Earlier this month, Bloomberg BNA published an article about the founders of Hellerman Baretz, a Washington, DC legal public relations agency, splitting up and going their separate ways. While this might seem to be just an inside-baseball item, of interest only to those in the law firm marketing/sales community, their reasons for splitting provide an important reminder that the longstanding mantra, “It’s all about relationships,” simply doesn’t hold up anymore.
The principals explained the essence of their philosophical differences.
Cari Brunelle offered, “We had different philosophies on how to successfully run and grow a business, and most importantly, how to provide value to our clients.”
John Hellerman explained, “[We] had different visions of the future and what would be demanded from an agency like ours. [However], I’m also absolutely certain that the future is going to be completely different than the present — advances in technology are disrupting everything and what is relevant today becomes irrelevant much sooner than it ever did.”
Ms. Brunelle then countered, “...the business of PR, and indeed the business of law, is, and always will be, a relationship business. Plain and simple. [T]here will never be a replacement for strong interpersonal relationships, especially in the practice of law and PR.”
Setting aside the questionable wisdom of declaring an absolute about anything, Ms. Brunelle’s view reflects an outdated framework that’s no longer aligned with the realities of today’s legal market. IMO, she’s wedded to the past, whereas Mr. Hellerman recognizes that the critical factor today is “relevance,” which is forward looking.
Today, people don’t have time for relationships for the sake of relationships. Most have a job-and-a-half. If you doubt this, think about the type of relationship that would seem to be the poster child for all this relationship-building investment. You know what I mean. You like and respect each other, and enjoy each other’s company. It’s become a friendship. You have a history of “catching up” lunches. I call this “personal intimacy.” You’ve gotten to know each other and have earned a high degree of personal trust.
However, the more recent version of your history probably shows that those lunch invitations are accepted with declining frequency, that it takes a lot longer to get on your friend’s calendar, and that they’re cancelled or rescheduled more often. It doesn’t mean they like you or trust you any less, only that everyone is busier and is forced to judge their availability by different criteria now.
It’s become much harder for your friend to justify diverting time and attention from his job-and-a-half to indulge in lunch with a friend. That’s because, while it's personally enjoyable, that lunch is an interruption of your friend’s day, not an addition to it. You’re not relevant to what he’s obligated to focus on.
The other rebuttal to the “relationships are everything” claim is simple math. During the legal service boom that ended in 2008, everybody was buying, and buying a lot. That meant that buyers had the luxury of buying at least a little from all of their professional friends. Why not? All those relationships were with skilled lawyers.
Now, though, those buyers are shifting an ever-larger percentage of their legal spend away from traditional outside law firms, building up their internal capabilities and making use of non-law firm alternatives such as offshoring, boutiques, and technology solutions. That means that buyers now have more friends than budget. No relationship can protect you from that trend. Your friends will feel bad about not buying from you, or not being able to have lunch, but they have little choice.
Many studies show that buyers of all products and services now use web-based sources to inform themselves, and as a result have advanced more than 70% of the way through the traditional sales funnel before being willing to consult with a seller. This is all happening without you, at least in the person-to-person sense.
The new relationships are not between individual buyers and you, but between organized groups of buyers (such as an industry) and your ideas. Whether or not they like you or would enjoy spending time with you -- or not -- is not germane. These new relationships, which I call “professional intimacy,” form the same way that friendships form, cumulatively, over time, as a result of frequent exposure. However, the exposure is now mostly electronic, where they consume your thinking and become more comfortable with it and trusting of it. They allocate time and attention to your thoughts because you’re relevant to, and contribute to, the challenges they face every day.
By the time they decide to speak with you directly, or consider you for an assignment, they already know you, and you’ve already contributed value to them. Not you, the person, but you, the consistent, relevant contributor.
I wish both sets of principals in the PR split the best of luck going forward on their respective paths. However, if I had to bet money, I’ll take the one focused on relevance.
If you recognize that you've got more personal relationships than you have business, and think you’d like help shifting your focus from personal relationships to idea relationships, use my booking calendar to schedule a free 30-minute consultation.