Truth in Advertising

Sexy. Fast-paced. Cutthroat. Creative. Lawyers for New York’s ad industry find they often have to put speed ahead of thoroughness.
By Marci Alboher, New York Lawyer, April 2001

Terri Seligman’s desk faces a brightly colored painting of cows grazing in a field that was painted by her husband, a screenwriter and artist. Like many of her partners at Loeb & Loeb, a firm known for its entertainment and advertising industry clients, Seligman says she “shares an affection for people in the arts.” She chuckles, “I’ve never really been drawn to stockbrokers.”

Seligman came to advertising after cutting her legal teeth in litigation. Though she was successful at it, she made the change when she found the work was spilling into other parts of her life. “It’s sort of nice to get in early rather than clean up the mess afterwards,” she says. “It’s fun to win, but I got tired of fighting with people all day long.”

Seligman’s advertising practice is a combination of transactional and regulatory work. One of the aspects she likes most is the constant gear shifting. On a typical day, she could be negotiating an employment agreement for an ad agency exec, reviewing direct mail copy, doing a talent agreement for a TV commercial, working on an Internet affiliate deal, or sending off a trademark cease-and-desist letter. “It’s great,” she says, “for those with a short attention span.”

According to Seligman, the work comes in waves. A few years ago, she reviewed a lot of advertising copy, but recently the mix has been heavy on Internet-related transactions. Although she’s seen a slowdown in start-ups of late, her bigger corporate clients remain interested in Internet-related deals. In her view, the type of deal making that has become common in the Internet world is increasingly found in the off-line world, which means a lot more partnerships, co-promotions, and revenue-sharing arrangements. But she’s also noticed such trends as “the blurring of advertising and editorial with the growth of sponsored content” and “privacy, which has been pushed to the forefront both by regulators and consumer groups who have become increasingly sensitive to how information is collected and used.”

In addition to having the opportunity to “flex the more creative muscle,” she also likes the dealmaking her work affords her because it tends to be more rapid than most large corporate transactions. “Ad agencies don’t want to deal with documents that are 200 pages long, filled with pages and pages of definitions,” she explains. “It’s very practical, business-friendly, and the deals just don’t drag on.” But that can cut both ways, she explains: Efficiency can mean that “sometimes things have to be done too quickly because the promotion is starting the next day. Most lawyers don’t like having to put speed above quality or thoroughness.”

While Seligman has had opportunities to move in-house – usually to a client – each time she’s been approached, she’s passed. “My partners convinced me that in a law firm, you’re much more your own boss,” she says. She also likes the bit of distance she has as outside counsel and feels she can be a more dispassionate counselor because she’s outside the hierarchy. “It frees me in the advice I can give,” she says.

Sitting down with Heidi Young, a self-described “maniac doodler” (who’s filled the legal pad between us with an intricate little drawing), is more proof that there is a strong creative side to lawyers inhabiting this field. Young came to the law after a less-than-lucrative career as a freelance photographer covering the music industry. Law, she felt, would be a way to actually support herself.

Young began her legal career working with a solo practitioner who had a stable of photographer, modeling agency, and film director clients. Before long, she was out on her own, building a business from her connections in the music world. But after working with struggling artists, who sometimes paid and sometimes didn’t, she was ready, again, for more stability.

She heard about an opening at J. Walter Thompson, the large advertising agency. Although she didn’t know much about advertising at the time, her experience in contract negotiating and copyright got her the job. Nine years later, she moved over to ad giant Saatchi, where she now runs the in-house legal and business affairs department.

According to Young, the hard part of working in an ad agency legal department isn’t the law, it’s making the decisions once you get in house. “You are not so much telling people that this is legal or illegal.” Instead, she’s more often saying, “Let me help you do what you want to do and minimize the risk of a lawsuit or other action.” She likes the fact that “you don’t just answer the legal question and move on. You are involved in matters from all sides – legal, business, P.R. As a result, you feel very close to the work, to the company, to the employees in all departments.”

Legal positions at agencies are hard to come by – most of the lawyers holding them realize it’s a good gig and some agencies don’t even have a legal department. But based on her workload, Young can’t understand how some agencies get by without using in-house counsel. From her vantage point, she sees the advertising arena as much broader than agencies – with people like her filling in-house jobs at the networks; on the client side; and even at dot coms, where a contract and regulatory background is quite helpful.

Among the challenges unique to advertising that Young has faced was Prodigy’s experiment with a completely live ad. Embarking on this, Young recalls, was exciting because the ad was unscripted and the agency used a film production company rather than an advertising production company. But, in a sense, even the speed with which this live commercial moved was not atypical. “As contracts go in advertising, you have about one minute to learn everything you need to know,” Young notes.

But speed and challenge aside, the biggest satisfaction Young gets these days comes from working with clients whose products, like Cheerios and Gogurt, are recognized by her five-year-old son. When she came home recently with a box of Reeses Puffs cereal, she says, “it just sent him over the edge.”


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