Travel along any major roadway in Knoxville and drivers will likely run into Stephen A. Burroughs.
Whether it’s an ad on one of the many billboards his face is on or a Knoxville Area Transit bus, the personal injury attorney has become one of the most recognizable people in the city. His advertising strategy has cost him more than $1 million over the last five years but has rewarded him with more than half his client base and a cult-like following among locals.
And in less than two weeks, a Facebook memes page dedicated to Burroughs has garnered more than 4,300 likes and growing. A meme is a catchphrase or concept that spreads widely on the Internet.
“I think it’s both flattering and amusing. It makes me laugh,” Burroughs said of the Facebook page. “I appreciate somebody recognizing my marketing efforts and acknowledging that I’m making some headway in what I plan to do in developing a name and image for myself in the community.”
His larger-than-life persona has been likened to the notoriety of martial artist and actor Chuck Norris and he’s been referenced as Knoxville’s own Old Spice Guy, but Burroughs said he’s always just wanted to create a successful business.
“I wanted to get clients, and I wanted to render good services for my clients. The combination between effective advertising and winning my cases and making my clients happy is exactly what happened,” he said.
David Jacobs, director of digital innovation and strategy for The Tombras Group, a Knoxville advertising and public relations firm, said Burroughs’s spreading popularity from traditional into social media is a prime example of how “offline feeds online.”
“It’s a very good example of something going viral, and it’s just a portrait photo,” Jacobs said.
Burroughs didn’t start out making a big splash on billboards and buses until three or four years ago.
When he first began his practice in 1999, Burroughs relied heavily on word of mouth, referrals from other lawyers and clients and the phone book.
About six years ago, he decided to get more aggressive in his marketing and began to dabble with traditional media.
“It was just little things,” he said. “It was a matter of experimentation. I would try a little bit of this and see if I would get a response. If I didn’t, I would change the content, change the times it was appearing. If I kept toying with it and nothing seemed to work, then I would say, ‘Well, that must not really be for me even if other people may have success with it,’ and I would just go to something else.”
Eventually, Burroughs decided to give outdoor advertising a try and he appeared to find his niche.
“The outdoor market proved to be really responsive to my message and my image,” he said. “So after buying a couple of them and getting some response, I thought, ‘Oh, this must be it. I’ve hit on what works for me.'”
Burroughs quickly went from two billboards to 31 in a year and a half. Then he began to appear on buses.
“There’s some areas in town you can’t have billboards and some areas where they’re not seen. I thought it would be cool to have some other type of outdoor advertising to tie it all in,” he said.
He currently has about a dozen bus wraps but plans to increase that number soon. He’s also begun to air a few television and radio spots.
“You just see him everywhere. It’s a classic example of when people get behind a brand. He’s made an icon of himself,” Jacobs said.
“He’s making some smart decisions. While he might be somewhat overexposed, it’s obviously working for him,” Jacobs added.
Burroughs said he’s not too worried about overexposure yet. His Facebook fans are “encouraging me to keep on going.”
Ryan Clark, a freshman at the University of Tennessee majoring in piano performance, created the Facebook memes page nine days ago. He said he thought it would be something funny shared among friends and has been surprised at how popular it has become.
“Driving to and from campus, I always saw his ad and found his facial hair magnificent. It just seemed like a perfect picture for a meme,” Clark said. “I can’t grow facial hair. It demands my respect.”
Clark admitted he was initially concerned he would receive a cease-and-desist letter, but within a few days, Burroughs was posting on the page himself.
“When I realized it was actually him, I danced around my dorm room,” Clark said.
It’s that participation that sets Burroughs apart, according to Jacobs.
“It’s true involvement not just exposure. He’s just kind of letting it live,” Jacobs said.
Almost every day when he’s out, people will either say something in passing or they’ll stop and talk with him.
On this particular day at the KAT center, a man waiting for the bus asked Burroughs if he was the lawyer on all the ads. Indeed, Burroughs acknowledged. Burroughs writes the content for his ads.
“I know my clients better than anybody,” he said. “As a trial lawyer, in order to do a good job, I have to be able to understand people and what people want and what people listen to and try to relay that.”
His peers, however, aren’t always so supportive. Personal injury can be very lucrative. The first step is getting the clients.
“There are other attorneys who wished they had as many cases as I do and wished they made as much money as I do who are as a result not happy about me advertising. Either directly or indirectly through other people, they have made that known,” Burroughs said.The head of the Knoxville Bar Association did not respond to requests for comment.
Regardless, don’t expect Burroughs to slow down any time soon.
“I had always planned to take some of the money I make and enjoy it and then take a ton of it and reinvest it,” he said. “That’s what I continue to do right now.”