The “Who-What-What”: Advertising Strategy Made Simple

In the advertising business, where “The Strategy” has always held mystical significance, many thousands of person-hours have been devoted to refining how a strategy is developed.

The goal is a document that puts everyone on the same page: creative people, account people, research, media, and yes, the client. A good strategy document imposes order and unity of purpose on any marketing effort. Most important, it gives the creatives a single, coherent platform they can use to bring the strategy to life through advertising.

In my time, I have seen strategies take dozens of forms, most of them tedious. My favorite, the one I have stuck with—the one that has pulled me out of any number of creative jams—just happens to be the simplest.

It’s called the “Who-What-What.”

It asks just three questions, which I have slightly modified for my own purposes:

Note: While I’m talking specifically about advertising strategy here, the same questions may be applied all the way up the strategy food chain. Any general marketing strategy can benefit from this exercise. As can your overall firm strategy. Whether you view your market from 40,000 feet or from ground level, a good strategy should work at any altitude.

Let’s take the questions one at a time:

WHO are you talking to?

This question usually has a short answer, but that doesn’t make it any less important in your thinking.

The default target audience for AmLaw firms is the C-suite of mid-to-large corporations. While the C-suite is assumed to include general counsel, it is sometimes preferable to target GCs separately, tailoring both the messaging and the language to in-house legal departments.

Well-reasoned variations on the default target set can be refreshing, but you need to know how to reach the targets you decide on. Are you going vertical—targeting specific industries in trade publications? Or will you go horizontal—using general business and/or legal pubs to carry your message across a range of industries?

Generally, the “Who” question should be answered as narrowly as your marketing plan and budget allow. Targeting everyone in the technology sector is probably far too broad. Targeting GCs in mid-sized software companies serving digital media start-ups in the NY-NJ metro area might be too narrow (though a good media planner will regard it as a worthwhile challenge). Mostly, your “Who” answers will fall somewhere between these extremes.

WHAT are they stressed about?

Clients in every industry—and of every practice area—have their “pain points.” Some are general to all companies in the current business environment—adapting benefit plans to comply with Obamacare comes to mind. Some are specific to particular developments in particular industries—increased regulation of financial services falls into this category.

But whatever keeps your clients up at night, you want to know about it. You want to describe it in your strategy, in as much detail as you can muster. You want to be inside the head of your prospects. And you want to understand their business problems on a personal level.

In a client service business, a deep understanding of client mindsets is crucial.

WHAT can you do about it?

Armed with that understanding, you next want to lay out your firm’s singular ability to reduce clients’ stress. I say “singular” because your messaging must never promise to be all things to all people. Rather, you should be able to address your targets in specific terms, based both on your firm’s understanding of their pain points and its ability to mitigate them. The more detail you can bring to this question, the better.

This is where differentiation, that most elusive of qualities, comes in. For all but the most rarefied high-stakes matters, savvy prospects regard both attorneys and their firms as fungible—with few if any differences between them.

But that doesn’t excuse you from seeking those differences wherever you can find them. If your firm is particularly strong in a certain type of matter, this belongs in your strategy. If you have particular insight into topical issues of specific industries, these need to be included.

Nowadays, differentiation needn’t come just from your lawyers. If you can tell a good story about pricing, project management, or budget predictability, GCs will be all ears.

Keeping it real

Whatever goes into your Who-What-What needs to be firmly grounded in reality. It can’t be faked. If your firm is not fully—and demonstrably—capable of delivering on its promises, no amount of marketing will make it so.

Similarly, at the risk of overstating the obvious, your strategy exists to address the firm’s prospects—not its partners. Far too many firms end up running ads that talk to themselves. They address their markets in self-centered terms, unsupported by meaningful insight into the needs of their target audience. The partners decide—in the absence of any compelling evidence—what their prospects need to know about the firm. They are often wrong.

In a way, your strategy’s entire reason for being is to avoid this mistake. In compiling a Who-What-What, you first need to take a rigidly realistic view of your firm, and then get the partners to buy into this view. It may not be easy. But the results can be highly rewarding.

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