I’ve seen lawyers lose patience when they’ve asked a credible, professional design firm to do a task (design an ad or brochure) and the design firm commences with a questions process. “Can’t they just design the darn ad?!” I’ve been asked.

It’s doubtful a lawyer would visit their doctor and expect to get an appropriate treatment plan without a proper diagnosis first taking place. Yet those same individuals sometimes subscribe to the “I’ll know it when I see it” design process: the most inefficient, expensive and ineffective way possible to get good design work done.

Designers aren’t clairvoyant. They hear you when you say you want an ad, of a certain size, to be placed in a certain publication, and focussed on a certain practice area. But showing up for a competition is not the same as preparing to win the competition. Designers want your ad (or brochure or whatever) to get noticed, accurately reflect your brand, and have a compelling message for your intended audience. And they can’t ensure that it serves all of those objectives unless they have more information.

Firms that have trained marketing staff can rely on those staff members to create a design brief for the designers. This is a document that tells the designers everything they need to know about the marketing piece except what the design should look like. A design brief would typically include the following info (assuming for this purpose that we’re talking about an ad):

• Name of project
• Contact person
• Lead lawyer/lawyers involved
• Publication name
• Date of placement in publication
• Specs (size, black and white v. colour, inside ad or back cover, etc.)
• Purpose of the ad (what do you want to achieve by placing this ad?)
• Target audience (probably not the entire readership but perhaps a particular demographic?)
• Any desired images (i.e. use these lawyer photos) or information about the type of image(s) you would like included.
• Any desired content (i.e. anything you want absolutely want included i.e. website address)
• Anything that should be avoided (i.e. images, words, phrases, concepts)
• Timeline
• Process (who needs to approve it, at what stages)

When a request is accompanied by a design brief, the design firm has a much better starting point. In the absence of such a document, the best way for a design professional to deliver what you need in an impactful and cost-effective way is to take you through an information collection process to obtain these details.

While all of the above information is important from a delivery perspective, the most important piece of information needed from a design perspective is this: what is the purpose of the ad? Design will follow function. Is the purpose of the ad simply to have people learn/remember the name and logo? Is it to make your target market aware that your firm practices in a particular area? Is it to introduce a new member of your firm and describe why the reader should take note? Is it to encourage readers to download a white paper or research you’ve recently done about their legal area of interest? Is it to promote your expertise in a very specific area of law within a particular practice area? Is it to announce a new location? Is it to demonstrate your commitment to community through support of a grass roots cause? Or is the purpose something else entirely? Each of these purposes should result in a very different-looking ad.  Without knowing the purpose, a design firm can at best develop a generic and minimally helpful ad.

Firms typically spend 3-5% of the previous year’s gross revenues on marketing. This budget must be spread between general institutional marketing, support for all practice areas, and support of all lawyers. That means that every marketing initiative must do more than simply exist: it must fulfil a designated purpose, and be of sufficient design to attract the appropriate attention.

It’s not simply a matter of cost. I’ve seen lawyers suggest that as an ad in a program is “free” with their sponsorship, we needn’t work too hard on the ad. But every piece of marketing with the firm logo says something about the firm. And consider the chances that other ads in the program have been more carefully developed than yours. An ad that obviously hasn’t been too deeply considered, that doesn’t take into account the audience or seem to have a purpose other than to check the “delivered an ad” box will definitely send a message to the audience. It just might not the message you want to send.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com