On the Edge: It`s Hip to be Square

11.01.02
By Deborah McMurray
Published in Strategies: The Journal of Legal Marketing

"It`s Hip to be Square," so says Cheryl Berman, Chair and Chief Creative Officer of Leo Burnet USA. "Being ‘out of the box’ means being edgy, and edgy is out. People are more skeptical of hotshot know-it-alls. They want track records, proof of what you can really do, what you can really deliver." – American Way 9-01-02

The packs of law firm leaders who struggle with catching up, let alone stepping out push their club chairs aside and clink glasses at the prospect of finally being hip. They think this means they don’t have to be creative and innovative after all—they can celebrate, once again, making money the old-fashioned way. They can get back to the legal business of their forefathers.

These law firms find comfort in being neatly "in the box." Every city and town has plenty of boxed-up firms. It’s easy to recognize them in their brochures, advertising campaigns (if they step out this far) and client programs—they all look and sound just alike. Staid, conservative, afraid of being different.

Edgy might be out, but creativity is way in. In Robert Sutton’s book, Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation ( Free Press, 2001 ), he discusses innovation and creativity in a way that is perhaps foreign to even the most successful and profitable law firms.

He says, ". . . creativity isn`t about wild talent as much as it`s about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don`t. It`s a pure numbers game. . . Artistic geniuses don`t necessarily have a higher success rate than other creators; they simply do more—and they do a range of different things. They have more successes and more failures. That goes for teams and companies too."

How many of us in working with law firms have the time, budget or inclination to accept the wreckage of creative failure, even knowing that it’s possibly a precursor to creative success? Few firms have the patience or tolerance for ideas that don’t work. The practical, if unspoken result is that marketers might hold back, try to avoid mistake-making and do the safe thing. There isn’t the luxury of marketing R&D in law firms, and there aren’t enough thought leaders inside the firms to support and sustain the notion that bad ideas will ultimately lead to really good ideas.

As Robert Sutton points out, "every bit of evidence demonstrates that it is impossible to generate a few good ideas without generating a lot of bad ideas. The thing about creativity is that you can`t tell at the outset which ideas will succeed and which will fail."

There is another truth about creativity. Sutton quotes Henry Miller, who said that, "All geniuses are leeches"—meaning that it isn’t so much about original creation as it is "using old ideas in new ways, places and combinations." Law firms should be able to do this well. All it takes is the ability to shift perceptions and opinions about things, think in more than two dimensions and swap a complacent view with a fresh one.

"In the box" doesn’t have to mean ordinary and comfortable and safe. It can mean taking familiar, fundamental values and truths and letting them be the source of new creativity, innovation and inspiration.

Deborah McMurray is a strategic marketing consultant to the legal industry. She can be reached at 214.351.9690 or mcmurray@contentpilot.net.

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