The Defense Rests, Innovative Thinking Shouldn’t

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Recently the Globe and Mail and the Financial Post reported on the branding aspirations of prominent law firms (Gordon Pitts, “Branding trend sweeps legal industry,” Globe, November 19, 2001 and Gerald Owen, “Legal marketing 101,” Financial Post, Nov 28, 2001).These firms are hoping brand-name status will be the key to winning high-end, non price-sensitive work from deep-pocketed clients.


They may want to be brand names but can they get over the hurdles along the way to achieving that distinction? For many years law firms have struggled with marketing, some even arguing over why they should market themselves. A few firms are obviously getting over the first and most important hurdle, which is to accept implicitly that developing a deep and effective organizational brand is of genuine commercial value. But this still leaves the question of how to do it: Fasken Martineau’s fancy new swirling logo is meant to evoke a meaningful identity for legal excellence; Gowlings’ marketers allegedly think the cosmetic industry offers a viable model for law firm brand development; a recent newspaper advertisement proclaimed Borden Ladner Gervais to be the firm that “Proudly Promotes Forward Thinking.”

The usual branding tactics -– logos and advertising –- are important elements in a marketing strategy. But it is difficult for these tactics to adequately convey the deep intellectual capital that has to be the cornerstone of any law firm’s brand. Effective differentiation demands more. Firms that want to stand out require a capacity for innovative thinking about marketing that most tradition-bound law firms do not now have.

They could start changing their old mindsets by making “imagineering” a core competence. I like this term. It comes from Disney and was introduced to me by Robert Sutton’s new book Weird Ideas that Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation (The Free Press, 2001). Sutton did not intend to write about branding but the book explains how organizations, if they open their minds, can effectively put meat on their brands’ bones. Law firm managing partners should read this book.

Although Sutton’s book title is weird, his message is not: Innovation must be a way of life, but it is hard to generate new ideas when we repeatedly reject people who see things differently. We love the “accepted way” because it is easy; the safest path is to find something that appears to work right now. And because most people hate taking risks, they won’t back programs that might fail or distract their pursuit of what they assume is the core business. There is, as a result, great organizational tension between exploiting old ideas and exploring new possibilities. Sutton’s message is that both are necessary: companies must follow proven techniques because they generate money right now; they must also embrace “imagineering” by experimenting, inventing, and testing new concepts that will make them money later.

Thinking differently does not mean upheaval or revolution; it does mean challenging and testing processes to ensure their veracity. Sutton encourages leaders to have hand-picked teams pursue ideas that clash with accepted management practices. To build the right kind of constantly creative team he advises selecting candidates who have “additional” skills that might help the firm in as-yet-unknown ways (because you never know what might come in handy), and hiring slow learners who not only take their time learning the corporate code, but who ultimately refuse to follow the herd. Getting managers to run interference for the true thinkers in an enabled organization may be hard for traditionalists to accept, but it is a prerequisite for long-term success.

If this has you reaching for a pack of Tums, you should know it gets worse. Sutton goes on to encourage companies to let their ideas out of the closet: Stop holding new ideas close to the vest out of concern that competitors will learn something. Excessive paranoia leads people to imagine their unique knowledge needs protecting, when sharing it actually produces greater benefits. There is more to be gained by being open, not least of which is being recognized by clients for your innovative thinking.

Sutton’s not-so-weird notions are relevant for law firms seeking to build new and meaningful brands because forging a deep, meaningful, and durable professional services brand requires exposing and promoting – and perhaps even popularizing – intellectual capital. Thought leadership is what the law firms have overlooked in their branding strategies; ask McKinsey & Company or Booz-Allen Hamilton if it works. In both cases, promoting innovative thinking in content-heavy books, articles, and web sites – all integrated and branded to the firms – substantively publicizes the organization’s capabilities and its bench strength. Transforming their intellectual leadership into marketable content has given both firms commanding global presences and the right to charge huge fees. It provides their clients with the tangible evidence they need to evaluate their expertise and make purchasing decisions. And it helps create community that sustains the client’s interest in the firm and maintains meaningful, loyal relationships.

Thought leadership is not for the faint of heart. Leading with ideas requires courage and conviction that most organizations don’t have. But courage does pay off. An interesting new study from Watson Wyatt (“Human Capital as a Lead Indicator of Shareholder Value”) suggests firms that support creative thinking reap rewards. Specifically the study demonstrates that placing new employees into an intellectually innovative and welcoming environment is essential to generating superior shareholder returns. Thinking innovatively about how to create a well-differentiated brand has led many top organizations to make thought leadership a central component of their brand strategy. If they once did this on faith, companies promoting thought leadership as a core value can now be assured that by encouraging employees’ intellectual achievements they are truly helping the corporation to succeed over the long term.

Knowledge Marketing Watch

And while I’m promoting thought leadership as a marketing tool in one industry, it seems I have to defend it in another. Particularly I’m thinking of a Financial Post story that claimed Ted Cadsby had been told to quiet down by CIBC management (Derek DeCloet, Shift in CIBC focus puts whizz in closet,” December 5, 2001).

Cadsby is the president of CIBC Securities and in 1999 he published The Power of Index Funds (Stoddart). The book does not carry CIBC’s imprint but it was used by Cadsby to promote his professional activities and his intellectual leadership boosted the profile of CIBC. DeCloet’s reportage suggests the bank’s senior executives think either that Cadsby has received enough press or that Cadsby’s gospel no longer fits with their strategy. But stopping the promotion of his intellectual ideas comes with a risk. Will talented players like Ted Cadsby stick around if management doesn’t value their ideas? If this star leaves, the bank loses someone whose intellectual thinking could have been further harnessed to pull CIBC’s marketing to new levels and inspire others.

Employees who can promote an organization’s thought leadership should not be treated lightly. Silencing one of its stars – if that is indeed the case – isn’t a swift move. Perhaps CIBC managers should read Sutton’s book, too.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, January-February 2002)

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