Mount Everest for Creative Direct Marketers

I was just perusing the world's most mind-blowing ads in the publication of annual award winners from “The One Show,” which promotes creative excellence in advertising.

I found some of my favorites — Apple, Volkswagen, Moon Pies — but, from what I could see, nothing by a pure direct marketing group.

What's with that? Do the requirements of direct marketing automatically take us out of the running for elite advertising awards? Or are we less creative than our general advertising brethren? And even if that's the case, should we care?

I think there's just one reason why hard-core direct marketers aren't represented in “The One Show” — our work isn't good enough. And, yep, we should care.

Marketing, more than anything else, is a business of ideas. Every advertiser who embarks on a new campaign is one idea away from transforming the business. “The One Show” basically celebrates earth-shattering advertising ideas.

Direct marketers who value conceptual creativity should have such aspirations. Just imagine what would happen if we took everything we knew about getting response and added in awesome campaign concepts. Why, we'd rule the marketing world.

We'd actually be optimizing short-term results and long-term brand equity. Branding is a term that is tossed around a lot lately by direct marketers, but if you look closely, most people in the creative end of direct marketing aren't really growing campaigns that emotionally connect in ways that catapult brands.

A good example probably can be found right in your office. Pull out your current direct marketing. Give it a good look. Now, ask yourself, “Where's the big idea?” If there isn't one, you're in good company. Go to your regional direct marketing awards show and repeat the question when you look at the winners. I doubt you'll come across a bumper crop of amazing creative ideas. And that's supposedly the best stuff in your market.

What you'll generally find are direct programs that received recognition largely because they were very good examples of how to pull off the basics of profitable direct marketing. And they brought in results — real important stuff, for sure, but not the whole enchilada.

What's missing in even the most successful direct marketing programs is creative quality on the order of VW's “Drivers Wanted” campaign or Swiss Army Knives or Smith & Wollensky, for that matter.

Instead of conceiving fresh, smart concepts, many direct marketers have become adept at inserting cagey substitutes — safe, whatever-you-do, don't-rattle-the-client” stuff, like ads that look hip but lack a concept and banal direct mail packages containing cute little objects. And, of course, rip-offs of last year's “One Show” winners.

Want to break the cycle? It is not simply a matter of waking up one day and saying, “Gee, I'm going to start doing great stuff.” You need the skill to grow fresh campaign concepts and enough time to pull them off. Even under ideal circumstances, most of us never will get to an Energizer Bunny level. And if “giving good meeting” remains a top priority, forget about showing ideas that unnerve clients.

You also need patrons. Clients who buy into edgy campaigns tend to work harder and stand up for their beliefs — even if it means standing alone. They don't aim to reach consensus within some wretched committee. In fact, they're willing to take heat for approving unprecedented ideas that scare the wits out of co-workers.

If you want to do consistently great stuff, be ready to end relationships with people committed to the status quo: colleagues and clients. (Yes, when you suddenly draw a line in the sand for creative quality, you will shed clients.) And expect to walk away from prospects willing to do business with you but unwilling to “walk the walk” when it comes to supplying what you need to do great work.

Sound insane from a business standpoint? It didn't to people like Bill Bernbach, Jay Chiat and Harold Levine. They built sizable agencies by doing consistently extraordinary work.

But you always can rationalize away any thought of working at a “One Show” level by figuring it's nothing but an ego massage for creatives run by longhairs with a bias against direct marketing practitioners — and that it doesn't really count because it doesn't count results.

No question about it, winning “The One Show” is an ego boost. But so was the Million Dollar Roundtable (or whatever it was called) in insurance sales. As for the claim that it's a direct marketing haters' club, advertisers have won with long copy, all type, prominent offers, coupons — even that age-old involvement device: call-outs. On the lack of results info, how do you attribute orders to a billboard on Route 46? And what if the ad is great but the product stinks so the sales don't come in?

If you haven't seen it, grab a copy of “The One Show.” Then dare to live big dreams. That's what we're trying to do at our shop: Last week, my agency learned that our first-ever “One Show” entry wasn't among the 2 percent or so that made the cut for the 2000 festival. But wait till next year.

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