How do you value creativity? Count the responses

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Through the years, our industry has tried to quantify the secret of success, right down to individual tactics. "Green envelopes depress response 17 percent." "Postage stamps give a 10 percent lift compared to indicia." Or that traditional response-boosting favorite, "Cosmo's 101 bedtime tricks that'll drive your man WILD!" Sorry, I digress.

However, I prefer to simplify. Here's my one tip for the month: Without creativity, all those official-sounding percentages add up to a big fat zero.

Here's why: Contrary to traditional belief, your target audience isn't stupid. In fact, as more or less functional U.S. citizens, they're about as smart as we are. Now tell me: When you get an envelope in the mail that says "No Annual Fee," what do you do? Well, that's what they do, too. The response-rate evidence says that while our rules worked for a while, ultimately we've trained consumers to recognize marketing tricks. Our worst nightmare is here: the tactic-resistant superconsumer. It's always been true that an average execution guarantees you an average result. Now the average keeps on dropping.

This brings me to another old saw, that time-honored pie chart of the factors that go into a successful mailing. You know the most-quoted one: 40 percent list, 40 percent offer, 20 percent creative. Others have tinkered with the numbers. I've seen 60/30/10. Just lately, I saw 25 percent each for these three, plus a bonus round or something. Does it matter?

C'mon. Consider this real-life example: You're assigned to develop a loyalty program for a bourbon with a rough-hewn, traditional image. But you don't care what its brand identity is because you know creative counts for only 10 percent or 20 percent of the outcome, anyway. So you churn out a mail campaign strewn with the usual roadside junk: Johnson box, bright primary colors, put tab A into slot B for a free gift! Good thing your mailing is cheap, because with a cost bogey based on pulling the usual 2 percent response, you'll be lucky to break even.

Now throw out all that 40/40/20 stuff and start thinking. Start with a list-based insight: Why do these people buy a tradition-laced brand? Because that's what they like. Knowing this, you ditch the color-by-numbers creative for a weathered look, a tone of understatement and a sense of shared experiences. Your offer is still just the promise of connection with other users of the brand, but it gains new appeal because now you've offered them contact with people who understand them.

At my then-employer, I had the toughest time selling my own management on this execution. After our response rate reached three times the control and still climbing, they quizzed our database guy about the results. "Impossible," they said. And if you were bound by their assumptions, they were right. It was the same list, the same offer. To them, that 80 percent of the recipe was immune to improvement.

But of course, that wasn't true at all. You just had to understand that those "separate" categories were inseparable. In a program that makes sense, every decision potentially influences every other one, and every discipline can contribute to the whole. Some of my best "creative" boosts have come from a change in the offer that was driven by the creative. When we conceived a mailing based on a 1930s Hollywood glamour theme, we were lucky enough to have an event planner who embraced that concept and moved our consumer get-together to a venue that fit it better. Everybody on your team - including your list manager, media planner, account executive or database analyst - is "creative" enough to improve your mailing, if you have the vision to let them.

Remember that other example at the top of this article, the one from the Cosmo cover? Well, that example applies, too. If you've ever loved someone, you know that shallow tricks are exciting for a while. But in the long run, a spouse is like a brand: There's no tactical substitute for knowing that it really, really loves you.

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