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October 14, 2013 Commentary

How Kemp Goldberg tickled Verrill Dana’s funny bone

PHOTo / Courtesy Kemp Goldberg Kemp Goldberg crafted an ad campaign for client Verrill Dana that uses humor to defy the notion that law firms are stuffy and pretentious.

Believe it or not, ad agencies have standards. If you're a fan of “Mad Men,” this will come as a surprise.

At Kemp Goldberg we use these standards to determine if potential clients are a good fit. Things like “Can marketing solve their problem?” and “Do they believe in the power of marketing?” Or, “Do we believe in their brand?” (That's a good one). Perhaps the most telling is, “Do they want a partner?” Not a “vendor.” Not a “supplier.” A “partner,” as in, they encourage us to use our experience, knowledge and abilities to help make a difference for their brand and their business.

When we were awarded Verrill Dana's marketing and PR business, we were excited. Elated. We're always happy when we win, and we were the proud owners of a shiny new law firm account. So far, so good, right? Except for one small thing.

Name a great ad from a law firm. Any ad. From anywhere.

Nothing, right? There's a reason for this. I'll explain.

According to conventional wisdom, law firms are all stuffy and serious. Humorless. Dry. Just-the-facts-thank-you-very-much. In short, nothing to see here, much less remember. This is hardly the stuff of dreams for an ad agency. After all, our job is to tell brand stories in a way that makes people feel something. If we're supposed to be communicating the heart and soul of a brand, what do we do if there isn't one?

I mean, we love a challenge, but seriously.

This is usually the point where we realize we're in way too deep, someone gets blamed and we call it a night. Unfortunately, it wasn't even mid-morning yet. Clearly, we were going to need a plan.

First, we immersed ourselves in Verrill Dana's business. What they do. How they do it. And, most importantly, who they are. As we got to know them, something became clear to us. Behind that venerable, 150-year-old façade, there were people. Just like you and me. Doing very important, always serious, work. Lots of people. Warm, kind, generous, thoughtful people. No pretense. No “stuffy.” And, here's the amazing part: they not only wanted our help, they respected our point of view.

I know. We were a little disoriented, too.

There's no more important meeting than the first presentation after you've won a new client. If you misfire, confidence is undermined and it's almost impossible to regain momentum. This presentation would be especially risky. We'd created a potentially challenging range of campaign ideas. Not the usual “serious stuff about important stuff” that you see from law firms. These ads would tell stories in clever, unexpected ways. With a strong dose of humanity. Oh, and there's one more small thing.

Once in a while, we might actually use humor.

We're very careful to be sure the ads we create reflect the cultures of our clients. We're also very aware of the audiences the campaigns are aimed at. So, humor. We believed there would be instances where humor would — for certain messages and audiences — be appropriate. A human face on the institution, genuine and disarming.

The layouts for each ad were assembled and arranged for the presentation. As we reviewed the work, we realized how little they looked and sounded like ads for a law firm. That was, after all, the point of the exercise, right? Still, there was a collective concern about how they might be received.

But we believed in the work. It was right for the audience. It was right, we believed, for Verrill Dana.

As it turned out, so did they.

On that day, the marketing team didn't agree with everything we presented. And today, they don't always buy every idea, certainly not every word. But when they have concerns they explain them and trust us to find the best solutions.

Since that first presentation, we've created campaigns large and small, from industry-altering merger announcements to holiday greetings to anniversary celebrations. Work that's been blogged about, celebrated in emails and award shows, tweeted and re-tweeted countless times, and, most importantly, has led to business opportunities for our client. With each new assignment, we have a chance to live up to the standards of a client we admire and respect. It's a partnership we guard fiercely, because it's such a rare thing in our business.

They make us better, because we're not their agency. We're their partner.

And I'm pretty sure that's something you won't hear on “Mad Men.”

Don Fibich is the creative director at Kemp Goldberg. He can be reached at

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