PM Forum put Obelisk marketing under the microscope

Being ahead of the game does not always lead to a marketing advantage. This is what Dana Denis-Smith discovered in 2010 as she set up Obelisk Legal Support, a business which provides lawyers for an hour, a day, a week or longer to large corporates and law firms. She talks to Neasa MacErlean. 

In the process, during 2010, of becoming a mother herself, Dana Denis-Smith felt that there were many female lawyers who wanted to work part-time and flexibly but who could not commit to the traditional high-powered career. When she explained to businesses how these part-time parents would feel happier working without the pressure, that idea, she felt, did not transmit itself well in the commercial environment. So she rethought and changed the message. Instead of leading on the idea that she could deliver contented (and, therefore, more productive) workers, she focused more on what was expected.

“The message shifted. It is now about: ‘You have challenges and we can meet them’.”

Dana Denis-Smith, Obelisk founder and CEO

On this basis, the business has gone much better. There are now 500 lawyers on Obelisk’s books – and 93 per cent of them are female, and the majority are mothers. There are also seven employees managing them from the Obelisk office in the City of London.

Obelisk markets itself entirely differently to its clients and to its workforce. But, interestingly, the original message about happiness is beginning to cross the divide and to reach some of the businesses.

“There is a tension about how we market to our consultants and how we present ourselves to our business clients.”

Dana Denis-Smith

Being pregnant in 2010 held her back from developing Obelisk as fast as she wanted. But it did mean that she completely understood why so many mothers wanted to work flexibly. One of the slogans that the organisation uses with its consultants is “The best things in life aren’t 9 to 5”. This sentence is hand-written on the back of a 2013 year end invitation that it sent out for a reception for its lawyers. This message, despite various drives at achieving work/life balance, is not one that resonates formally in the legal offices of the City. In fact, for many people employed in these buildings there is little at all that happens outside working hours.

And so it was that Obelisk really took off in 2012, a couple of years after it was first launched. The organisation is now communicating well with both of its constituencies – and the messages it sends to both are showing some convergence. A week before pm interviewed Denis-Smith she had been talking to a legal head in the City who was taking an interest in her happiness idea – that satisfied lawyers are more productive. In contrast to some senior lawyers, he went out of his way to welcome the approach.

More than that, the legal sector in the UK appears to be moving slowly towards her position. “Clients like to hear from us on issues around diversity and inclusion,” she says. Younger generations of potential trainees do ask questions about diversity and flexibility – and are, indirectly, forcing law firms and businesses to address such issues. Obelisk is, therefore, carving out a space for itself as a thought leader here.

In July last year, for example, it hosted a discussion in the House of Lords, in collaboration with Lady Kingsmill who rose to fame in the legal world as that champion of minority and female employment rights, Denise Kingsmill. The theme of that gathering is a hard one to stand out against. It is spelt out on the invitation: “Unless corporates and law firms create a working environment that allows talented and highly trained lawyers to work in the best way suited to everyone, then we all suffer – lawyers and their clients.”

Not only does Obelisk deliver on this moral promise but it also does it in a way that is best-adapted to City life. “What defines us is our flexibility,” says Dana-Smith. This year the organisation will expand on the theme of diversity in its marketing and communications. A centre piece will be an “oral history of women in the profession over the last 100 years”. But, rather than focusing primarily on ladies in the Roaring Twenties, Obelisk will probably dwell more on the time when women really began to make an impact – in the 1970s. “It creates visibility with our clients,” says Dana-Smith, who clearly has a strong, natural interest in visual presentation.

Invitations, Christmas cards and other small items sent out by the firm are lovingly created and made to last, even if they are in paper. There is a subtle message in many of them which echoes the unpushy, subtle message coming from mothers and fathers who prioritise their children as well as their work. For instance, the invitation to the 2013 year end reception for consultants was on the back of an A3 reworking of Leonardo’s perfect man on the wheel to show a perfect woman fitting into a square. Similarly, the 2013 Christmas cards were sent out with four different kinds of page markers showing London landmarks (Battersea Power Station, the Shard, the Eye and the Gherkin) and an obelisk. They are the kind of images that could be hurried over at the start of a busy day but which might resurface in the mind at the end.

The team at Obelisk have serious long-term (and medium-term) ambitions. In a couple of years, they would like to extend the service from the law into another sector, probably accountancy. In the meantime they are developing new ways of marketing themselves – ranging from a revamped website and blogging to more events and greater use of artists in their materials.

Denis-Smith – whose two-year old daughter was in the room as the interview with pm was taking place – is not someone who goes with the flow for a quiet life or who pretends to agree when she doesn’t. Most people seeking a career in the law tend to applaud workaholic behaviour and values. But she does not, and says: “I’m of the school that says sometimes women are motivated by a different career path. Very often they want to support their families, and they don’t want to run multi-million pound firms.” She probably speaks for far more women – and men – than those who would dare to make such a statement themselves.