Guest: Kira Sandmann, Vice President of Marketing at Brown Gibbons Lang & Company
Episode 73: Contrasting Legal Marketing with Investment Banking Marketing
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Kira Sandmann, Vice President of Marketing for Brown Gibbons Lang & Company, an investment banking firm based in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to this, Kira worked in marketing for two different law firms. Today, she’ll talk with us about the similarities and differences she sees between the legal world and that of investment banking, and what she’s focusing on in terms of marketing for her current employer. Kira, welcome to the podcast.
Kira: Thank you, Sharon. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your career path. How did you get into legal marketing and professional services marketing in general? What’s attracted you and kept your attention?
Kira: As I think is true for many of my peers, I fell into legal marketing. I got my bachelor’s degree in English and then decided to pursue my MBA in international business. When I graduated, I had hoped to get a job with a big global company so that I could live and work abroad. So, imagine my surprise when I graduated in 2007 and was not instantly presented with several of these opportunities. Seriously though, that was right when it had started to become hard to find a job, period, but I think in hindsight, I also learned that if I had to do it all over again, I might have been better off working for a couple of years in between getting my degrees, if that helps anybody who’s listening. That’s my hot tip for you. I will say I did have the benefit of having two really high-quality internships while I was in college and business school, and they were both for non-profits. The first one was at what is now Nationwide Children’s Hospital Foundation in Columbus, Ohio, and the other was for Akron Community Foundation. Both of these internships were in marketing and communications; writing articles and talking points, doing research, newsletter design, website management, and that was exactly the skill set that a Cleveland law firm was looking for in a marketing coordinator role. Tom Smanik, who I worked for for almost eight years at Hahn Loeser & Parks, told me later that he’d hired me because I had all the skills they needed, but also because I’d worked for non-profits. He was pretty sure that if I could successfully navigate that environment, which is also often filled with big personalities and competing demands, that I would probably do well in the law firm environment, and I think he was right. I think that was a good matchup between what can I do and what kind of environment is a good fit for my personality type.
Once I was in my marketing coordinator role in this new law firm, I found that I liked the work. It was the kind of thing I liked doing. It was challenging, but it was also intellectually stimulating. I was constantly learning new things about the law and the work involved in each practice area. We were always a very small team. That’s been true of every department I’ve led in my career, including the one I’m in now, and it was true at Hahn Loeser, too. We were three marketers in a firm of fewer than a hundred attorneys when I started, although that grew to 130, I think, by the time I left. We were a small team. It was fast-paced, but I really liked that. Tom was also a great person to work for and to learn from, and I have to mention that as well. I think that’s always a factor. I’ve been blessed with a lot of good bosses over the course of my career, but I worked with Tom the longest and I think he taught me the most. All of those different factors led to me landing in the right place, but also staying for quite a long time. Eight years at one firm, especially starting out in your career, I think is a long time. I certainly never intended to stay that long, but especially because we were a small team, there was always room for advancement, and that was a big hook for me as well. I think it goes that those who work in professional services are typically high achievers by nature, and so the pursuits of the next rung on the ladder, the next goal start, I think many of us are into feeling that sense of accomplishment.
Sharon: Absolutely, I’m sure a lot of people can identify with that. You recently moved to be VP of Marketing with an investment banking firm. Besides the salary and location, what attracted you to moving to an investment bank? Did you say, “O.K., I’ve had it with law firms,” or “This sounds interesting”?
Kira: I definitely hadn’t had it with law firms, but I had gotten to a point in my career where I started to get a little bit stagnated. There were many big projects that I had tracked and initiatives that I was really proud of, but there were certain things, especially in my immediate past role, where I could see the writing on the wall and I was feeling like I was coming up against the end of my time as a change agent for that organization. Jon Mattson, who many people listening to this podcast will know, once said to me that he views himself as a change agent, and it’s usually about four to six years that you have in any given role, at that top level, to come in and really make a difference and make big changes. Then, at some point within or about that time, you’re going to start running up against what you’re able to do, and that’s when it’s time to look for your next opportunity. I never forgot that advice he gave me, and I started thinking about that a lot in my old role. I could feel that time was coming. I didn’t know if I was quite there yet, but then I happened to get the call from BGL. Exploring the two environments, I saw enough change to make it exciting, but enough similarity between the two that I thought I could come into this role and start from ground zero and help them build a department, build a marketing function almost from the ground up. I really liked that. I saw myself doing that within the course of my career, and I loved that opportunity to take something and almost build it from scratch.
That was what they were looking for at BGL. Again, if you’re looking at a Venn diagram between law firms and financial services, especially on the marketing side, all the needs are almost exactly the same, or they’re so similar that it really does feel like a one-for-one. I like that where it differs is in business development. I’m sure we’ll cover that at some point in our conversation as well, but that was the impetus behind the move, feeling like I was looking for my next opportunity in the back of my head. It could have been another law firm, but it ended up being a call from an investment banking firm. Once I got to know the firm and the people here, and I felt like it was a good fit for those other X factors we’re all looking for, when it came down to the work, that seemed like a no-brainer.
Sharon: So, the timing was really good, it sounds like.
Kira: I think they were slightly ahead of my own timeline, but not so far ahead that I wasn’t ready to take another leap. It’s always a bit of a leap anytime you make a change, but I was ready.
Sharon: They say every new job should be a stretch. How big a stretch is always the question.
Sharon: What surprised you most about working with an investment banking firm and with investment bankers as opposed to lawyers? It’s a totally different personality.
Kira: It is a big difference in personality, and I think that was the biggest surprise. The bankers I’ve had the opportunity to work with here, it feels more like a collegial environment. I was having this conversation with a friend in the legal marketing industry who also happens to be an attorney, and she has some really good insight on that. She was saying, “Well, think about it. Bankers typically have their MBA. That’s the degree they pursue, and in business school, it’s all about teamwork. They learn how to work in teams and how to collaborate.” So, it’s just more of a collegial environment in that respect, and the expectation is that you all work together to get the job done. It’s very different in law school, obviously. It’s a totally different framework. The competition is different. It’s kind of everybody for himself. It’s a very different attitude and mindset from a young age, so it has been a pleasure to be here so far. I feel as though I truly have a seat at the table and that they look to me to be the voice of their marketing. They want my input. They want my strategy. They’re just as hard to catch as lawyers. They are all the same type A, really busy, constantly traveling, and if they’re not traveling, they’re off running a marathon or climbing mountains or something else crazy. That is similar. It can be hard to get their focus and attention because they’re always doing something, but for those of us who have come up in legal marketing, that’s the same old, same old. We know how to tackle that once we get to know the individual players.
That is, at a high level, the main difference that I found, and a really positive one, obviously. I think the biggest difference between the two—again, it’s not really a surprise, but what I mentioned earlier about the business development side. Law firms obviously strive to grow their client base in total but also by client. By that I mean if you bring in a client for IP work, you look to see if they also have needs in corporate litigation. You want to do as much work as possible across as many practice areas as possible for each of the firm’s clients.
In investment banking, it’s almost all deal based. A repeat client for us happens maybe two or three times in 10 years, depending on their needs. For us, it’s more about new client acquisition than growing or maintaining a stable of clients, but we rely to a large degree on referral marketing. We work with many law firms and accounting firms on the deals we do as well as on lead generation. Part of my role at BGL is to focus pretty heavily on digital marketing for this purpose, which I’m excited about. That, I think, is a major difference, especially as the legal industry has been trending toward client service, client experience, all the things that would help them focus on maintaining and growing the clients they have, rather than going out and getting new clients, although that’s also important. That’s the big point of divergence I see between the two industries. That’s the biggest one.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. I had a brief experience with an investment banking firm. Investment bankers, to me, tend to be more risk-takers or more willing to put themselves out there—not in a bad way, but they have more of a sales personality, maybe because they know that’s the only way they’re going to survive, as opposed to lawyers.
Kira: I think that’s true. I think that’s a keen observation because they live and die by their current deal, and they always have to be going out to get the next deal before this one’s done. I know lawyers will say the same thing, that the best time to be doing business development is before you need to be doing business development. While you’re still working on current matters, go out and get your next matter. It’s similar, but I do think it’s even more live or die in the IB world. At my firm in particular—and this is one of the things I respect about them—BGL is not a deal shop. There are a lot of other firms out there that bring in several deals at once, and it’s O.K. with them if a few of them don’t close because they have others to rely on. At our firm, every deal matters. We do fewer deals because we want to close every single one. Every single one is important, and we want to bring them to a conclusion. It also makes it more important that we get that done for firm financial health. Especially at the highest level, our managing directors work extremely hard to be out there finding the next opportunity for the firm because it makes a big difference here.
Sharon: You and I talked a little about brand alignment. How would you describe brand alignment? Does brand alignment differ from a brand or when you’re talking about branding? I’ll let you address that.
Kira: There might be other people who would disagree with me on this, but I think there’s a difference. Brand alignment is part of branding, but I think it’s a distinct thing. Basically, when you’re rebranding, it’s a full rebrand, a complete start-from-scratch effort where the organization takes a step back and looks at who they are and who they want to be. They have the opportunity to completely reinvent their look, feel, messaging and how they connect with their audience. When you’re working on brand alignment, by contrast, you’ve got a brand that is strong, that the firm’s leadership likes and feels is an accurate reflection of the organization, but there are a few weak points that need to be shored up or inconsistencies that need to be addressed. The goal with alignment is not to do a complete overall, but to do a systematic audit of all the ways your brand is being presented in the marketplace and ensure that your organization is delivering the same experience every single time.
Sharon: The word “brand” is my pet peeve because brand is bandied around. Everybody thinks that a logo is a brand. Can you give us some examples of how you’ve looked at the aspects of your organization and said, “O.K., we’re not communicating. It doesn’t support our brand.” Do you have any examples you can discuss?
Kira: I have been with my firm for seven months at this point, and in my mind, I’ve completed phase one of our brand alignment. I think there’s a phase two to what I want to do. I just want to give that small caveat because I think the things I’ve taken a look at here should be the first things that anybody, anywhere takes a look at if you’re evaluating the brand, but I also do think there’s a little bit more. I’ll touch on that at the very end. What I always recommend is to start at the epicenter of a brand, which is the logo, and then to work out from there. So, from the logo to the rest of the identity pieces, like color palette, font, taglines, key imagery, through to the printed pieces your organization has, like letterhead and advertisements, and then out to the brand digital footprint, so website, social medial marketing, email marketing templates, etc.
In my case, we did have an existing, albeit outdated, brand standard guide. When I arrived, the firm was also pretty close to completing a website redesign they had been working on for a year plus by the time I had gotten there. Although they hadn’t done a full branding exercise as part of the website redesign, the nice thing was that the new site naturally had a much fresher look and feel than the old website or any of the existing collateral we had. What made the most sense to me was to combine the still-useful elements of the brand standards guide they had, the core elements, and then use the updated design elements that were provided by the web design firm in order to refresh the brand. It was taking the core elements, upping those and modernizing those. In our case, it did mean a few logo tweaks and creating extra versions of the logo. That seems like such a small thing, but I assure you, if you have one version of your logo in your file, like one JPEG, it’s not enough. Not for all the prints and digital needs the brand has; not just your logo, but your logo mark if you have versions of the tagline and/or a website address, all those things.
Again, this is what I mean when I say this is phase one stuff. There are so many foundational elements to a brand, and those all have to be consistent first before you can level up from there. Anyway, I took those two things and worked to merge them together so that everything in the brand was similar in look, feel and tone. If you go to our website and then our LinkedIn page, it’s a similar experience. We look like the same company across that digital footprint. That’s really important to maintain your brand’s integrity. Things like that were a number one when I got here, to take care of those sorts of things. Where I’d like to go from here is phase two. Once you’ve gotten all of those elements nailed down, uniform and consistent, next is to focus on messaging and take a look at who your brand is and who you want to be. Every brand should be at least a bit aspirational. Maybe they’re not 100% there today, but who do they want to be? Then it’s chicken and egg with your branding to help you get there, both internal marketing with your employees and then, obviously, external marketing and using other things to make sure your messaging to each of your audiences is where it should be.
Sharon: Have you encountered any resistance from your bankers? Is there anything that’s different than what you might have experienced at a law firm, in terms of people wanting to be involved? You might have this camel that’s done by committee or people saying, “What’s wrong with the old one?” The one that always floors me is, “Why do we even have to brand?”
Kira: Overall, it has been a pretty smooth experience. I haven’t encountered a lot of resistance for a couple of reasons: (a) because I don’t think I’m trying to overhaul a system. I do think it can be challenging when you’re doing a full rebrand and you really are changing what the firm looks like. You can encounter resistance. Because I didn’t have to do that at BGL, that was helpful from the start. Chiefly, I also have the backing of our firm’s executive committee for things like tweaking the logo and doing all of these things. That’s what they brought me in for. That’s what they wanted me to do. Those are the kinds of things they expected to see. I was communicating with them on, “Here is what I’d like to do. Here’s why. Here’s the game plan. Here’s the timing. Here’s the email that I’d like to send internally to roll this out to everybody.” Keeping them in very close quarters in terms of making sure they were on board meant that when I rolled everything out, if anybody did have an objection, I had the backing of the executive committee to either explain or stand shoulder-to-shoulder as I was trying to continue down this path. I did have some resistance, shockingly, out of all the things I changed or updated, to tweaking our logo. The old version of our logo was literally stretched along the horizontal axis. I don’t know if it was accidental or if somebody had done it intentionally years ago, thinking that it looked good, but old versions of our logo—to me, you look at it and you think, “Yeah, it looks like somebody tried to size that wrong.” We’ve all done that at some point when you first learn how to size a logo or a picture correctly. All we did was fix that. We just unstretched it, and we did tweak a couple of small things, but literally things that to the naked eye were indiscernible. Yet still, when I sent the email with the old logo and the new logo, I was very surprised to have some negative reaction to that. I was not expecting that.
Sharon: That’s funny.
Kira: Yeah, it was very funny. It was the one thing I never would have seen coming. But it also blew over pretty quickly and we all moved on, and again, I have the backing. It’s just like, “Well, I hate that you don’t love it, because I think it’s great, but this is what we’re going to do. I’m pretty sure that after a week or two, you won’t even know the difference anymore.”
Sharon: It makes a tremendous difference if you have the backing of the executive committee as opposed to having to go against them—not against, but having to persuade them over and over. Kira, thank you so much. This is very interesting and it’s refreshing to talk to somebody who’s moved on to an investment banking firm. Thank you so much.
That wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst. If you would like to contact Kira, we’ll have her information in the show notes. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can help you move your firm forward. Thanks so much for listening.
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