Practical classics

Question: How many creatives does it take to make a direct response commercial? Answer: 0800. The simple fact is that the only difference between a brand ad and a brand response ad is often just the addition of a telephone number. (The more complicated difference is between a brand that wants you to call it and one which does not.)

That ought to make divisions between creatives who work on response, as opposed to image advertising, almost irrelevant. After all, one of the best examples of a brand response campaign recently – for Army recruitment – was executed by the former bastion of above-the-line creativity, Saatchi and Saatchi. Likewise, pure direct response ads – like NSPCC’s Ellie commercial by WWAV Rapp Collins – have caught the eye of judges in creative awards.

Unfortunately, this is not how creativity is perceived by those on either side of the line. In the early Nineties, the argument was led by creatives in ad agencies who resisted clients’ moves to add response elements. In 1998, it is DM creatives who are struggling to emerge from the shadow of accountability and measurability and show that they are every bit as inventive as their above-the-line colleagues.

In February, five agencies staged an exhibition, Call to Action, in the heartland of real creativity, Cork Street. On show were a handful of campaigns from OgilvyOne, Limbo, Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel, FCA! and Stretch the Horizon. The works were selected to demonstrate the breadth of thinking, wit, invention and executional excellence of which direct marketing is capable. Invitations were sent to clients, creatives, students and the marketing press. “In marketing terms, the task was very simple – to promote the category,” says Rory Sutherland, creative director at OgilvyOne.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Agencies of all types are forever marketing their skills in new and interesting ways. But Call to Action was aiming higher, at changing the perceptions of DM output. “If you think of a pint of beer with cream on the top and dregs on the bottom, brand advertising is judged from the cream, DM is judged from the bottom of the glass up, looking at the dregs first,” says Chris Arnold, creative director at Stretch The Horizon.

In other words, because junk mail exists, all DM is assumed to be junk, whereas TV commercials are all assumed to be as good as Tango or Levi’s ads, not as poor as most soap powder spots. If you think this sounds like a big chip on the shoulder of DM creatives, you ‘d be right.

Indeed, the exhibition was hung with quotes from a rival publication damning the quality of direct response ads. The idea was that the examples on show would argue that these criticisms from the marketing press were unjust. (In fact, the reporter responsible is now said to have been spun in the right direction.).

And herein lies the first problem with the whole enterprise. If marketing journalists have not seen the sumptuous mailing packs for Land Rover, for example – two-times winner of a DMA/Royal Mail Gold award – it is because they are not in the target audience. Put simply, we could never afford the product, so why advertise it to us? The fact that we have seen the TV commercials (done by an above-the-line agency) shows how wasteful branding campaigns can be. Better to spend more money on those consumers likely to buy the car.

Sutherland counters this argument by saying that journalists are “key influencers”:

“The collective perception of the industry is important. It enables us to recruit and it also affects the way clients treat and judge us. I am very conscious that advertising is predominantly judged on its creative, while DM is predominantly judged on its functional aspects.”

As a marketing journalist, I am far from unable to recognise creativity when I see it. Among the campaigns on show were some extremely strong ideas. Putting sexual health messages on the reverse side of pound coins left on the floor, for example, was a great way of getting the target audience (students) involved with the Family Planning Association’s message. Likewise, organising taxi drivers to talk about a new mobile phone was a stroke of genius, and a way of targeting those elusive AB businessmen.

But is creativity in direct marketing detachable from the marketing objectives? With a brand commercial on TV, the quality of photography, art direction, editing and music can be compared fairly with other forms of film making. Just look at how many commercials directors now shoot feature films. (Whether those same commercials should be on show in the Tate Gallery, as Tony Kaye would like, is another matter.)

The problem is that advertising awards are littered with winners © that never actually ran, got client approval, or sold a single product. To pick up a DMA/Royal Mail gong, you have to demonstrate creativity, strategy and results. So the second problem with the exhibition is whether creativity should be seeking to stand alone in this way.

“It was a straight creative judgement about what was shown, but we all knew the results were there as well. It was not pure indulgence,” says Steve Stretton, creative director of Limbo. “What we were proving is that good creative adds to response in this side of the business. There is a lot of very similar, formulaic, grey work, so you have got to stand out to get response.”

From that point of view, putting work on show seems fair enough. As Ian Harding, creative director at FCA!, says, “we wanted to redefine what DM is,” and there was certainly plenty of work on show which was a long way from the perception of “junk mail”. His own agency’s campaign for Cellnet, which had rugby balls thrown into the crowd bearing the message “20 per cent cheaper calls – pass it on”, is a good example.

But the third problem with the exhibition is whether clients should be sold creativity in this way, and whether they could even buy it if they liked it? The bad old days of the ad industry saw creatives bullying account managers and clients alike into accepting that only the creative director was clever enough to know that the new ads would work. Sometimes he (it was usually a man) was right, sometimes not – few dared to argue.

At least the advertising director of a client company is capable of judging the work personally, and often has sole power to sign off on a campaign.

In DM most campaigns are a team effort requiring multiple skills sets. “The problem we have sometimes is in getting the three or four client people together in one room to look at the pieces of work and put all their comments together,” admits Simon Kershaw, senior copywriter at Craik Jones.

“Some creative directors do throw their weight around, but generally that is not the case,” he says. But he also admits that, “DM as a whole has still not got the quality of account management that the industry needs to be more respected.” In other words, creativity could be sold harder, if the right people were available in agencies to do it.

One of the stated aims of the exhibition, and a follow-on from it, has been to attract more graduates into the DM industry, especially creative students. “The main thing is to try and say, when they go to college and don’t make it on the advertising course, their career is not over in the first three weeks,” says FCA’s Harding.

This is a fair point and an area where there is still much to be done. Most marketing and advertising students do not see DM as a glamorous option. That is probably because it isn’t – no exotic locations, no room for big egos, very little individual power. What it really is is a business skill which is transforming many key markets.

Getting graduates interested in producing responsive advertising by showing them it can be unusual, creative and free-thinking is one thing. But the fourth problem with Call to Action is that it represents some serious mis-selling by the DM agencies involved. “I still do not see that many great pieces of DM in my daily life as a consumer,” admits Kershaw. “Sadly, the reality is not that admirable.”

A harsh fact of life for any creative in DM is that, for every crack at a car or mobile phone brief, there will be ten financial services mailing packs to churn out. Large financial services clients, who account for 30 per cent of direct mail volume, run massive mailing campaigns in which they do test the “creative”, but only to the extent of changing a headline or accent colour.

How long will a fired-up student retain a sense of pleasure at having joined a DM agency if the first year is spent grinding out that kind of fare? (And do not assume for one minute that creative DM agencies do not also produce standard insurance mailers. The harsh financial reality is that they have to, they just don’t talk about it.) Sutherland argues: “If a student saw an insurance mailing as a low priority in an unfashionable medium, they would be directed elsewhere anyway.”

Given the divergence between putting creativity on display and putting it to work, there would seem to be a risk for DM creatives. In aiming for peer group approval and positive press comment, they are bringing a lot more ego into play. Stretton denies that the exhibition was an act of rampant egotism: “Are we going to become wankers? I don’t think so.”

But if they desire the onanistic pleasures of Cork Street over the rewards of exceeding client expectations, then DM will have been led up a blind alley.

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