I doubt many of you, gentle readers, follow David Carr, who writes the Media Equation column for the Monday Business section of The New York Times, but I commend him to you as an enlightened, thoughtful, and experienced observer at the intersection of media, business, and culture.  (I do not know David personally.)

But his current column, “Print Empire Embraces a New Order,” even though it’s about the arrival of Laura Lang to run Time, Inc., has, I believe, lessons for Law Land.

Who’s Laura Lang?

She comes to Time Inc. from being chief executive of the digital ad agency Digitas and Carr describes her as having “an excellent reputation,” but:

As recently as, well, the day before Ms. Lang was hired, it would have been unthinkable that a large consumer magazine group would be run by someone with plenty of experience buying ads for clients, but with no experience selling them. But Ms. Lang knows other things that could come in handy, including how to use multimedia and social media to increase reader engagement in a way magazines rarely achieve.

As the head of Digitas, a unit of the Publicis Groupe, she was at the vanguard of a movement to direct advertising dollars toward specific audiences and away from big advertising buys adjacent to articles — in other words, away from businesses like Time Inc.

As far back as five years ago she articulated the shift.

“We’re seeing clients shift dollars into channels that can get a direct engagement, that can get a direct, accountable experience” she said in an interview with Direct, a marketing industry publication.

That doesn’t sound like a two-page ad spread in Fortune to me.

The powers that be at Time Inc. are working the phones and their outboxes to try to minimize the import of the shift, which mostly has the result of reinforcing one’s view that it’s a big deal indeed.

Jeffrey Bewkes, chief executive of Time Warner, played down any talk of a revolution, in part because the last chief executive he installed at Time Inc., Jack Griffin, lasted all of six months after he came under fire for his management approach. Clearly, Mr. Bewkes doesn’t want to spook the troops.

The businesses at Time Inc. may be in retreat — revenue is down 20 percent in the last few years, to $3.7 billion in 2010 from $4.6 billion in 2008 — but the people there think what they have built has value, no matter how many paradigms have shifted.

“We’re proud of our magazines and Time Inc.’s 80-year history,” Mr. Bewkes told me in a phone conversation last Thursday. “I wanted somebody who could inspire and lead that group, support the journalism and help the businesses evolve over time.”

[…]  “The reason that I hired Laura is that she is a good business person who has run companies with multiple entities with a number of creative people,” he said. “The digital part is good and helpful, but definitely not the number one consideration.”

Clearly, spin it as they may, Lang is going to be taking on some powerful and entrenched constituencies:

Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at Nomura Capital who used to work at Time Inc., said, “It’s going to be a very big challenge at a place like Time Inc. with so many different, powerful constituencies.”

But James McQuivey, senior analyst at Forrester Research, sees significant implications in the choice of leadership.

“In the magazine world, they have been allowed to live with the illusion that it is the printed word that creates value,” he said. “But the value actually comes from the attention of the reader. She is exactly what they need. The question is whether they are willing to follow where she is ready to lead.”

Back to Law Land.

Carr nicely summarizes the way magazine advertising (all print advertising, for that matter) used to be bought:  “Traditional media has historically done well by selling inefficiency. In order to reach those among People magazine’s 3.5 million readers who were interested in buying a car or a coffeepot, you had to buy an ad that everyone else flipped past. As a serious practitioner of the science of audience-and-data-driven buys, Ms. Lang helped clients erase those inefficiencies through targeted buys, allowing them to get the milk without having to buy the whole cow.”

Isn’t that one thing (not the only thing, of course) that law firms have relied on doing:  “Selling inefficiency?”  I dare you to find an indictment of the billable hour that doesn’t start from that premise, or an indictment of the high associate:partner leverage ratio that doesn’t do the same.

Now, I hasten to add that I’m not pretending there’s a solid analogy between what law firms do and having to buy exposure to 3.5-million people in order to put yourself in front of the (say) 10,000 who might actually be interested in what you have on offer.  No, but what I’m saying is that clients are increasingly moving to ways of paying for legal services that provide some more direct, accountable measure of what is being done at what price, when and by whom:  Getting the milk without the cow.

That’s far from the whole story, however, and in Media Land Carr acknowledges as much:  “A good magazine will do many things for a brand, including bestowing luster and creating awareness by osmosis.”   In the same way, hiring Skadden or Sullivan & Cromwell or Davis Polk or Quinn Emmanuel or [Name Brand Firm] adds “luster” and, if it doesn’t create “awareness” of the client’s position–that’s rarely a problem–it delivers the client’s message with high impact.

Carr then lets the other shoe drop:  “[But] what magazines have not been able to do is to provide reliable measures of effectiveness.”  Touche.

Who knows if hiring an AmLaw 25 firm or a Magic Circle firm or a gilded boutique is more “effective” than any number of alternatives?  We don’t really know, do we?  (Trust me, I’ve been in this industry which I both hopelessly love and find endlessly perverse my entire adult career, and I’ve never seen anyone even pose that question, much less attempt to answer it.)

Now, Laura Lang and her quant brain trust at Time Inc.–presumably with the help of Digitas–will be delivering metrics to clients that no one is demanding of us and which have not even a remote parallel in our world:  Costs per thousand impressions, click-through rates, conversions, A/B campaigns’ relative effectiveness, etc. 

But that doesn’t let us off the hook entirely.  Or, in other words, there are metrics and there are metrics.  It may be the stuff of 2025 or 2050 technology to be able to measure the “effectiveness” of a law firm, but we know some things we can measure today, and clients are increasingly asking for it.  Simple stuff:  If you quoted a fixed fee of $100,000 for discovery and you’re  halfway through, how much of the $100K have you already spent? 

  • What does a motion for summary judgment cost?
    • In a business process patent infringement defense?
      • In the Southern District of New York?
        • Involving the online world?
  • What does it cost to prepare an expert witness?
    • To address the statistical methodology of a double-blind study?
      • In the biotech world?
        • In front of a judge who’s a stickler?

You get the idea.  And you may be protesting that all these things are still too subject to chance, events outside your control, and the reliable perversity of opposing counsel and the bench, to be able to provide meaningful measures.

The point is not that metrics need to be bulletproof, but that you need to start.  To paraphrase the hoary but deeply true joke, “You don’t need to outrun the bear; you just need to outrun the other firm you’re up against.”

If even Time Inc. has gotten on this train–Time Inc., for heaven’s sake, which in its heyday under Henry Luce sent uniformed maids through the offices at 4:30 with trolleys dispensing cocktails–how far behind dare we be?

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