Insights > Why law firms undervalue advertising


Why law firms undervalue advertising

Why law firms undervalue advertising

Earlier this year, Thompson Reuters released their “State of Global Legal Marketing & BD” report. As a piece of research it is well worth a read, analysing the opinions and experiences of ~250 global participants at law firms from mid-size to large and benchmarking various market and financial insights.

There are so many insightful snippets here to digest. But one that stood out as quite a shock was this slide below.

Ranked least effective of all marketing activities was advertising. 

Social Media, Client Education and Client Visits all rounded out the top three (no argument from me there), PR and Client Interviews featured in the top 5, with Web Strategy hot on the heels, again very sensible. Waaay down the tail though we find advertising.

Why is advertising, one of a marketers' most powerful tools, so undervalued by law firms? Are law firms missing out on an opportunity or are they working within constraints that other firms don't have to?

Difficulty differentiating the firm

The first and most obvious reason firms undervalue advertising is that what they can and cannot say is regulated. 

But the problem is deeper than that. 

At their core, firms differentiate themselves via client service, expertise and practice area specialisation. Each of these factors are hugely valuable to clients, yet next to impossible to use as the basis of an advertising campaign. We've all seen copy from services firms to the tune of:

“We have the most knowledgeable lawyers”

“We deliver the highest quality client service”

At best, these types of claims sound generic; at worst, they sound disingenuous or could cause the firm to be in breach of laws around what they can and can't say.

Yet there is an opportunity for firms that prioritize distinctiveness to excel. Research has shown that differentiation in advertising is less important than previously thought, and that strong, distinctive adverts can help brands occupy more of the audience's mental availability.

A lack of expertise

On the CMO Series Podcast, we speak with legal CMO's every week about their careers and how they came to their role at the peak of their craft. Across the almost 150 CMO's we've interviewed, over 120 episodes, not a single CMO has had a background in advertising. 

Backgrounds as lawyers, business development professionals, PR consultants or operational experts have been frequent stories - yet there is yet to be a senior legal marketer we've met who has deep experience in advertising.

Within the teams of those CMO's as well, there will often be teams focused on digital, communications, PR, client service, MarTech, events etc, yet very seldom a specialist advertising function. Without top level familiarity and executional fluency, advertising will struggle to become a part of a law firm's strongest marketing tools.

Difficulty in proving the value of advertising

Did anyone spot the second to last placed marketing activity on the effectiveness scale? While it didn't win the wooden spoon, CRM & data management had a particularly poor showing.

These two factors are linked. Without an effective CRM and data management process, showing the value of any marketing activity is compromised. Yet other activities such as events, PR or social media have demonstrable interactions with clients and prospects that can be linked to revenue generation.

Of all the platforms that offer advertising, only LinkedIn and, to a lesser extent, Facebook offer firmographic targeting that would allow engagement to be attributed to specific firms.

An interesting feature of this data is social media at the top end of the spectrum, with advertising that can be run on social media easily and effectively bringing up the rear. That effect may be caused by this next reason.


Complexity of the nature of services 

A CMO once described legal marketing to me like this: “A law firm is a shop with a thousand brands and one marketer to grow all of them." The sentiment is a useful one in understanding how difficult advertising is for law firms.

Proctor & Gamble, arguably the greatest marketing organisation on earth, do not advertise P&G, but their brands are as iconic as they are heavily advertised. From Head and Shoulders to Old Spice, from Braun to Oral B, from Vicks to Olay, the list goes on. These are iconic brands built on excellent marketing strategies and aggressive advertising spending.

A law firm's multiple service lines, practice groups, industry and sector offerings and even individual partners and lawyers operate like these brands, with distinct (if overlapping in places) target audiences, selling propositions, price points, competition and a dozen other factors that define ad strategy. 

The structure of firms makes it difficult to make specific, impactful advertising. Yet perhaps those firms that can find the right balance of granularity may find themselves in an undercontested advertising space.

Advertising is difficult to get buy-in for

I can see an effective law firm advertising campaign built like this. Effective advertising campaigns tend to have these commonalities.

  • Strong brand asset use
  • Strategically target broad markets for a few key service offerings
  • Consistent, distinctive & memorable creative
  • Long term commitment to developing excess share of voice

When you factor in the other challenges I listed above, this approach to advertising seems like it would be difficult to get buy-in from the lawyers and wider-firm. How do you decide which markets to leave out? How to you gain consensus and commit to consistent and distinctive creative? How do you maintain this approach long-term? The power dynamics of a law firm make these difficult questions to answer in practice.


Is there an opportunity for firms to master advertising?

Professional services firms have been shown to be particularly sensitive to excess share of voice. That is to say, advertising works in professional services too. In fact, services firms have more than twice the esov efficiency of other B2B companies.

So the potential is there, for a capable firm to capture a disproportionate share of the market by taking advantage of other firms' inability to overcome the constraints preventing advertising from being effectively used.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to advertising being effective is not the marketers, the advertising tools or the way firms are structured. It is engaging lawyers and explaining the need and opportunity. This biggest barrier may prove to be the biggest reason that firms need to adopt advertising. 

In the movement of marketing from the outskirts of law firms to the center of their strategy. Being able to deploy a marketing tool that needs little to no lawyer engagement to work could be a game changer.