For lawyers and lobbyists at gift season, it’s never just the thought that counts

For lawyers and lobbyists at gift season, it’s never just the thought that counts

For every federal employee or journalist prohibited from accepting anything because of ethics rules, there are thousands of other private sector professionals — lawyers, investment bankers, lobbyists and more — who both send and receive generous gifts every December.

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The trick, of course, is picking just the right gift: something memorable, and appropriate, that will impress important clients and valued employees.

But corporate gifts are fraught with all the same baggage as personal gift giving. And everyone who says it’s the thought that counts is lying. They’re judging.

Which is why that traditional fruit basket, big and impressive as it looks, may not really dazzle.

“People want clever more than they want expensive,” says David Adler, founder of BizBash, an online guide for corporate events and promotion. “Surprise and delight — that is the holy grail of marketing. Gifting is now about storytelling.”

The Tiny Jewel Box, D.C.’s go-to store for estate and antique jewelry, sits on Connecticut Avenue just a stone’s throw from some of Washington’s biggest law firms and trade associations. Which is why it has a corporate gift division with a separate staff just for business clients. Holiday orders, placed mostly in September and October by marketing or HR departments at various firms, account for 30 percent of the store’s corporate business.

The best selling items, every year, come from the Federal Collection, an exclusive series of made-in-America, high-end decorative boxes and collectibles popular with lobbyists and other folks based in the nation’s capital. “In Washington, there’s a certain restraint that you don’t necessarily find in other markets,” says TJB President Matt Rosenheim. “There’s a different definition of elegance and a pushback on lavish.”

The collection is popular, he says, because it appeals to a certain level of education and sophistication: The items incorporate historical images, vintage maps, art, architecture — things that people find intellectually interesting rather than blingy. If gifts tell a story, these say, “You’ve got a guy in Washington. We’re here in D.C. taking care of your Washington business.”

The vast majority of corporate gifts run $50 to $300 per piece, although Rosenheim does well in the $500 to $2,500 range and, for the most important of the VIP clients, $8,000 Swiss watches. Regardless of budget, the name of the game in business giving is “perceived value, so we need to create a $100 gift that looks like a $500 gift.” That’s easy to do with a custom item, because clients can’t Google the price. But it doesn’t appeal to every buyer: Some want to give an iconic and branded item (usually something really expensive) so recipients know exactly how much it costs.

It’s always a fine line between too little and too much: “There is definitely a threshold where it becomes too lavish and there’s a concern about the message that it sends,” he says.

The recession hit corporate giving hard. Companies stopped giving client gifts for a while, although they quietly rewarded top performers internally. The holiday business has inched back to pre-2008 levels, but it changed: Companies have moved away from centralized gifts — the same item to every client — to a more decentralized approach on which executives pick out personalized gifts for clients they work with all year.

Rosenheim sells custom pieces, like the “Constitution decoupage box,” designed to sit on a desk or credenza and preaches the staying power of something that’s a visual reminder of the giver for years to come. “That’s why I discourage people from doing consumables — you give them a gift basket, it’s eaten, it’s done.” He’s also not a big fan of tech gadgets, which the recipient is likely to already own or become quickly outdated.

A great corporate gift is, of course, in the eye of the seller: A wine vendor tells you there’s nothing more festive than a great bottle of champagne, a gourmet store argues that everyone loves specialty treats at Christmas. It’s hard enough to buy a good present for someone you know well; harder still for someone who you bill by the hour.

That’s one reason patriotic themes are so popular with Washington-based offices. Americana has always been the big draw at Ann Hand, the design firm founded by the D.C. jeweler who created the now iconic gold eagle and pearl brooch that has adorned every A-List shoulder and remains her all-time bestselling product.

Her holiday corporate sales are almost all political, military and patriotic-themed brooches, cuff links and lapel pins, or ties and scarves. “A scarf or tie is something they’re drawn to because most people will wear silk and it fits everybody,” Hand says . Her olive branch pin is especially popular this year.

Her items range from $45 to $100 for smaller pieces, but many of her clients spend $500 to $800 per gift.

Her business accounts are primarily men, and many come back year after year. They’re escorted to the second floor of her Georgetown store, where she unveils a variety of options on the table in front of them and they decide what they want and how many.

“They’re out the door in 30 minutes and have done all their shopping,” Hand says.

Back in the day (we’re talking 35 years ago) business giving in Washington was divided into two camps: inexpensive gifts — holiday turkeys or poinsettias — presented to politicians and the occasional over-the-top largesse for those less constrained by official rules.

When David Adler was running the society magazine Washington Dossier in the late 1970s, he received a number of gifts from wealthy Washingtonians eager to curry his favor. But none topped Ardeshir Zahedi, the famously charming and indulgent Iranian ambassador representing the soon-to-be-deposed shah.

“He would send cases of Dom Perignon along with caviar by the bucket,” Adler says . Memorable, even 40 years later. Those days are long gone; diplomats now give tasteful coffee table books or calendars depicting scenes from their country.

Corporate executives have a harder task — they have to come up with gifts that reflect their brand without being too promotional, but still stand above the fray.

“Experiential is the biggest gift-giving trend,” Adler says. “Events are the new luxury.” Tickets to, say, the Super Bowl or the U.S. Open are “like gold.”

Another trending theme is “purposeful” gifts: something environmentally conscious or a donation to charity. For companies that choose to send an actual present, there are more “concept baskets” of artfully curated items inspired by current pop culture obsessions: “Downton Abbey” teas and sweets, for example.

Even white shoe law firms, those bastions of tradition and quiet elegance, are under pressure to give something innovative. Today clients are both more demanding and discerning, quick to dismiss the obvious or the run-of-the-mill.

“Now, it’s all about personalization,” says one local executive, who has worked in business development for a number of Washington’s top law firms. Most offices now use “CRM”: client relationship management software that tracks birthdays, anniversaries, hobbies and other personal information.

A number of firms now expect individual partners to select and personally buy gifts for their own clients. Given the number of mergers and other financial sensitivities in big law, more are choosing less conspicuous gifts or gatherings. Last week, an international firm hosted an exclusive reception at D.C.’s Metropolitan Club, where partners spent two hours schmoozing their top 700 customers instead of sending individual presents to their offices. “These parties cost $200 a person to entertain at that level,” she says. “I think the client appreciates it more than a gift.”

Another trend: holiday parties created as family events, like one recently at the Kennedy Center where clients could bring their children and still network. “It was a huge hit,” she says, “because these people work all the time.”

This year, businessman Winston Lord had to come up with a corporate gift that is “creative, quirky, fun and memorable — on a limited budget.” The chief marketing officer of Venga, a start-up that supplies data to restaurants, wanted something that his customers would use and remember.

He has three Harry and David fruit boxes on his desk, and he can’t say who gave them to him. Portable phone chargers, the go-to corporate present this year, are practical and fun, and he’s already received six or seven of them. “It’s all appreciated, but nothing really stands out,” he explains.

His four-year-old company is still trying to build relationships in the restaurant industry, so he decided to create a 2015 calendar as this year’s gift. Each month features company execs in food-themed photos recreating famous movie scenes; Lord is July’s cover boy, being doused with macaroni a la the bath scene in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

“They’ll open it up and get a laugh,” he says. “I’m not expecting them to put it on their home refrigerator. But maybe the office refrigerator.”