*Echo Awards: Sharp Humor, Simplicity Reign

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TORONTO--A neurotic three-headed bachelor, broken duck bills and rural fence posts in New Zealand were among the key images in campaigns that took top honors at the Direct Marketing Association's 70th Annual Echo Awards here last night. The awards bestowed honors on 52 winners representing direct marketing campaigns spun from every corner of the globe.


Entries were submitted for 956 campaigns produced over the past year in all direct marketing media, including work for AT&T, Universal Studios, Land Rover, the Danish Postal Service and even the Clinton Legal Expense Trust.


Topping the list were The Martin Agency, winner of the Diamond Echo Award, and Aim Direct Ltd., which received the Gold Mailbox Award for the campaign with the most innovative use of direct mail.


The Martin Agency, Richmond, VA, won the top award for its commercials touting "The Sensible Alternative" for Geico Direct Auto Insurance, Washington, DC, which helped boost telephone response rates by 44 percent in 1998 compared to 1997.


Commercials coupled humor with a strong call to action line that reinforced the savings-oriented key benefit: "A 15-minute call could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance."


The campaign included a combination of cable TV, spot TV and national/local radio to reach the target audience of consumers ages 26 to 64. Direct mail also was used to buttress its communication goals.


Under The Martin Agency's marketing direction, overall inquires for Geico have increased consistently by 40 percent each year for the past four years.


The Geico TV campaign included a talking duck that pulls off his bill while delivering the predictable pun about "reducing one's insurance bill." Included in the campaign, and perhaps most memorably celebrated, were the spots featuring actor Sean Hayes of NBC's "Will & Grace," who played an obsessive, three-headed bachelor having a conversation with himself at a party about getting a date. Each spot in the campaign used humor while emphasizing the importance of choosing the sensible alternative when selecting auto insurance.


The entire Martin Agency-led winner was produced for Geico Direct by writers Steve Bassett and Randy Belcher and art directors Ken Spera and Bob Meagher. Belcher said the agency's strategic focus was to overcome barriers associated with consumer's inertia about buying or switching auto insurance, while defining and highlighting the benefits of making a purchase without the aid of an agent.


"These certainly aren't Allstate Insurance commercials," Belcher said. "What we tried to get across with this campaign is the idea that when you call Geico directly, you save money by not working with a middleman. Early on, we decided that a lot of insurance advertising emphasizes what happens to consumers in a disaster. Everyone is so serious. We tried to do something different, more offbeat and humorous. I think we were probably the only people in the category who are using humor to sell insurance."


For the Gold Mailbox Award, the DMA recognized Aim Direct, Auckland, New Zealand, which developed a simple but sharp-focused business-to-business direct mail campaign targeting rural farmers with banking services by the Bank of New Zealand. The brand building and acquisition-driven direct mail effort was executed late last year with a strong emphasis put on speaking to the target group using language and imagery steeped in colloquial authenticity.


The direct mail package, which included images of fence posts, barbed wire and photographs of company representatives, accentuated the strength and trustworthiness of the Bank of New Zealand's rural division. One copy line suggested that the client knew rural banking so well that "farmers virtually gain an extra farm hand by banking with us."


According to Aim Direct, "All banks have tried to claim the turf by arguing that 'We have rural managers who understand farming.' But our challenge was to move beyond that and claim a newer, more distinctive position."


What the agency ended up developing was a folksy-looking but highly-effective package that it said "tapped right into the heart of the farmer's psyche. It was so familiar to them that they made a direct connection between their own environment and the Bank of New Zealand."


And as seasoned direct marketers know, numbers don't lie: AIM Direct's campaign for the Bank of New Zealand generated a whopping 83 percent response - beating the bank's control package by 22 percent and generating $66 million in new business for the client.

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