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articles / advertising know-how and fearless opinions


Posted on July 30, 2003 and read 852 times


This article first appeared in Strategy Magazine.

Direct marketing (DM) is full of rules, most written and considered unbreakable, but some unwritten and even harder to break. Dogged clods that we are, too many DM practitioners blindly follow those rules, to our own and our clients’ detriments.

But what if, like lawyers – who also help clients succeed – we direct marketers interpreted those rules for our clients? If something as serious as the law is open to countless hours of interpretation, why not rules for selling accidental death and dismemberment insurance?

Perhaps the most frustrating is the 40/40/20 rule. You know it: for success in DM, 40% of what matters is your list, 40% is your offer, and 20% is creative. Call me a DM heretic but why isn’t the product benefit – the brand promise – included in what matters in DM? Isn’t what we’re selling at least as important as who’s buying? Some would say it’s understood – so obvious it needn’t even be said. But is it really understood by direct marketers? I’m convinced there’s an ignorance of the importance of branding in our industry and a consequent lazy overdependence on the special offer.

Short Term Gain = Long Term Pain?

On the surface my beef is simple. Too much reliance on the offer in DM, and too little on our clients’ product benefit, attracts one night stands, eroding brand loyalty in the long term and rewarding poor behaviour in the short. The bargain hunter who acts now and grabs your 25% reduction is likely to wait until you do it again. This is especially common when the offer isn’t appropriate for the brand or relevant to the product. You attract customers that weren’t in your target, “But just look at those numbers!”

I’ve seen terrific response to irresistible offers which end up costing the client money because the customers aren’t willing to buy again. You’re stuck with a costly-to-maintain database full of deadbeats. Now that’s poor interpretation of DM laws.

On the other hand, there are projects which didn’t pull nearly as well as we’d hoped but the conversion rate far exceeded the goal. Or the customers’ loyalty over the long term proved a fantastic investment. In these cases the product benefit is what shone. The offer was a final kiss-off to move the inert.

Sounds interesting, but accepting a lower response rate and trusting the brand promise is something that doesn’t come naturally to direct marketers. Sure, most of us have taken up brand-speak to meetings (seems every second CMA conference is about branding) but we haven’t taken it to heart.

Why Direct Marketers Still Don’t Push the Brand Promise Enough

Not that we’ve felt encouraged to be brand guys. DMers suffer the ugly kid sister complex and easily accept it when the ad guys tell us to go off and think up neat envelopes and impressive lists. Once I was in a huge meeting where everyone around the table had to introduce themselves. The creative director of the general agency introduced himself as such and added, “as opposed to the direct marketing agency.” Interesting, I thought. I didn’t know our aims were opposed.

But maybe they are. There’s a subtle reverse snobbery in DM. A few dozen years ago, it became politic to declare that what we do isn’t actually advertising. The industry mantra was, “We don’t mail advertising, we mail mail.” This is twaddle. But don’t take my word for it. Ask the experts: the consumers. My Uncle Joe sees no difference between the drug store fliers cluttering his porch on Sunday morning and the slick beer commercials interrupting the hockey game the night before.

But once you believe your craft is different from your colleagues’, it’s not a great leap to also consider it superior, inferior, or – heaven help us – opposed to theirs. No wonder we’re willing to do anything to increase the immediate response.


So let’s put a stake in the ground: DM is advertising, responsible for selling now, while branding for the future. But if we are truly to become brand advocating direct response advertising people, what is required?

1) Become a brand lawyer for your client; interpret our bounteous rules. Discourage the database deadbeats by creating an offer that’s valuable to a genuine prospect but not expensive for your client, like a white paper for B2B verticals, or safety tips for a home insurance offer.

2) Brand ideas. No more hawking the offer. You need that selling concept that makes your client’s product utterly irresistible. Why do you need selling ideas? Because no cow ever sat around waiting to be branded and neither do consumers. An idea makes that impression on your customer’s impregnable world, searing its way onto her consciousness because she can’t ignore it. Like cattle we’re literally impressed with a brand by an idea.

Here’s my rule: the special offer should seal the deal, not be the deal. You’ll see a lower response (burn that heretic!) but ultimately a better quality of customer, fewer cherry pickers and greater profit. (Give that boy the key to the executive bathroom!)

Steven Bochenek is the Creative Director for OgilvyOne.




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