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Holiday cards, marketing & lawyers

I like marketing — I’m an advertising lawyer after all. Well, according to my elevator pitch I’m a “competition, advertising and regulatory lawyer.”

Since being in the law trade, some 18 years now, I’ve had a fairly good opportunity to watch lawyers marketing around Christmas —  or, sorry — the “holidays.”

When I was a young (well, younger) lawyer on Bay Street, one of my first memories of holiday cards came around mid-November. One of my assistants — associates in my firm then had two they shared with a partner (one day assistant, one night assistant, plus an all night pool) — asked me how many cards I wanted. "What cards?" I asked. "Christmas cards. How many do you want?"

You would get a stack — however many you wanted, really — fill them out, plop them back on your assistant’s desk, then they’d go out. How? When? Who knows, this was a Bay Street thing. That was around the year 2000. Before then, Christmas cards were those things that arrived every year, in small numbers, from distant relatives that you never really looked at but got stacked along the fireplace mantel.

But as I say, around 2000 on Bay Street, there was a flurry of Christmas cards being printed, delivered to associate and partner desks, returned to assistant desks, mailed out and received by other associates and partners at other firms, and some clients too, probably. Maybe hundreds of thousands of them. This wasn’t your distant relatives, this was marketing.

Back then it was customary for the partners (at least in my firm) to hang them up on the blinds in their offices. Who knew that something as apparently utilitarian as window blinds were so good at displaying the rafts of Christmas cards partners and some associates received back then. Some partners’ windows were filled with the things. My bet, although I can’t substantiate this, is that there were mini-nuclear wars going on between partners in firms and between firms as to who received the most, and from whom.

When I first got asked how many cards I wanted I replied, “50.” This had nothing to do with how many people I knew — it was a number I heard a partner tell his assistant. Nonetheless, I managed to fill out and get 50 cards sent that year. I’m really not very sure what all my recipients did with my cards. Hopefully some hung them on their blinds in their offices.

Fast forward a few years (like about 10) and I happened to be working with a litigation firm on the west coast. When holiday card time came around, both in this firm and others I knew like it, the debate among the lawyers had turned to “what to include with the cards.”

Some hours were spent discussing and analyzing whether a branded mouse-pad was more likely to stay on a client’s or prospect’s desk than, say, a flash-drive, calendar or other mass-produced trinket. The length of the discussion was invariably how long the thingy sent out would stay in the client’s or prospect’s office. This was all quite serious marketing and debated at some length.

Fast forward again to today. The entire Christmas/holiday card phenomenon has become rather odder still.

First, there is the debate about whether to send Christmas cards, holiday cards or simply cards that don’t bear any resemblance to any religion at all — winter scenes, trees covered in snow or coloured lights wrapped around something, often the lawyers in the firm. Well, that’s fine with me. This seems like a sensible evolution. Lawyers are sometimes far too serious — I like to see them trying to look professional wrapped in a string of coloured lights.

Second, paper cards have apparently (and for a few years now) given way to electronic cards. Some of these are simple electronic cards — one page, one message. Others are infused with music, photos of the firms and lawyers. Others still are multi-stage technological affairs, combined with other marketing, like newsletters, upcoming events and charities the lawyer or law firm is contributing to. 

My question here, however, is if these are intended as marketing, how long do these stick around? A second? Ten seconds, once read? Ten seconds once unearthed from email inboxes?

This development, though it may well be based on younger lawyers’ concerns of the environment and firm efficiencies, does not strike me as the most strategic marketing. I’ve been receiving increasing numbers of these over the past few years, from lawyers, law firms and business contacts, and I think the average life expectancy of email holiday cards in my inbox might be around five seconds.

Somewhat stranger still than the flurry of electronic cards are the (dwindling) paper ones that still arrive every year. Despite their greater environmental impact (I do recycle them), I like these. I am, however, always curious to see what strategy the lawyer, law firm, real-estate agent, banker, broker or politician has taken. The real question is has anyone broken through the sound barrier of holiday-card marketing? Has anyone figured out an angle nobody has thought of before?

Alas, most are as dismal and unimaginative as the last 18 years of cards I’ve received. Some of them aren’t signed at all (like my local federal MP each year) or the real-estate broker that handled my most recent real-estate transaction who sent me a blank card.

Others, a mild step above in terms of marketing quality, include a cursory, although obviously rapidly written, signature with the sender’s name — often just their first name (perhaps to save time — understandable, given the busy time of year). Finally, some, and I do mean only some, include the rarest of all inscriptions — personally written, with a real pen, in genuine ink with content that describes some actual business transaction or personal experience sender and I had during the past year. Impressive, but rare.

Now while I’m an advertising lawyer, I’m not pretending to be any marketing savant. I do think, however, that next year I’m going to order 50 holiday cards — with nice, perhaps local winter scenes, printed with spiffy envelopes — maybe red, perhaps green. I’m going to send them to people I know. I’m also going to get a real pen, maybe red or green like the envelopes, to liven things up just a little, and write a real inscription to everyone I send them to. I think I’ll also install some new horizontal blinds in my office to hang the 15-20 paper cards that still arrive every year. Hopefully more next year with real inscriptions and signatures.

Happy holidays!