A phrase that gets under my skin like almost no other is when a branding agency creative director says something akin to, "If we have to do direct, we're going to do it right." Of course implying that direct creative sucks and needs a massive make-over.
First, the humble admission from one who has done plenty of direct: Direct creative DOES largely suck. Sorry to my direct friends and associates, but let's be honest. The reason we get so much flack from the rest of the industry is because we are still using creative tactics from the 1950s and hiding behind the "but it works" mantra.
Fine. Agreed. It works. And so does holding a gun to people's heads. I bet I could sell just about anything to anyone if you handed me a gun and an offer.
But all this aside, the reason I'm so bothered by the thought that somehow fixing creative will fix the image of direct, is because creative goals at the expense of "what works" will harm the entire eco-system of advertising if done incorrectly. Statements like "we're gonna do it right" ignore that the brand efforts -- the broadcast commercials and print ads and amazing web sites and all the rest of the work that usually win top creative awards -- all live on the back of the direct and sales efforts. Those advertising budgets have to come from somewhere. And "buzz metrics" don't pay the bills.
The only reason a branding effort gets to make nebulous claims of "impressions" is because somewhere down the line sales are moving in a positive direction. I'm not saying that branding doesn't contribute to the process, because it does. But actual sales move by the kinds of measurable promotions that response-based marketing achieves. While I agree that direct creative definitely needs to raise the bar, let's at least also agree that most general advertising creative directors don't have the first clue as to how that should be done. They think they do, but in practice it usually ends up as a phenomenally expensive idea that can't be cost-justified against the return on investment.
So let's be clear here: A truly awesome direct campaign is ALWAYS based on a trio of factors -- strategy, results and creative. Any evaluation of direct response work, and any effort to improve that work, needs to look at all three factors or you're simply stroking your ego.
Clearly all advertising depends on strategy, so it's not unique that direct depends on it too. What is unique, however, is the level of this dependency.
Strategy in direct is not just about winning hearts and minds or defining messaging and media. It's also an exercise in tactical brilliance. It involves a level of targeting that can define a message down to dozens of groups, if not to the individual level. And it takes a familiarity with the creative and production elements necessary to move a person to respond. Often they are intimately involved with creative details like format and color, because that's how detailed we get in direct marketing. Knowing that certain audiences respond better to certain colors, regardless of brand pallet, is important information. Because sometimes as little as a 1% lift in response can be mean a million more dollars in revenue.
And speaking of response, a direct campaign always has an eye on the goal. We start backwards from the target sales figure and figure out EXACTLY how we can best reach this. We show a clear path to the sale and we determine that optimal balance between program cost and expected return, based on the target audience, expected response rates and expected sales. We have figures for cost per acquisition and lifetime customer value, so we KNOW what the results will be before we send out the first package or air the first spot. And we are always testing and refining a program, to see how to make it better. Direct lives and dies on results. So it's never a guessing game or a vague notion of brand perception.
Now we come to creative. And given the above factors, you can see what a narrow and restrictive box it can be. It's not just that strategy is trying to tell creative what to do. It's the fact that strategy can often dictate the approaches that need to take place. And the results can often mean changing colors or images or copy or actors or even the entire layout and format.
To most people in advertising, this is the very essence of the "problem" with direct. It's creative determined by a committee. And admittedly the process is fraught with frustration. But it's also a challenge well worth fighting. Because if you can see past the limitation of the box, an amazing blending happens here. Many times it won't win a One Show Pencil, but it's work that can be truly ingenious and satisfying and it gets the job done.
And it bears repeating that despite the fact direct creative can many times offend advertising sensibilities with its stock images and pre-determined formats and 800 numbers in the bottom bar of the TV spot, we must remember that it's also held to a different standard. It doesn't need to be, nor should it be, the brand campaign. What it needs to be is a translation of the brand campaign that closes the communications loop and closes the deal.
So let's at the very least agree to disagree among the disciplines. Because without each other we'd have people feeling good about brands they don't buy and buying from brands that they couldn't care less about.