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Scott McKay is a Toronto writer, creative director, brand response specialist, relatively patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell

     

     

     

     

     

    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye

     

     

     

     

     

    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler

     

    Entries in direct marketing (10)

    Saturday
    Jun012013

    building muscular copy

    Direct writing is in a bad way these days. Most of the emails and packages I get are mere lists of product features, usually bulleted, with some vague sense that it will benefit me as a human – and not much more personal than that.

    Why is this happening? The canard about people not reading any more is one reason, a trusim that clients and agency types are both guilty of repeating all too often when judging letter or email copy. Our audience doesn't have a lot of time, they say, so cut all this stuff about them and focus on the product. Bullets would make it really easy to scan. (Yes, they'll say "scan" instead of "skim.") And why is it two pages? Make it single sided.

    And this, my friends, is how we get lovely looking things that allegedly want our attention but which actually contain little or no reason to engage. 

    But it doesn't have to be this way. While the classic formats may be having a hard time, the endeavour of engaging an audience to get them to respond – the purpose of direct marketing – is alive and well in other forms. For instance, take a look at this page selling a book called Anabolic Cooking. The art direction seems to be a mess, it seems to be several feet long, and it wouldn't pass muster at any agency internal. And yet the writing is classic. It's actually persuasive, with the writer going through misconceptions and issues and knocking them down so you have no reason to say "no" – like any great salesperson. That's strong (if formulaic) writing.

    I've recently seen a bunch of examples of this kind of site, and it seems to be where direct is heading for product-focused sales. It is a formula, and it's easy to see how people would be turned off by the high pressure. But, being classic DM folk, these marketers don't care about the fact that their page may turn some people off, and that it's not the coolest advertising ever done, or that it takes time to engage with it.

    It sells to people who are interested. And it works. 

    As creatives, I think we laugh and ignore this as "garbage" at our peril. There's always something to be learned from something that works, something we can apply no matter what we're writing.

    Monday
    Aug292011

    just ask this marketing scientician

    This study out of the University of Oregon, about information recall rates between online and print readers, got a lot of attention over the past week. And rightly so. We need to know more about how and why people interact with advertising. (I mean, I want to know how all communications work, but since an ad agency supports my mortgage and food habits, I feel a particular dedication to knowing more about ads.)

    I encourage you to read the PDF. (Ahem, print it out if you must, like me.) One of the nuggets is that online readers are more like to read headlines alone (and, after I changed my mindyou know how I feel about that) while paper readers are more likely to read body copy and recall it. While I'm sure that's not the final answer and I'd love to see a bigger survey sample, this work is trying to do something important – get at the reality of how we communicate.

    We need to know what works under what circumstances. That knowledge could vastly improve media decisions, let alone creative decisions. And we already bring a lot of discipline to direct media, burrowing into all kinds of metrics and spitting out all kinds of analysis. Our media team's efforts and thinking on the results of, say, this campaign were considerable and impressive.

    So what to make of the collision of science (or at least observation) and creative? Most creatives (and a still surprising number of clients) assume that the idea trumps all. Package your concept up into whatever media you've bought and, bam, there's your campaign. Which is heartwarming and hopeful, and may have once been true, but it's becoming less true and less useful. People in our business can hear about the Oregon study, or similar work, and still not absorb it or understand it, thanks to the fact that we humans are surprisingly bad listeners. (That's thanks to the invention of writing, but that's a whole other story.)

    Direct marketing, for all its limitations, begins with the idea that marketing is measurable. And we have a toolkit of attitudes and techniques with which we approach our work. But it's all based on knowledge derived from response – what's worked? – and not on knowledge of the rest of the interaction. Right now we get back a yes/no, but not why or how. And that would be really valuable knowledge.

    Think of it as the complete takeover of the world by direct marketing if you must, but applying some sort of scientific or at least measurable discipline to consumer interaction with marketing is essential. 

    We need to get better.

    Tuesday
    Dec142010

    wrong?

    Two early encounters with the Internet:

    During my half-baked sojourn in Japan in 1994, I did some freelance work for a magazine called Tokyo Timeout. (Okay, I was sleeping on the editor's couch and he was getting sick of me mooning around, so he put me to work.) Which meant I spent many late afternoons and evenings there, as the fulltime staff were finishing up, winding down, and figuring out where they were going drinking that night.

    The mag's art director was a talented designer named Kenroy (check out this blast from the past featuring him on high-tech publishing) who one evening called me over to his Quadra. Normally at this time he and the boys were playing Myst, which I'd spent a few short minutes with before trying to chat up someone else. But what he was trying to show me wasn't the next level of Myst.

    "This," he said, "is the World Wide Web."

    The old Mac SE I first had at Eaton's came with a bunch of 3.5" disks that taught you about something called HyperCard. I got into them once during some downtime, and the possibility seemed cool, but the basic problem was creating all the damn things that all those links would take you to. It seemed like a hell of a lot of work for one person.

    The stuff that Kenroy was showing me seemed to use these hyperlinks to take you different places, and there were some nice colours and the odd picture and tons of badly laid-out text, and it sure was more interesting than email and forums, but as I sat staring at the screen and clicking, I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't really see the point.

    Fast forward a year or two.

    I'm back at Eaton's and this Internet thing isn't going away, and a couple of smart people and me get told to figure out how to get Eaton's onto that very same World Wide Web. One of us got dial-up access in her office, and we'd go mess around "surfing", to use the then recently coined term. Some sites took forever to load, some didn't. (I know, probably not so much their problem, more likely ours, but still.) The amount of stalling meant that about half the sites you tried to see, you didn't.

    Anyway, the one retail site that to me had any style, offered products for sale, and seemed to load relatively consistently, was the Emporio Armani site. No, not that one – a pointillized thing with black dots illustrating clothes on a white background. That was what I thought we could aspire to, for whatever it's worth.

    We met with three Internet shops, all of which were designing and building sites. But one called Quadravision seemed to have a better sense of design, and a tighter sense of what they wanted to do. Our team reco'd them and management went forward with them.

    And at that point I washed my hands of the thing.

    We had recognized the need to have a webmaster, someone who could update copy and product and generally run the thing. And logically that would have been me, yet for some reason I still wasn't interested; I can't exactly pin down why that was. I think maybe I felt that I'd be off on my own, with no one in the company really paying attention. And around that time I began to realize that my job was not secure, and I needed to get some big attention from those On High. Someone else, another writer, was very interested, and he had a great time discovering the 21st century.

    Is the only lesson here that I'm a terrible guesser? Perhaps. But digital work then also seemed to require a strong knowledge of technology, which has never been that interesting to me, per se. Instead I went off to get a really strong grounding in direct response thinking.

    And guess what our clients are expecting the Internet to do today?

    Friday
    Oct152010

    I don't remember seeing Northrop Frye's session at the 2010 DMA

    (image: FryeBlog)Well, at least bronze is shiny.

    And as much as other shiny colours might have been nicer to receive on Tuesday night, really, you don't get into response marketing if you want to win awards. You're dedicated to getting a response out of people, to motivating them to act; there are techniques and processes that you have to use to help that happen. And if an outstanding response rate happens to lead to an award, that's gravy...

    I know that'll sound like post-facto rationalization, but I really am fascinated by the process of direct response. The most interesting session I went to at this year's DMA was by Bryan Eisenberg on "21 Secrets of Top-Converting Websites." Yes, it's a goofy direct response tactic, that title, but so what? The room was full; it worked. While so much direct response seems to focus on execution, on the tactics of making things happen, those tactics are actually a reflection of the psychology of the process of affecting someone's behaviour.

    You can't worry so much about the words as words, as language, or in some kind of faux literary way (i.e., the jokey headline). You have to think about the way the words can go together to have the most effect in the human world, the greatest emotional impact.

    Northrop Frye's last book was a follow-up to The Great Code, called Words With Power. I'm not putting DM on the same plane as the Bible; that would be ridiculous. But it is at least slightly amusing that they both force you to think about the way that words can in fact have power.

    Sunday
    Aug152010

    "It's, um, what's his name, he bought, um, some product"

    It's easy for us direct response folk to get fooled by cool. Yes, we want results, but we also want to do amazing ground-breaking work. We want awards. We want to be funny. We want millions of views on Youtube. And we view work, even direct response work, through that lens.

    By that standard, the most effective and perhaps longest running TV spot in Canadian history doesn't measure up.

    Yes. "It's Patrick, he bought life insurance!"

    When it aired, it was pretty mainstream in terms of the clothes, the lighting, the announcer-y stuff, so it didn't feel like the museum piece it does to you now. But it sure as hell didn't break any ground culturally or artistically. (For some reason, I think it was adapted from Belgian creative.)

    It just made so much money for Norwich Union insurance that they kept running it, year after year; the variations and tests ran well into this millennium. It was mind-bogglingly successful.

    Why? I can only hypothesize a weird combination of things. It's built on classic direct response structure with straighforward technique; it's a tutorial in how to do a DRTV spot. But it's not the only spot in history that's been well-executed, so that can't explain everything.

    I think it's the small hiccups that actually stuck with people, and made it memorable: the quickness and bizarre excitement with which the first guy says the immortal words, "It's Patrick, he bought life insurance." (Has anyone ever had a personal conversation that started out with insurance?) The way the Asian Canadian testimonial woman jumps in and cuts off her husband as he talks. The way the announcer's "2" in the "20" he scrawls on the whiteboard seems so rushed and sad. Maybe it's just me, but details like that remind me of the Sham-Wow spot; very strong selling with just enough personality and weirdness to be memorable.

    The only thing I can compare to it is that Canadian Tire "creepy neighbour" campaign early this decade with the couple who explained products – mini-infomercials really. People seemed to hate those damn things, they got made fun of mercilessly by shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Air Farce. Yet the flipside of that is that everyone knew them, everyone watched and knew the products. They look to CT for information, and went to CT when they wanted to buy. I have no data of course, but I've read CT folks saying that they worked insanely well.

    CT ended the campaign because they wanted to be cooler, oh, I'm sorry, more "relevant"; I'm sure the CEO got sick of his/her family and neighbours making fun of them. So we've seen a couple of campaigns since they ended the "creepy neighbour", and maybe a couple of different agencies. Yeah, cool worked really well, didn't it?

    I know the creative team who did the Norwich Union spots; amazing people all of whom I've worked with and for, and from whom I've learned virtually everything I know about direct marketing, direct mail, and DRTV. And yet none of them talks much about it, and I don't think any of them list it on their résumés, or have it in their books.

    Which is sad, but I understand why. Cool, not effectiveness, still seems to rule.

    Monday
    May172010

    so we got Ted fucking Williams beat, but still

    Ted Williams was maybe the greatest hitter to ever play baseball. Considering he lost three prime years to World War II, years which are normally a player's best, he still had one of best careers in baseball history, and is naturally in the Hall of Fame.

    Among his many achievements, he's the last person to have ever managed to hit .400 for an entire season – hitting .406 in 1941.

    And I know it's a management guru cliché, but these days I can't help but think about that – the most successful hitter in baseball history was lucky to get a hit four out of every ten at-bats in his best year.

    That's six out of every ten at-bats when Williams struck out, flied out, or grounded out. In other words, he mostly failed.

    Hell, a really good player these days will be happy hitting .300, failing seven out of every ten trips to the plate. He'll make millions of dollars a year doing that.

    And the reason that those facts weighs on me is because I want everything I do for a client to succeed. I don't just want the creative to be great; I want results. In direct marketing, results are really the only thing that matter. And it's especially so when your client is working with children who live in awful poverty, and your results mean funds to support that urgently needed work.

    I posted recently about getting some perspective on almost a year's worth of work, but I haven't been able to put it to rest. Yes, I think our numbers are better than Ted's. In a category that's really taken a beating, we've achieved a lot, and I'd say we're batting about .700. But that .300 left over weighs on me. The stakes are high, and that .300 isn't about bad work getting done, or not enough effort, or failure per se. Our team is putting in more effort than I have any right to expect, and they're as personally vested in the work as I am; everyone is doing some of the best work they've ever done.

    But something didn't work and it's our responsibility to think about that and learn from it, somehow.

    Then again, Ted used to talk to himself during every at-bat, even during batting practice, just to keep pushing himself. Between each swing he'd mutter, "I'm Ted fucking Williams, and I'm the greatest hitter in baseball."

    Monday
    May102010

    good marketing is specific, because our behaviour is specific

    (comic by Thad Guy, thadguy.com)I don't just mean good creative. I mean the whole marketing process, when it's good, is specific. Good thinking is specific.

    It's tempting for people to generalize, especially about outcomes. If a campaign works, it's great, and everything about it becomes great. If a campaign doesn't work, it's a failure and everything about it gets tossed. Not enough people spend the time to actually examine details, in either agencies or client companies. Senior managers don't want to (or don't have the time to) get down in the weeds. They need to get to the takeaways, or results, or action items, and will blithely skip over the gory details of the PowerPoint deck they're being taken through to get to the last few "recommendations" pages.

    Now, I'm all for results; they're a central tenet of direct marketing. But I'm also for learning. I want to do things better in the future, and everything I do now should help me down the line.

    The glory of direct marketing – reinforced by the exactitude of digitial – is the discipline to test everything about a campaign, to find out exactly what worked and what didn't. So you can learn. And test again. And learn some more.

    Because I want to know what caused X or Y behaviour, not what some group of people sitting in a boardroom thinks caused that behaviour. People's actions aren't caused by generalizations, but by specific triggers. As marketers, we need to know what those triggers are.

    Generalizing is something we're all prone to defaulting to, and something we all have to be wary of.

    Friday
    Apr302010

    all the stuff on the wall

    Something about seeing all your work for a year all at once that's upsetting, gratifying and humbling.

    We recently got a dump of the results of our work for the past several months. Although the timing was unavoidable for a number of reasons, I was a little miffed that we hadn't been able to get access to results before this; it seemed to me to be a missed opportunity to learn and adapt as we've been going.

    But one happy accident of this situation is that everything we're doing, for good or for ill, is really apparent. The lessons are obvious, if not the trends.

    It shows you undeniably what your habits are, the kinds of things you do without really thinking about them because they're so obvious; the kinds of things you really should think about. You see work that did really well; you see work that didn't really engage people, in spite of the fact that it's really well done. And the reason you know it didn't engage people is that you put it up against the hard numbers.

    That's the best and worst part of direct marketing – you don't get to hide from the results. You can try to find ways of spinning the numbers, but the numbers themselves don't change. Personally the hardest thing for me to do is to not be defensive and simply accept the results, and figure out what we can do better.

    Because, after all, it's not art. It's a business that involves pictures and words.

    Sunday
    Jan312010

    maybe this is why creatives have been known to have a pint every now and then

    Yes, we offer outstanding strategically driven ideas to our clients, and when our client relationships are working we can feel like partners in their businesses.

    But in direct and digital creative departments, there's one unalterable reality. After you sell that big cool idea to client and there is much congratulation and backslapping and you start thinking you're hot conceptual shit, you've still got to go back to your desk and make the damn thing.

    You've got to put in long hours over a keyboard and mouse, work out a million details with your IA and tech folks, or wrestle with your print production manager about what Canada Post will let you do.

    After the glory of the blue sky stuff, we have to become really good craftspeople. We need to know Flash and grammar and inDesign and how to proofread. We need to build insanely complex PhotoShop files showing in depth how something will animate, or write hundred-page copy decks full of not just brilliant content, but navigation and error messaging. We write forty letter versions for a package, or spend endless hours wrestling with iStock to find the one perfect image that may not exist. We don't get to outsource it to a studio, or a junior team or a production house. We have to get consumed with the details.

    There are lots of folks out there who can competently handle execution no problem, but can only ever manage conceptual clichés. And there are a fair number of folks who are fantastic ideators (ugh, what a word) but who don't have the willingness or skills to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty for weeks at a time.

    Craft is boring, executional and absolutely essential for what we do. We all know that great execution can almost save a bad idea, and bad execution can really sink a great idea. (The Diamond Shreddies stuff is a great example of bad execution. I know it won tons of awards, but for me it isn't anywhere near as good as it could be. Something seems really flat about the assembly line part, like the script and the direction just missed the point. And what's up with the mannequin at the end?)

    All of which goes to demonstrate that the best direct and digital creatives have to have two almost contradictory skill sets, mind sets and purposes – free-ranging yet obsessive, outlandishly creative yet unerringly logical, accepting no boundaries but always being aware of them.

    Okay, let's actually write the punch line, as if I needed to: good digital and direct creatives need two heads.

    Friday
    Jan222010

    jean-luc godard, direct marketing philosopher

    Just after I started at Wunderman I went through a phase of needing to watch a lot of European and Japanese movies that were as un-mainstream as I could find. Something about revelling in complexity and nuance, after a hard day of learning to simplify my writing and hearing "make the offer stronger."

    That's how one night I stumbled into Godard's Alphaville. I have to admit, it's not my favourite movie, or even my favourite Godard movie. (Okay, so I've only seen four, but it's a wonderfully pompous thing to write.) But at some point, the protagonist, a secret agent named Lemme Caution, stares off into the futuristic shadows of Paris and says something that made me rewind the tape just so I could be sure of what the subtitles said.

    "We have become slaves to probability."

    Well, I thought, that pretty much sums up direct marketing right there. Probability is the business model. I find out something about you – you subscribe to a parent magazine, or bought a bag of grass seed – and I use that information to more cost-effectively sell you something else. I can't know for sure that you'll buy my diaper service or atomic lawnmower, but that information increases my odds that you will. And since this is a world in which only 2% or 3% of people have to respond for me to make money, anything that makes your response more probable has enormous value.

    Your individual response doesn't have to fit the model. The fact that you didn't like the mailing is too bad, but it doesn't mean anything. As long as the clump of probability holds together and I make money, it works.

    The digital age hasn't fundamentally changed this model, not yet. Yes, people can be more finely targeted, but they are still targeted in groups. Businesses still can't afford talk to everyone differently on an individual basis. They still have to play the odds. 

    It's not the happiest thought, obviously, especially not twelve years down the road. But I still can't help but think it's basically true.

    I just wish Godard had managed to wedge the line into Pierrot le Fou. I actually enjoy that movie.