need for it ó existed, but you canít persuade somebody to litigate or write a contract or have an audit unless the need for these services already exists. This is a major point. It dictates that the primary purpose of professional services advertising is to get somebody who needs a lawyer or accountant to choose your firm rather than another one. Are there exceptions? Sure, if youíre trying to reach people who didnít know that they are part of a class. Or prospects that donít know how financial statements can be used to more effectively plan for a business. But these exceptions are the smallest part of the marketing for accounting or law firms.

An advertising campaign is not a marketing program, and advertising rarely works except as part of a larger program that culminates in getting through the prospectís front door, and to the opportunity to sell. Then it works. Advertising may enhance name recognition, but without the rest of the program, the return on investment in advertising is negligible.

Remember that the nature of professional services marketing makes it difficult to judge the effectiveness of an ad or ad campaign in the near term. If I advertise toothpaste for sale, I know how effective the ad is by the number of tubes of toothpaste I sell. If I advertise, for example, a matrimonial practice, there is no such direct cause and effect relationship. I can persuade you to buy my brand of toothpaste with sound advertising, but with the best of advertising, I canít persuade a happily married couple to get a divorce until they are actually considering one.

In product marketing, a company counts, as well as its product. There may be a thousand people behind the manufacture of a tube of toothpaste, but the interface between that thousand people and the consumer is the tube of toothpaste. The interface between a law or accounting firm and the client is the individual lawyer or accountant serving the client. Thus, the expertise youíre selling resides in individuals, not firms, although advertising for the firm serves to enhance reputation and name recognition, which is significant in helping a firm to compete.

A single ad may sometimes work for a product thatís offering something substantial, but in professional services, it takes frequent ads to establish name recognition and competence ó repetition is important for impact. Advertising, even in the legal and accounting professions, is highly competitive.

You canít say ďWe write better briefs,Ē or ďWe do better audits.Ē Not because of any bar or accounting association rules, but because it isnít credible. You canít prove it. And in any firm of more than two accountants or lawyers, some will be better than others. Here, again, is the ďSez youĒ factor. Absolute parallel consistency in legal or accounting skills is not likely ó if not impossible. You can have consistency and quality control in a toothpaste factory, but not in a professional firm.

Itís pointless to announce that you do the very things youíre supposed to do. ďQuality is important here.Ē ďClient service is paramount to us. ďThe client comes first.Ē These are gratuitous statements and a waste of literary breath. They lack credibility, and do nothing to distinguish you from your competitors. Besides, they are factors that are presumably inherent in the professional practice. A cardinal mistake is trying to tell the reader what to think, or how the reader should think about you. Give the facts that lead to the conclusion you want the readers to reach, and if they can easily draw the conclusion you want them to reach, youíve won.

The Objectives of the Ad

Writing advertising copy begins, as you might expect, with defining objectives ó of the campaign, of the marketing program, of the specific ad. These objectives will be unique to you and your firm, to each campaign, and to each ad. They dictate that the thrust of the ads is focused and relevant to your firmís practice and marketing objectives. A good way to formulate advertising objectives is to consider what you want the reader or viewer to know, think, or feel after reading the ads.

Elements of a Good Ad

An ad that includes at least the following elements might be expected to be good:

  • Attention.. To capture the readerís eye, ear and heart, itís imperative that you compete successfully for attention. There should be some element in the ad ó whether itís the headline or the illustration or the layout ó that attracts the eye or ear and arouses sufficient interest to warrant attention to the message. And the copy itself must sustain that attention. But remember that the device you use to capture attention reflects on your firm. Frivolous attention ideas may imply a frivolous firm.
  • Promise of Benefit. Something in the ad should promise the reader or the listener some benefit that will accrue from accepting the adís premises. The reader is more interested in what you can do for him than in what you say about yourself. The benefit in professional services advertising is problem solving and trust.
  • Credibility. The premises of the ad must be believable, which is why, in addition to ethical codes, you canít say, ďWe can win your case,Ē or ďWe do better auditsĒ. These claims are neither sustainable nor believable.
  • Persuasiveness. The ad should lead the reader to understand that you have the skills to help. It must generate a desire to accept what you have to say about what you have to offer ó to want to do business with you.
  • Interest. Once youíve captured the readerís attention youíve got to say or show something to sustain interest, or the message will not be read or heard.
  • Action. A product ad may impel a prospective customer to run out and buy the product; the better the ad, the more effective the call to action. But few people are impelled to hire a law or accounting firm from an ad. The exception is an offer of a brochure or other such literature, or solicitation for the liability plaintiffís bar. In professional services marketing, the action to be elicited, then, is to recognize qualification, skills and the ability to solve problems ó to make readers want to do business with you rather than your competitors. The aim is to get through the readerís door.

The Foundation for an Ad

Ads work best when you clearly understand your market, and clearly understand how your service relates to the needs of that market.

An ad usually consists of three basic elements. The headline, the purpose of which is to attract attention and to bring the reader to the ad, the text, and the graphic, or illustration.

  • A headline that offers nothing to the reader in terms of either benefit or interest may effectively mask the cleverest ad, and one thatís offering the most useful service.
  • The text should spring from the headline, and follow through the promise it offers. It should explain and clarify the facts and claims.
  • The illustration, which should have some relevance to the text, or otherwise attract the reader to the text.
  • The ad usually ends with a logo and a signature for identification and impression, and sometimes also a slogan.

And again, every ad campaign, and every ad, should address the question: ďWhat do we want readers to know, think, or feel, after reading these ads?Ē

Writing the Copy

The artistry of advertising lies in the ability to manipulate symbols and ideas in order to inform and persuade people. As in any art form, there are no rules that can guide you in doing this, except to list those factors that seem to work most consistently. And yet, remember, some of the most successful ads are those that violate the rules.

Two universally accepted axioms are that an ad must be simple, and it must look and sound as if itís worth paying attention to. And obviously, it must be complete ó it must contain all the information you want to convey. These axioms ó if indeed they are axioms ó spring from the fact that few ads are successful when these rules are ignored. Beyond that, clarity is essential. No matter how an ad is written it must be understood and easy to read.

There are some other guidelines that professional copywriters also find useful:

  • Talk to the reader, the listener, or the viewer. Donít announce, donít preach. And donít get carried away by words and lose sight of the message. ďYouĒ is better than ďWeĒ.
  • Write short sentences, with easy and familiar words. You want the reader or listener to do the least possible work to get your message. Even when youíre talking to very bright people, communication is of the essence, not language manipulation.
  • Donít waste words. Whether you use three or a thousand words make sure each is exactly the one you need.
  • Try to avoid being formal. Youíre talking to people as people. Youíre not writing an insurance contract for lawyers. An ad is information and persuasion.
  • Use the present tense and the active voice. ďAll professional copywriters have extensive experience in preparing material,Ē rather than ď Ö extensive experience in the preparation of material.Ē. If you do want a formal style it should be deliberate, and you should have a clear idea of why you are using it.
  • Punctuate correctly. Punctuate to help the reader, and not merely to follow specific rules. The less punctuation the better, within the bounds of clarity, but donít be afraid to use it if it helps the flow of an idea. Donít be afraid to use contractions and personal pronouns, just as you would in chatting informally with a prospect. After all, thatís what youíre trying to accomplish in your ad.
  • Watch out for cliches. They turn some people off. More significantly, people donít hear them as they pass mindlessly off the tongue without bothering to visit the mind, and the point youíre trying to make is lost. (Again, unless youíre doing it deliberately.) To be enthusiastic and exciting is to be well along on the way to being interesting.
  • Humor is dangerous, unless youíre professionally funny. Nothing defeats an ad like unfunny ó and usually irrelevant ó ad copy.

Writing is not the manipulation of words ó itís the expression of ideas. Words, grammar and punctuation are merely the tools and devices we use to express ideas most clearly. To think of ad copy as a configuration of words is the same as thinking of a symphony as a configuration of notes.

Why do ads that seem well written sometimes not work? Because they miss these points of advertising. Because they attempt to merely translate somebodyís idea of persuasive talk into the ad medium, which can sometimes be like wearing a tuxedo to the gym. Because they donít know that ďYouĒ is better than ďWeĒ. Because they didnít bother to learn the market.

And because somebody didnít recognize that the art of advertising copywriting is not the art of literary writing. Different medium, different art form.

These principles are based on long experience ó mostly mine ó and not on academic theory. e-Mail me if you have any questions.


Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com) and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is marcus@marcusletter.com. Copyright 2010 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.

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