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| 20 minutes read

CMO Series EP147 - Phill McGowan of Reed Smith on Strategic Communications: The Greatest Untapped Potential in Legal BD?

As the landscape of legal services evolves, so does the significance of effective communication strategies. 

Today, Eugene McCormick is lucky to welcome Phill McGowan, Global Director of Marketing and Communications at Reed Smith to share his insights on the biggest opportunities for legal communications professionals today and reveal his strategies for driving business growth.

Phill joins the series to delve into his background in newspapers and journalism, the evolution of content strategy in legal marketing, and what that means for law firms today. 

Phill and Eugene cover: 

  • Phill’s career and some of the highlights from that journey into legal communications
  • The role of communications functions within law firms in adapting to meet today’s environment
  • How to integrate communications within the broader context of business development in a legal setting and the challenges of aligning communication efforts with business objectives
  • Examples of successful communication strategies that have made a significant impact
  • The approaches and platforms that have been effective in enhancing communication and thought leadership at Reed Smith
  • Advice for legal communications professionals aiming to align with and drive their firm's BD strategy

Eugene: Hello folks and welcome to another edition of the Passle CMO Series podcast. Now, as the landscape of legal services evolves, so does the significance of effective communication strategies. And today I'm really lucky to welcome along a personal friend and a Passle client, Phill McGowan, who is the Global Marketing and Comms Director over at Reed Smith. And today Phill's going to share his insights on the biggest opportunities for legal communications professionals today and indeed his strategies for driving growth.

Charlie: The CMO Series podcast is brought to you by Passle. Passle makes thought leadership simple, scalable and effective so professional services firms can stay front of mind with their clients and prospects when it matters most. Find out more and request a demo at Now back to the podcast.

Eugene: Phill, thank you very much for your time and welcome to the Passle CMO Series podcast.

Phill: Eugene, it's a pleasure. Thank you for having me today. 

Eugene: Pleasure is all mine, my friend. Now we're going to jump straight in. Phill, will you tell us a bit about your career to date? And I want you to really dive into your history in journalism, local government and Congress, and then how you got into legal. And along the way, can you please pick out a few highlights on that journey and highlights that really fed into your interest and your role in legal communications to date?

Phill: Right. Thank you. So I want to start off talking about my life in newspapers. And this is back in the late 90s when it meant something to be in newspapers. There was incredible amounts of specialization. So I started off at the Baltimore Sun, 1999. I remember sitting down with Bill Maramo, the managing editor of the newspaper, multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, and he talked about the need to be excellent at one thing. And I think at the time when you had 30%, 35% profit margins, you could get away with doing that. But I worked at The Sun for over a decade in a variety of roles, and I ended up seeing the collapse of the newspaper industry from the inside, principally because of this. We could not be responsive enough to our customers, our readers, about how they wanted to consume content. I ended up working in a variety of roles as a copy editor, an assignment editor. I was a metro reporter. I was a social media specialist. I covered government meetings. I covered fires. I covered murders. Just a quick side note. For anybody who watches The Wire, the great series on HBO, they did a whole season about the Baltimore Sun. And I will tell you that they got the paint color and the columns and the desks exactly right. 

Eugene: Thank God. Thank God.

Phill: Back to things with newspapers. There was about a certain point about 2005, 2006. Where you could really see things sort of collapsing from the inside. I decided to go back to school and get a master's degree. I wanted to rebrand myself, but I also wanted to gain the skills to lead a digital-first newsroom. I could see that coming. I ended up taking my skills and leaving the industry at a point where the Sun had gone from 406 in the newsroom in 1999 to 138 when I left in 2009,I ended up going to government. So first I was the public information officer for the city of Annapolis, ran communications for a city government that served almost 40,000 people. And then next I jumped to a  nonpartisan role on Capitol Hill. Helping to advise different functions on communications outreach. And some of the experiences were wild and they were memorable.

So in Annapolis, this is 2009, we had the first layoffs in the 300-year history of the city government. We had a theft of the city vault, $150,000 in checks and cash. On Capitol Hill, we were the only full-service creative team on Capitol Hill. We helped the House historian build a website, publish books. Interesting little story, six weeks into the job on Capitol Hill, I got to sit on the rostrum in the House of Representatives. I was 12 feet from President Obama when he gave his job speech. This is August of 2011. But throughout it all with government in the four plus years that I worked in various roles, transparency was the theme that underpinned the objective of wanting to develop new channels and platforms to reach out to constituents. How do you reach people on their terms and not yours? I moved to law firms in 2013, first at General Block, later at Crowell & Moring, now I'm at Reed Smith. I came to realize real quickly that law firms were built or they operate just like Congress. You have these massive partnerships. Some partners are more influential than others. Some are just sort of equate to members of Congress. Others equate to committee chairs. Others equate to the Speaker of the House or the majority leader in the Senate. But just fascinating to sort of appreciate the dynamics that way. And I think that that really helped me.

At Jenner in 2014, we did a centennial anniversary. And so I learned a lot about brand. I was at Crowell in 2016 into 2017. That's a real big DC presence. And getting to see the world from the place where Trump is taking office and the regulatory world is about to sort of turn upside down. And how are you reaching out to clients sort of in that rapidly changing environment? And then coming to Reed Smith in 2018. And the mandate has changed. Sort of my team has expanded. I took on a team of 18 at Reed Smith, and I've now built it to 30 people. And it feels very much, Eugene, like I'm running a little newsroom today.

Eugene: Wow. That's a lot of change, a lot of interesting specific highlights as well. I want to turn to, you mentioned the theme of transparency and the way to reach your customers. Could you please explain, as you see it, the role and the opportunity of the communications function within a law firm? And particularly, could you maybe, after you've done that, focus in on how you see that comms function within a law firm and how it's adapted to meet today's environment? Because you mentioned some really differing, evolving environments which you've worked in. What do you see the comms function today? 

Phill: Yeah. I think that there are two points to make. One, communications is an extension of business development. And that's exactly how I position the team at Reed Smith. We want to use our content and our outreach to help our lawyers make contact with clients. So contact is the number one driver to be top of mind with buyers of legal service. Us. So we don't just want to create comms to brand the business. Of course, that's an important indicator, but we're also thinking about how are we driving the B2B buyer journey.The other part of it is that the communications team can be your innovation arm for a marketing department. It certainly is for us at Reed Smith. We've rolled out several new technologies and platforms. We have an SEO platform. We do lots of different types of blogging, Passle included. We have rolled out through our comms team to business development, LinkedIn sales navigator. We do more data gathering. And this is a place for us where we are experimenting with different types of messaging approaches informed by the need around segmentation and personalization. We want to close the gap on what the client needs. And we think that the comms team, I believe the comms team has a role in all of that. 

Eugene: I completely agree. The role of the comms team, but how do you then integrate that within the broader context of the business development sort of setting within legal? I know for you, you truly believe good comms is good BD and I agree as well. So how do you integrate that with the broader BD efforts and what challenges have you had in aligning those comms efforts with the overall business objectives?

Phill: So one thing about working at law firms is that the work is never done. And for any comms professional coming in, there's lots of work to do on message positioning, new laterals, new platforms. I mean, there are things that are already in the pipeline when you step into a job. When you think about how you want to transform communications for business development effect, you're looking at a long runway. That's 12 months. It's 18 months. it can be two years and longer because it's not just about the tactics that you're trying to employ. There's also certain principles. So one thing around content strategy, we want to be known for the things that we're famous for. Part of that, an indispensable part of our content strategy is that wherever we're catching people, so whether they're reading a client alert, they're reading about a lawyer insight in the Wall Street Journal, if they're They're listening to us on a podcast or a video or through lexology content aggregation. Wherever we can get them, we're trying to bring them to our website and specifically to our lawyer bios. That is the talent. That is the commodity. That is what we are trying to sell every day. So it's about building in that mentality with your business development teams about what you're trying to achieve.

Another thing is really thinking about, I'll talk about this later, the activation of social channels, and how you are segmenting for fine audiences. It's developing different content streams and potentially using campaigns as a way of doing that. This isn't a tactic. This is really about approach. But how do you help embody a principle that helping is selling, that you are trying to actually eliminate self-promotion, that you're operating a space in which your business developers essentially understand that we are trying to sell solutions and that clients probably don't care very much about awards and recognitions. They don't care about self-promotion. So how do we create an environment that is acknowledging of that and embraces that so we can help really create a differentiated message and reach clients in a more effective way?

Eugene: So you mentioned segmentation, you mentioned differing streams of content, and I love that theme of helping is selling. Can you share a couple of good examples of what we might say are successful communication strategies that have made a significant impact with Reed Smith

Phill: Yeah. So for the first thing is this, people don't read. They do not go to websites to read content. They are scanning. Maybe they're consuming some of it, but not sitting there and reading. And so that should affect sort of the whole philosophy around content creation and what you're trying to achieve with it. So one thing for us, this goes back 2020, late 2021, early 2022, is that we did a whole series of client alerts on anti-corruption in various parts of the world. We wrote client alerts to the Google answer box. The lawyers were engaged and all in on this approach. We wrote a series of client alerts over the course of several weeks. We got to the number six position on page one for anti-corruption. We were listed higher on an SEO basis than the UK government for a time. So changing your approach can make a big difference that way. I will just kind of speak more generally is that you need to diversify content streams. And this is not always about creating more content, but essentially, what are all the different ways that clients are going to consume content, thinking really hard about that, and then diversifying the lineup? Differentiation. In a sea of sameness that law firms present, how can you differentiate? So one thing is creating content franchises. What are the issues that your clients want solved most for? And then how do those issues sort of line up with key practices or firm strategy objectives. Another thing that's around as simple as LinkedIn profile headlines. I tell lawyers all the time, particularly if you're an established partner, don't create a LinkedIn profile that makes you look like a third-year associate. So how do you create wholesome profiles? Because there are a million lawyers in the United States. So how do you distinguish with your web bio and your LinkedIn profile to stand out? And the other thing is about our social channels and we have over 50 of them because we're trying to tailor certain types of messages, insights, and solutions to clients there. But good comms, They do raise brand, Eugene, but good comms will also advance the B2B buyer journey. That's what I know.

Eugene: Phill, you mentioned certain channels. You mentioned content franchises, diversifying content. And you also talked about the Google answer box. I'm sure there's a couple of people listening today who are arguably overwhelmed by the myriad of tools that are available today. If you were sat in somebody else's positions, what specific approaches or platforms would you be focused on? And what have you found effective in enhancing the comms and thought leadership and BD strategy at Reed Smith?

Phill: Well, I'm speaking today as a director who sits in a mega firm. And so not everybody listening to this podcast is going to be able to take the same. So like,oh, I will go get an SEO platform because that might not be cost-effective. That might not be practical. Certain technologies and platforms might not be practical for some law firms, and that's fine. This is more about mindset, Eugene. So this is more about developing the approach, being nimble. And yes, everybody needs a strategy. But what I will say is this, discovery beats strategy. So you need to have an environment where you are experimenting and that you are exploring and that is baked into the cake for what you are doing. And so I'll give you a couple examples, like campaigns. We do digital advertising around campaigns. We don't do digital advertising around all of the content that we create in the business. But for the campaigns that reflect the best work that we do, the emerging issues of the day, we want to use digital advertising to reach audiences well beyond our Reed Smith clients. Our top of mind awareness in the market is 3%. If we're going to reach new audiences, we need digital advertising to do that.

Another consideration is less content, perhaps, and more quality content. And then there's partnerships. Last year, we partnered with Eurasia Group on an ESG paper. We sent that out to 11,000 contacts on an email distribution list. We had over 7,000 people open that email. For the best of what you do, how can you get others to help validate your efforts in the space and try to win clients over? Another thing that's around PR, and really for us, we are an industry-led law firm, five industries in the world. And so we're trying to take more of an industry-related approach to PR. And then the next frontier for us is pop-up video studios. We do a pretty good job with using video for marketing purpose, for events. But we want to use video more and more, really, in the thought leadership space. But that's all about experimenting, Eugene. And that's like never having it all figured out and being okay with that.

Eugene: I like that because you mentioned digital advertising, less versus more content, that balance, partnerships, moving towards that industry approach. Approach and then you know coming down the pipeline this idea of these pop-up video studios and i like that sort of the mindset and the curiosity the experimentation something which Luke Ferrandino spoke about at length at our CMO series live at last week moving to this idea of mindset and experimentation what's next for reed smith you have also spoken to me in the past about this idea of coming down the pipeline is this idea of brand equity. You said our top of mind brand awareness is 3%. What's on the horizon for Reed Smith, for you, and how do you get a handle on those priorities?

Phill: So if you look beyond legal marketing, what is one of the greatest issues? What are the issues that are top of mind for marketers across the world? It's this divide between performance marketing and brand marketing. On the performance side, it's, okay, I've got so many web hits and I can track the traffic and I can get a conversion off selling something through an email campaign or a social media campaign or whatever else. Then there's the brand marketing, which is essentially like, what is an organization's purpose and promise in trying to develop a long-term relationship and affinity to your customers or clients that way? Well, there was a very good article last year in Harvard Business Review, spring of 2023, where the thesis is about measuring brand equity, about sort of marrying up your performance, marketing, and your brand marketing metrics. How do you determine your brand equity and then being able to align that brand equity to financial outcomes? So the argument is that essentially brand building is as financially measurable as performance marketing. B2C companies do this really well at measuring the awareness, the attitudes, and the affinities for their brands. It's harder to do that in the B2B space because the lawyers control the sales funnel. They are the ones who have principal access to the clients and for good reason. But is it to the advantage of law firms to be able to get into the space? I will speak for myself. Yes, this is a hard thing for law firms to do. We are in very early days at Reed Smith, and we're starting to talk to agencies who do this every day for big companies around the world. We're just getting started in this space, but our brand has to be greater than the accumulation of our awards and recognitions and PR hits. We have to be able to discern and understand what does the brand mean in our space and how we can align that so we can establish a strategy for the future that can grow our business.

Eugene: Wow. It's very exciting. And again, as you say, it's taking that idea of experimentation and innovation from other non-traditional legal sectors and trying to apply it to your own. Phill, I'm going to keep you for a couple of minutes more, if that's okay. And I want to do a little bit of a quick fire round. You've been very generous with your insights. And even telling you a little bit about your career to date, but I want to get to know you a little more, if that's okay.

Phill: Of course, fire away. 

Eugene: No pressure. What are you reading, listening to, or watching right now?

Phill: So I like listening to the CMO podcast by Jim Stengle. He is the former CMO at Procter & Gamble. He interviews CMOs across the world in a variety of industries. And it really gives me a sense about what are the ideas that we need to take back into legal marketing. I'm just finishing up a book that I've been reading kind of on an airplane on and off the creative act a way of being by Rick Rubin the legendary music producer really gives you an insight about thinking about how can you be creative and helping you to develop frameworks for bringing that out in all kinds of different forms 

Eugene: We talked about earlier but could you tell us about your first job doesn't have to be fully professional it can be teenager anything in between college.

Phill: So I had a variety of side jobs when I was a teenager but I was principally a baseball umpire from 16 to 22 I umpired hundreds and hundreds of games kids as young as 10 all the way up to adult league semi-pro all over my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Had a blast doing it. And it taught me a few lessons about dealing with conflict. Sometimes you just have to make a call and people aren't going to like that call, but you have to understand the rules and everything else, make the call, move on to the next one. So I learned a lot of life lessons in that job.

Eugene: What is the one piece of technology you can't live without? And this can be personally, professionally, or anything in between.

Phill: Oh, this has to be my remarkable tablet. So my wife, Elsa, very kindly gave me a remarkable tablet. This is Christmas gift in 2020. I probably have like 2,500 pages of notes on this pad. I have saved a lot of trees. But yes, I take this thing everywhere. I'm a journalist by trade, so I'm taking notes all the time.

Eugene: Perfect. Let me actually get myself one. We talked a lot about habits and mindset, and you talked about the creative habit there, the recruitment. Is there a small habit, or can you suggest a habit which you think could help other people or having a routine, anything in particular?

Phill: So I think about what are the things that you need to do every day and what are the things that you want to do, the long-term things. And so if you create a list with short-term and long-term things, the things that are immediately in front of you are always just going to bulldoze everything else. So what I do is I have a whiteboard near me and I write down all of the long-term things, all of the big projects, all of the aspirational stuff that I want to pursue. I look at it. It forces me to look at it every single day and think, how do I make progress on that as I'm looking at my remarkable pad and looking over the daily list of activities to do? But you have to find a way to delineate that because people want to do the big, important things in their jobs. You just have to figure out how that's going to work for you.

Eugene: It's very helpful. Last question, what's your favorite place to visit and why? 

Phill: It's been a little while since I've been there, but I will tell you, I have the fondest memories of going to the Samoan Islands. This is in Western Washington State, west of Seattle. If you are there, if you can be at the Samoan Islands between July and September, I would invite you to go. You can go out on the ferry system. You can take your car. You could take a bike or you just walk out onto a ferry, go explore islands. You can go up to Vancouver Island and go to Victoria, Canada. You can take the ferry over to Vancouver, BC, which is one of the great cities in North America. Yeah. I just love being outside. I've seen the biggest bald eagle nest that I've ever seen in my life, taking ferries and just being out on the water. So I would highly recommend it.

Eugene: Smashing. I never even heard of it until just now, so I will have to go and check it out. Phill, as we approach the end of this conversation, I want to almost come back to the beginning. For people who were not there last week in New York at Passle CMO Series Live, you mentioned earlier in the conversation you're very fortunate, you're part of Reed Smith, this sort of mega global brand. And other people may think, ah, what he says is not applicable to me. And I know you said this is part of a mindset of experimentation and curiosity. So distilling this down to actionable advice, where would you suggest somebody else start? What advice would you offer for a legal comms professional who's trying to better align the communications, the brand, the strategy with the business development output for the firm? What advice would you offer?

Phill: Here is a framework for comms professionals at any size firm to consider. And I did not elaborate on this in the presentation in New York. One, understand your practice strategy plans. Two, boil them down to keywords. Boil down specifically the strategy components. Three, understand your principal and aspiring competitors in that space. And four, understand the tactics that your lawyers want to pursue. Because you can't go anywhere without the lawyers doing the work, whatever that is. So once you have those answers, once you have a handful of keywords that are assigned to the strategy components of a practice strategy plan, now from an SEO and a PR perspective, now you can roll out to market. You can update bio pages and capability pages. You can help drive the creation of content around those keywords. You can also pursue PR principally on those keywords, whether it's healthcare private equity, ESG in the US. Whatever it is, you can now create definition and direction on what you want to pursue in that space. And so then let me give you a couple of ideas for how you then might measure that. Well, one is that obviously you can look at Google Analytics and you can understand like, okay, I've updated keywords and we're creating content around three, four or five areas that we've identified. So what is the uplift on bio pages and practice pages from an analytics standpoint. From a PR standpoint, you're now beginning to track, okay, I've got a certain percentage of PR hits based on coverage related to certain keywords. And if you're a small law firm, you can go to your library. You can ask them to pull up articles from your principal competitors on those keywords, and you can begin to compare and contrast. Where are your lawyers speaking and how often are they? And where are your competitors speaking? And then you can begin to calibrate efforts that way. There are tons of spinoffs. I'm only giving you two, but the more that you are marketing the practice, regardless of how you are doing it, the more you know that you're doing your job.

Eugene: Phill, I wasn't going to ask this, but I think I will, given everything you just discussed. us, what you mentioned brand equity, what do you see is coming next for communications and law firms? And do you foresee any big change in methods, measurements, implementation?

Phill: So what I will say is this is future-focused, but it is also very much here and now for a lot of law firms, which is around data. At Reed Smith, since last year, we've established quarterly data reports to track client engagement of all kinds. And a big thanks to my boss, Sadie Baron, for giving us the latitude to be able to roll out on this. But essentially, our comms team has a ton of data and we took the lead creating a quarterly report and we have added onto it other types of activities, BD activities, insights, pitch data. We are getting a broader view into our matter pipeline. We are approaching the point where we're several of these reports in and that we're beginning to overlay financials because we want to see the correlations around that. Ultimately, we want to help the leaders of the firm to drive business decisions. What are the marketing activities that we're pursuing? Where are the fees and the clients that we can go get? Is there a nexus between the two? If there is, great, let's invest more. If not, how do we recalibrate the effort for future effect?

Eugene: Phill, thank you so much for your time and your candor and your advice and everything else. This has been an amazing episode of the Passle CMO series podcast. Thank you for making it so brilliant.

Phill: Again, it's been an absolute pleasure, Eugene. Thank you for Passle for giving me this platform.

Eugene: Our pleasure. Thanks a million.




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