Are You 'Plucking Chickens' for Success?

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Do you want to know the real secret of direct marketing success?

OK, I'll tell you. But first you'll have to meet my grandparents. They lived in the heart of West Virginia. As a child, I spent many long summer days at their home, running in the wide green yard and splashing through the creek looking for crawdads. I'd play until my grandmother called me in for dinner. The meals were never fancy but always fresh because my grandparents raised a lot of their own food: corn, potatoes, green beans, strawberries, grapes, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, onions and a few chickens.

One afternoon, I was sitting behind the house with my grandmother, who was peeling potatoes and stringing beans. She asked me what else I wanted for dinner. I told her chicken. So my grandfather, who was sitting nearby smoking his pipe, quietly got up and walked to the hen house. A few minutes later he came out carrying a dead chicken by the feet. He walked up to me and said, "Start plucking the chicken."

I was horrified. "Me? Why? What for?"

I had seen my grandparents prepare many meals, but I had never really thought about the process. I was just a little boy. And it had always seemed that food just magically appeared on the table.

My grandfather said, "If you're going to eat those potatoes, you have to peel them. If you're going to eat those green beans, you have to string them. And if you're going to eat that chicken, you have to pluck it."

It was just that simple. Point A. Point B. And he was showing me the line from one to the other. So I sat down with that limp, bloody chicken and plucked every feather, hesitantly at first, but then with sureness and determination. And though I didn't eat very much of that particular chicken, I've never since taken any meal for granted.

And that, my friend, is the real secret of direct marketing success. It's not a formula. It's a way of thinking about things. It's an approach to life and to work. It's having the clarity of vision to see what needs to be done and the focus of will to do it, simply and directly.

It's a rare gift. It's the thing most people don't understand about direct marketing, or about anything else where results matter. They mistake simple for primitive, direct for unsophisticated. So when it comes time to make something happen, they look elsewhere for answers and never make the obvious connection between A and B.

Many years ago, an ad agency in my neighborhood hired me to consult on a direct mail project. One glance at the client's test results revealed that the successful packages included stickers and the unsuccessful packages did not. So one of my recommendations was to use a sticker in the new package. From the expression on the designer's face, you would have thought I had just relieved myself on the conference room carpet. He crinkled his nose in disgust and informed me that the agency "didn't do stickers. They're tacky."

Says who? Real people don't judge ads aesthetically. Only ad people do that. Besides, there's nothing tacky about doing what works. What's tacky is spending a fortune on a pretty advertising campaign that wins creative awards but not customers. People will fall all over themselves to buy things if you just make them a good offer, give them enough information to make a decision and make it easy to respond. OK, it's not always quite that easy, but it's not brain surgery, either. The obvious thing to do is usually the right thing to do.

I'm not saying you shouldn't build a brand. And I'm not saying you should be artless. I'm just saying that you have to get your priorities straight. And that's my entire Creative Checklist this time:

· Be clear about what you need to do. Then roll up your sleeves and do it.

Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the electric self-starter for cars, once said, "My definition of an educated man is the fellow who knows the right thing to do at the time it has to be done. ... You can be sincere and still be stupid."

The world is full of sincere, hungry people waiting for food to magically appear on the table.

But let's not bother with them right now. It's almost time for dinner, and we have work to do. While the rest of the world frets about ruffling feathers, let's get busy plucking the chicken. We'll eat. We'll laugh. And we'll drink a toast to our success.


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