Posts filed under ‘Marketing’

If Only Scrooge was a Business Roundtable Member: Professional Services Companies Wise to Ape Group’s Progressive Pledge

The Business Roundtable – a star-studded group of U.S. businesses – on August 19 announced a new definition of what a corporation should be, noting that they should operate for the “benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.” This is a significant policy shift from the hardline definition that a corporation should be focused solely on financial profit. For professional services companies, the move is also meaningful: when you have no physical widget to lure in customers, reputation and messaging are everything. And, increasingly, no one wants to do business with Ebenezer Scrooge.

Scrooge may have been a deft businessman, judging by the wealth he had on hand, but he was terrible to his employees and only cared about money. Scrooge’s money-lending business was no doubt lucrative, but where was his social mission? Where were his progressive employee benefits? Was it a diverse and inclusive business? All-in-all it appeared to be a miserable place to work, helmed by a miser and with a singular focus on profit. It seems unlikely that Scrooge was good at attracting and retaining talent (Bob Cratchit’s misplaced loyalty aside). In a competitive marketplace, it’s quite possible that a “warmer” competitor across the street – even with a 0.001 higher rate – might peel off much of Scrooge’s business. Your business may not be Scrooge’s, but do others see all the good you do, for employees, the community and your clients? If not, it’s time to work on your messaging.

Taking a page from the Business Roundtable, consider pledging and messaging your good. Here’s an adapted set of planks:

Delivering value to our clients. Professional services companies’ raison d’etre is to solve problems and help businesses succeed. (Some might even call this “Bringing Business to Business. See what I did there?) Your company’s messaging should showcase these successes, blending the tools available with examples of their real-world application.

Investing in our employees. Businesses of all stripes have made great strides expanding employee benefits and working toward fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces. These efforts need to be championed. And, if your firm is behind the 8-ball, it needs to get going. Other businesses and consumers are increasingly voting with their wallets in favor of workplaces where employees feel safe, respected and *gasp* happy. Tell the world what your company believes in. Have values and live them.

Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. You’re on your own on this one. However, you can rest assured that failure to do the right thing will ultimately lead to bad PR (or legal action).

Supporting the communities in which we work. Most companies have great, employee-driven initiatives that build houses, feed the hungry and help the world. By telling these stories professional services companies humanize their professionals and showcase their commitment and care to where they are and the good they do.

Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. Long-term, mission-focused operations and messaging create a solid reputational base that helps a professional services firm when bad news happens. Taking the steps now to create a runway for regularly messaging positive developments creates intangible but impactful value.

Scrooge’s intervention was drastic. Professional services companies need not travel through dimensions nor commune with the spirits to see how purely profit-driven policies have impacted their image in the past and how they will continue to do so in the future. Just like the members of the Business Roundtable, why not evaluate your organization and ensure you are doing well by your employees, clients and communities – all while remaining focused on business development and profit?

Michael Bond

September 5, 2019 at 7:10 pm Leave a comment

The Super Bowl, Its Audience, Its Ads and Its Lessons for Professional Services Companies

Another Super Bowl is in the books, which means another set of incredibly expensive commercials have aired. This year, CBS charged $5 million for 30 seconds. As a marketer, the last thing you want is to air an ad that falls flat or is panned. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the real winners from last night, besides the Denver Broncos, and also consider how this game and these ads hold lessons for professional services companies.

Macro Takeaways:

The “Big Game” is fast-becoming one of, if not the only, “must-see” TV event. The Super Bowl, like sports on TV in general, is best consumed live. I actually DVR’d the game, mainly to skip some of the opening introductions and create an escape valve from the Coldplay-headlined halftime show. (Little did I realize that Beyoncé had us all covered.) In the end, I skipped maybe a handful of “Blue Bloods” promos and local car ads, finishing right about on time with the rest of the country. Not only is the Super Bowl essential viewing, but the league and its broadcasters uncharacteristically tear down content walls to make sure that you can watch it on any device, anywhere.

The Super Bowl defies audience fragmentation. The most-watched TV finale ever is M*A*S*H, which drew 105.9 million viewers in 1983. 80.4 million tuned-in for one last Cheers in 1993. Last night’s game drew an estimated 114.4 million viewers. As a point of comparison, the widely celebrated and talked about Breaking Bad drew 10.3 million for its finale in 2013. Game 7 of the 2014 MLB World Series between the Giants and the Royals topped out at 52 million viewers. This enormous audience is why the game is so important to advertisers and such an anomaly compared to the 364 other days of the year when marketers – both consumer and professional services – compete for audience attention in an environment of limitless distractions.

“Embedded” marketing is a new trend. Minutes after the game ended, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning embraced “Papa” John Schnatter of Papa John’s pizza chain, of which Peyton is both a pitchman and a franchise owner. Then, speaking with a sideline reporter, Manning noted that he was going to “drink a lot of Budweiser tonight.” Sports economics reporter Darren Rovell tweeted that the two mentions were worth the equivalent of $3.2M in bought ad time:

And, the real kicker? While Manning owns 32 Papa John’s, he has no deal in place with Budweiser. Of course, the brewer was more than tickled:

The idea of embedded advertising isn’t new, it is just gaining in popularity as users DVR and stream content commercial free. Just ask the Burger “King.”

Here are my winners:

Papa John’s – Without buying an ad they were part of the game.

Budweiser – Not only did they get some free buzz marketing, they had a very on-point spot with Helen Mirren eviscerating, via British-laced condemnation, drunk driving.

T-Mobile – Two excellent spots. The first with Steve Harvey mocking his own error at the Miss Universe contest as the cell company rebuts rival Verizon’s network claims.

The best spot of the night was “Restricted Bling,” with a cheesy Drake gladly inserting a variety of terms and limitations into his phone-themed hit “Hotline Bling.”

Amazon/Jason Schwartzman – Off-beat humor from a company that has been running a series of “Prime”-themed ads that are hit-or-miss (e.g. ordering a baby carrier to walk around with a dog). The “Baldwin Bowl” was a great set-up. Dan Marino complaining about breading wings and actor Jason Schwartzman hurling food at him was an easy touchdown.

Coca-Cola – The Hulk/Ant-Man ad was well-done (featuring Paul Rudd for the second time in the evening). The company is focused on pushing sales of smaller portions and the small (Ant-Man), medium (Coke can) and large (Hulk) subjects provided excellent contrast.

Quick lessons:

  1. Push your content on all devices and platforms. If it’s good enough for the NFL, it’s good enough for you.
  2. When you have a large, high-value, captive audience (think well-attended client seminars/webinars), capitalize on the marketing opportunity.
  3. Create vehicles and content that attract large, high-value and engaged audiences. (Then, see #2.)
  4. Consider non-conventional advertising strategies. In addition to the Peyton Manning in-game marketing, companies such as GoDaddy highlighted their brand via a 30-second commercial during the live stream of the game on CBS’ website.
  5. Content is and always will be king. Aim to produce and market content that is best-in-class and for which there is no substitute.

Michael Bond

February 8, 2016 at 6:58 pm Leave a comment

Splitting Hairs on Marketing ROI

Numerous times in the past I have been asked to weigh in on marketing’s impact on business development. And, while instances certainly do occur whereby clients specifically cite reading a blog post or seeing a name in the newspaper, for the most part, it is fairly difficult to generate meaningful ROI metrics for marketing and PR. Rather, these functions generally serve to complement and amplify a professional services company’s core business functions.

In the past, we have worked with companies that have been truly excellent at their core business but put virtually no effort into sharing their message. In these situations, marketing and PR has helped increase product awareness and open doors. Today, there are any number of tech startups making really interesting and potentially useful products that virtually no one knows about due to ineffective communication and marketing strategies. Similarly, there are numerous professional services companies – law firms, accounting firms, architectural firms – whose brand awareness is limited.

On the other end of the spectrum, stories abound of companies with outstanding marketing and PR masking a crumbling financial or operational structure.

The above dynamic places the purchaser or decision-maker in a bind: some companies are constantly promoting themselves – but are little more than puffery or good packaging – and others are truly excellent – but virtually underground, as their brands are so poorly developed.

When carefully considered, and setting aside preconceived notions or visceral reactions, professional services companies are in the “sales” business as much as any consumer products company. “Products” become “services” and “customers” become “clients.” But, in the end, it’s all semantics.

Accepting the above dichotomy, what lessons can we take from a direct-order, Internet-based consumer products company challenging its competitors on both price and quality? Here is my personal story.

The company’s claims are: a) our razor blades cost much less than our competition; and b) our blades are crafted to a similarly exacting precision to uber brands X and Y. If A and B are true, I as a consumer, have uncovered a real bargain and the industry is likely in for major upheaval.

Seemingly just as susceptible, if not more so, to marketing pitches than any non-marketer, this startup company’s razor blade pitch checked a lot of boxes for me, offering: cost savings; appealing design aesthetics; and a well-covered compelling backstory. They also advertised on a podcast I enjoy listening to from time-to-time. They gave me a promo code, and I bit.

“Unpacking” the razor set I was genuinely excited to lather up and shave. But, when it came time to actually evaluate the quality of the product, no amount of marketing (which I still find clever) can overcome my personal verdict: the shave is appreciably worse than with brands X and Y.

I took a few lessons from this experiment:

  1. Clever and engaging marketing and well-executed PR may make an initial sale, but quality is how a long-time customer or client is born
  2. There is a whole range when it comes to this issue, but price alone does not drive consumer decisions. (Having to re-shave a patchy beard negated my lower blade cost.)
  3. While industry disruption can be a good thing for the consumer, established brands need to ensure they continually look for new ways to connect with customers and clients (on the platforms where they live and the channels they watch) and always look for opportunities to share their stories and forge long-term relationships.

In the long run, any company – consumer-facing or B2B – is ultimately judged based on quality. However, marketing and PR are vital components of a holistic client retention and acquisition strategy that every business should have in place.

Michael Bond

June 23, 2015 at 8:41 pm Leave a comment

Five Years with Blattel Communications: Michael Bond

Over the past 25 years, Blattel Communications has been fortunate to maintain and build not only long-term relationships with our clients, but also with our senior professionals. In the next few months, we invite you to hear their stories – covering tenures from five years to 25 years.

Five Years with Blattel Communications: Michael Bond

How Did You Come to Blattel Communications?

I first was exposed to Blattel Communications while working as an in-house marketer at a mid-size law firm. Fast forward several years and several in-house stints, and I began doing project work for the agency. I found I had a passion for media work and looked for ways, even relatively minor, to add value. For instance, I dusted off the mothballed coffeemaker (discarded due to a lack of interest in cleaning it each night) and began making coffee each morning. (The subsequent uptick in productivity was labeled “purely coincidental.”)

Legal marketing is, quite literally, in my blood. My family could start their own law firm, if they so desired. My father, sister and brother are all attorneys. Legal marketing was the second-career for my father, a Workers’ Compensation attorney who excelled at developing business to the point where he organically became the firm’s go-to marketer and, later, first Chief Marketing Officer.

I entered legal marketing in 2005, fresh out of college and following three summer internships at law firms of varying sizes. What I found, more than anything, is an industry that struggles to identify what marketing is and why it is so vital. Law firms are pillars of the business community, and yet they are often relegated to the back pages of the business section – or ignored entirely. Through no fault of their own, firms are hamstrung in terms of how they can create empowered sales and marketing functions since “non-attorneys” cannot serve as equity members (except in Washington, D.C.). This means oftentimes attorneys who are good at generating business are asked to helm firms and share their “secret sauce” – for many a difficult and frustrating task.

I continue to find Blattel Communications services and my work here extremely appealing and vital. It is a distinct advantage to sit outside firm walls and see a broad swatch of the overall industry. Our amazing and deep internal industry knowledge base is a strength our team’s draw upon and a facet our clients rely on. We work with numerous law firms and other professional services companies – accounting, architecture, banking, real estate and construction – arming our professionals with the insight of our clients’ clients. We help firms create winning marketing, business development and communication campaigns by serving as a strategic outside partner. Our twin goals are to cultivate meaningful, business development-focused opportunities – often via the media – and to enable our clients to allocate their internal resources effectively so they can focus on their clients and build their books of business.

What Makes Blattel Communications Special?

Blattel Communications is defined by leadership, collegiality and drive. At the time the agency was founded – 25 years ago – the legal industry’s marketing efforts were a fraction of what we see today. Ellen Blattel’s sheer tenacity and belief in the industry’s evolution is remarkable and built the foundation for Blattel Communications’  culture. Ours is an environment where the entire team is deeply devoted to each other and the agency’s clients. We pride ourselves on knowing the news of the day, the industries we serve and – most importantly – the people with whom we interact on a day-to-day basis. We’re in the relationship business, and our industry-leading client longevity backs up this point.

Another key differentiator for the agency, and a strategic advantage for its members and its clients, is that we do not embrace a hierarchical structure wherein you hear only occasionally from the agency’s principals. We frequently use the phrase “senior professionals,” and our account structure and personnel tenure evidence the “senior” counsel clients receive. This accessibility leads to seamless knowledge-sharing, active mentoring and a level of responsiveness that has consistently earned positive feedback from clients and industry publications.

Where is Blattel Communications Headed?

Blattel Communications evolves based on the needs of our clients and the direction of the marketplace. The continuum of progress has taken us from printed and snail-mailed press releases to managing corporate social media accounts and providing analytical data.

Saying we are a “PR agency” is a complete misnomer. We are a scalable, hybrid business development, marketing and communications partner. In the process of aligning the right resources and tools for each client, we mix and match our capabilities and leverage the strengths of our team members. These build-on offerings now include website evaluation and copywriting, content marketing, social media, media relations, crisis communication and litigation support.

We are not immune or insulated – nor are our clients – from the shifting media landscape and its consequences. We are increasingly finding online-only or slimmed-down/less-frequently printed publications taking the place of the stack of periodicals that used to fill our “library.” The distinction between being “in” the paper versus “on” the website means less and less and is even reversing. And, we are acutely aware that our clients’ content is now competing for mindshare among a sea of digital devices and distractions – a challenge we readily embrace.

At Blattel Communications, the past really is epilogue. We continue to help our clients tell great stories, highlight their industry-leading thought leadership and find the best way – in terms of effectiveness and efficiency – to reach their clients and potential clients.

Much has changed, even in the five years I have been with the agency. However, the one constant is our dedication to doing the heavy-lifting needed every day to help our clients succeed. Our goal, and perhaps the reason for our long-term relationships internally and externally, is to become seamless extensions of our clients’ marketing and business development teams. It’s something we never lose focus on. And, it’s what has made these past five years so enjoyable.

Michael Bond

April 27, 2015 at 2:48 pm Leave a comment

Online Content Cheat Sheet…You’re Welcome

Clients frequently ask us about content length and frequency for different mediums:

  • What is the desired length for a video?
  • How long should press releases be?
  • Are our blog posts too long?

Our friends at Adweek put together this informative infographic using data to suggest the ideal length of virtually everything online.

We think it’s a great guide for professional services industries, emphasizing that succinct and direct content provides a greater impact in most mediums, but that there are still platforms where readers prefer longer formats.

For professional services companies, it’s particularly good to know that audiences with interest in specific topics will be engaged in informative blog posts that are up to 1,600 words long (six times as long as this one), according to data findings.

This takeaway is encouraging, knowing that professional services companies are built upon expertise of its providers, and clients want the thorough content to learn about how to navigate the issues keeping them up at night. Keep that content coming!

Email subject lines are an entirely different animal – keep it short or your open and click rates will be pitiful. The data shows that the same brevity extends to Facebook posts (40 characters max), paragraphs (40-55 characters) and hashtags (only eight characters).

Speaking of animals, how they determined which animal to represent a stat is a mystery to me, but it’s awfully cute. However, they missed what I believe to be the most appropriate one for online content consumption – Squirrel!


You’ll notice my headline is six characters. Bam. Thanks, Adweek!

— Melinda Hepp

February 27, 2015 at 8:10 pm Leave a comment

Community Content is “King”

On July 11, NBA fans and sports enthusiasts alike were flooded with news reports announcing the return of LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers. James began his incredibly successful NBA career as a Cav in 2003. After James left for the Miami Heat in 2010, the perception was that James had betrayed the Cleveland fans and the community. When decision time came around again, James knew that the “news” of his comeback had to be about more than basketball – a lesson that professional services companies need to always consider when publicizing developments and crafting overall image strategies.

In stark contrast to his 2010 ESPN special, “The Decision,” when he announced that he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach,” James this time chose to publish a carefully crafted “homecoming” essay on Sports Illustrated. The piece emphasized his connection to the Cleveland community and his personal relationship with northeast Ohio:

But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

James, no doubt with the help of a seasoned public relations team serving as assistant wordsmiths, reached fans on a personal level by emphasizing his commitment to the community (including mention of the LeBron James Family Foundation). The piece shows his awareness that his physical presence on the court remains vital to raise visibility for his volunteer efforts and helps to provide the community with a central figure to rally behind.

The lesson here is that professional services companies can significantly raise their profiles in the communities in which they are based, and where their employees reside, by taking the time to call attention to the many good deeds they perform on a regular basis. Charitable donations, “fun-runs,” Habitat for Humanity and many more civic and charitable endeavors all make great fodder for organizational websites and “Community Focus” sections of local newspapers and business journals. Snapping a few photos of volunteers, runners and company signage helps increase chances of exposure.

By increasing awareness of community efforts, professional services companies can also become eligible for philanthropy-based awards – a significant and frequent nomination category for business journals. Being active and engaged also helps shape a personable identity for clients, and shows a commitment to not only an industry, but to the community as a whole.

Emulating LeBron James on the court is next to impossible. (His extensive chalk-blowing routine is generally frowned upon in the workplace.) However, embracing his 2014 community relations-savviness is a worthwhile and relatively easy task. Look for ways to emphasize and publicize a commitment to the community. This kind of strategic thinking is always a slam-dunk.

— Natalie Cuadros and Chuck Brown

August 7, 2014 at 8:07 pm Leave a comment

The Relationship Between Good Ads and Good Writing

I love ads. Good advertisements not only make us want to buy products, but they also are entertaining and an art form of sorts. It seems trendy to poke fun at those who want to “only watch the ads” during the Super Bowl, but those viewers make a good point. It is the one night the U.S. actually openly celebrates and critiques one of its most popular (and expensive) art forms.

Ads tell stories in constrained environments – be it a page in a magazine or a 30-second TV spot. Advertising is a complementary component to public relations, both of which are distinct marketing and communications disciplines. However, the best ads embody the same goals as effective business writing – hold a user’s attention and make a lasting impression that, ideally, prompts action.

Elements of success for both mediums include:

  • Identify a high-value audience. You want your ad or your written content (maybe an educational byline article) to reach those viewers/readers in a position to contact you for business or refer others to you.
  • Have a clearly defined concept and execute it. Group-think and group-assemblage of content can be a killer, producing a Frankenstein of sorts that leaves the viewer/reader unsure of the central point and without a readily discernable, or alluded to, prompt for action.
  • Create appealing content. Good writing always stands apart. Language can be elevated to an art form, rather than technical and dry. Persuasive writing and advertisements make an impression. Although only sometimes appropriate in business-to-business writing, the comedy showcased in mediums, such as TV ads, is so powerful that the broadcast of one spot can virally spur the retransmission of content to millions more via the Internet.
  • Understand your constraints. Every medium and every outlet has a set of parameters to which contributors must adhere when publishing content (or an ad). In addition to following the “rules of the road,” known as author guidelines with respect to contributed content, avoid trying to shoehorn in material that clearly needs more space to unfold effectively.

The goal for professional services companies when writing is to create content that isn’t akin to the milquetoast ads cruised right by on the DVR. The goal is to write persuasively and efficiently, informing the reader and holding their attention. Writing shouldn’t feel like assembling IKEA furniture, following the instructions and wedging pre-fabricated components together. Instead, even for seemingly mundane topics, there needs to a passion to the process, more like taking raw materials out to your workshop and building from a vision in your mind. The point is, be memorable. Putting in effort to content creation is worth the (often billable) time.

Michael Bond

July 22, 2014 at 7:09 pm Leave a comment

Why You Need a Picture for Your Recent News

Sharing your career news/moves in the “On the Move” sections of local business journals, industry trade publications and even your alumni magazines is a great way to keep the business community abreast and engage your professional network. However, too often news of this sort is sent out without a photo. Editors have a twin objective: deliver the news, and do so in a layout that is visually appealing. When given the choice between two similar news items, one with a photo and one without, the one with will win every time.

Let’s delve into some of the reasons why photos aren’t being sent or aren’t being used when they are sent:

1)     Photos are out-of-date. We have all seen the black-and-white ‘80s mugshots that some professionals so desperately hold onto, perhaps in light of an ever-dwindling hairline (something I know well) or intractable insistence that they not be photographed again. We have actually seen situations in which the “master” takes are physical, not digital. Your clients and potential clients deserve to see the you of today, not the you of the Reagan Era.

2)     High-res versions are nowhere to be found. The photos that appear on your website are vastly scaled-down versions of a high-resolution shot. The full-size photo (sometimes slightly scaled-down) is what publications need. If you search-and-search and can only find the tiny pictures, you need to take a new photo. A good photographer should provide you with full-scale and small-scale photos. The real issue is that you can always size a large photo down without losing quality, but you can never do the reverse.

3)     Senior leaders refuse to be photographed. A high-quality headshot needs to be a prerequisite for all public-facing, senior-level professionals. By not setting – and holding individuals – to this standard, you are sending a strange message to clients. Frankly, you want to avoid the, “I think he is a recluse,” comments. Photographs personalize relationships, ever-important in an increasingly remote world, and convey subtle messages such as confidence and trustworthiness.

4)     The only photos we have are from the old firm or personal collection. The former is a copyright issue and should be avoided. The latter is rife with issues ranging from poor resolution to cropping out other people in a photo.

So, what should you do if you have news ready-to-go and no photo to accompany it? Wait. Non-pressing news will simply be more impactful if paired with a pictorial component. One strategy to avoid these sorts of scenarios is to create an “On the Move”/new hire checklist and add an entry for securing a high-res photo. A picture may not be worth a thousand words, but it will help your item merit greater attention.

Michael Bond

March 11, 2014 at 1:37 pm Leave a comment

Thoughts on This Year’s Super Bowl Ads

Another year, another Super Bowl in the books.  This year’s contest was particularly disappointing as the game wasn’t very competitive. However, the advertisements were enjoyable. Here are my top three:

#1 – T-Mobile featuring Tim Tebow “#NoContract” <a

Former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow is out of football, but likely would suit up in a heartbeat if given an opportunity. This commercial (the second of the two that aired) was unexpected and really funny.

Takeaways: It’s OK to poke a little fun at yourself and taking chances can change the way people think of you. (To me, Tebow is hilarious, especially when he intones in the mock film trailer for Illegal Formation, “You better hold on to those donuts!”

#2 – Chrysler featuring Bob Dylan “We Will Build Your Car” 

Bob Dylan in a car commercial? It was strange, but Dylan is always a wild card. (Remember when he appeared in the background of a Victoria’s Secret ad?) The Super Bowl has become Chrysler’s signature advertising moment – “Halftime in America” and “God Made a Farmer” both caused quite a reaction in the past. The ad is an unabashed play on patriotism (same as its predecessors) and showed another side of Dylan. It was odd but effective. People paid attention, and now Chrysler has set expectations for each Super Bowl pretty high.

Takeaways: Try something different. One impactful ad can yield more buzz than a dozen mediocre ones. (Just think Apple’s “1984” spot that only aired once.)

#3 – Radio Shack featuring 80’s Icons “The Phone Call”

This ad has arguably garnered the most buzz. Seeing – among others – Hulk Hogan, the California Raisins, Cliff Clavin of Cheers and a DeLorean speed away after ransacking a RadioShack featuring signs advertising “Boomboxes” and “Fax Machines” was clever. It was also an admission that RadioShack stores have an image problem in that they are perceived as meccas for your odd uncle who likes to spend hours building his HAM radio set. The ad is funny, but it offers only a fleeting glimpse (five seconds out of the 30 seconds spot) of the modern ‘Shack that they are trying to project. You could easily walk away from this spot thinking that, indeed, RadioShack is dated without considering that maybe they were changing or had changed.

Takeaways: Be sure your main point is always business driver. Avoid making ads that almost seem like a plug for your competitors.

Michael Bond

February 6, 2014 at 4:43 pm Leave a comment

Be Like Warren – The Effectiveness of Simple, Straightforward Writing

If you have ever leafed through a publicly traded company’s annual report you likely did not make it very far before your eyes starting getting heavy and soon you were soundly asleep. These documents have some of the most vital information you can find about a concern, but it is often presented in a manner that is simply too complex or too dry for the average investor.

The ability to concisely and clearly write means the difference between something being read or deleted summarily upon receipt. Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and its CEO Warren Buffett consistently illustrate the former with the company’s annual report. Buffett’s yearly letter to investors is so legendary and well-known that its yearly iteration has been compiled into a compendium available for sale on Buffett’s money-making prowess is awe-inspiring to most. However, even though the company employs complex financial vehicles and Buffett himself is almost universally the smartest person in the room, his letter to investor’s is rooted in simplicity, which makes it far more accessible and, ultimately, valuable than those produced by 99 percent of his industry peers.

Here are a few passages from this past year’s letter:

  • One thing of which you can be certain: Whatever Berkshire’s results, my partner Charlie Munger, the company’s Vice Chairman, and I will not change yardsticks. It’s our job to increase intrinsic business value – for which we use book value as a significantly understated proxy – at a faster rate than the market gains of the S&P. If we do so, Berkshire’s share price, though unpredictable from year to year, will itself outpace the S&P over time. If we fail, however, our management will bring no value to our investors, who themselves can earn S&P returns by buying a low-cost index fund. (p. 3)
  • Our insurance operations shot the lights out last year. While giving Berkshire $73 billion of free money to invest, they also delivered a $1.6 billion underwriting gain, the tenth consecutive year of profitable underwriting. This is truly having your cake and eating it too. (p. 4)
  • Above all, dividend policy should always be clear, consistent and rational. A capricious policy will confuse owners and drive away would-be investors. Phil Fisher put it wonderfully 54 years ago in Chapter 7 of his Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, a book that ranks behind only The Intelligent Investor and the 1940 edition of Security Analysis in the all-time-best list for the serious investor. Phil explained that you can successfully run a restaurant that serves hamburgers or, alternatively, one that features Chinese food. But you can’t switch capriciously between the two and retain the fans of either. (p. 21)

For professional services companies, Buffett is providing a valuable tip – really consider how you deliver your content. His annual letter stands out from others because it takes a unique and refreshing approach. It is the right move to want to inform clients of major changes court decisions and legislative actions. However, when a prospective client receives multiple missives that are nearly identical, how are they to quickly deduce the right one to spend time reading?

Make no mistake; Buffett is not talking down to his readers in his writing, but rather speaking plainly while addressing the various – at times complex – engines that drive Berkshire Hathaway. If he can address acquisitions, derivatives, insurance, than surely issues such as estate tax changes, intellectual property and antitrust can be explained by professional services concerns in a straight-forward, clear, concise and accessible manner.

Strategic communications designed with the end-consumer in mind are vehicles to greater customer engagement and low-cost, high-impact marketing tools. By taking the time to really consider the content, packaging and delivery of corporate communications, professional services companies can be more like Buffett – standing out from the crowd and increasing the organic circulation of thought-leadership material.

Michael Bond

(The author is an Extreme Minority Shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway.)

July 16, 2013 at 4:39 pm Leave a comment

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