Don’t knock door-to-door

Cheap, mass-produced and relatively untargeted, door-drops are often treated as an afterthought when it comes to creativity. But there are initiatives under way to change that. David Reed reports

Go to any direct marketing awards event and you will find a door-to-door category. The winners look as exciting as anything produced for other media. From a leaflet in a milk bottle, which won the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) Grand Prix several years ago, to free CDs, there is every sign that creatives enjoy getting to grips with this channel.

Go to your doormat on any given day, however, and it is a different story. Most of the items dropping through the letterbox fall into one of three categories: 16-page, tabloid-style mini-catalogues for retailers; white or manila envelopes addressed to “The Occupier”; or simple A5 leaflets. Most have clear propositions and simple layouts, but little evidence of a “big idea”.

So why is there such an apparent gap between the dialogue the direct marketing industry has with itself about door-to-door creativity and the actual executions used? Why do the awards go to items that only 60,000 people have ever seen, but not to door-drops that routinely elicit responses and store visits from millions of consumers?

Answers on a postcard

The DMA’s Door-to-Door Council has become so concerned about this disconnection that it recently held a special session to debate the issue. Andrew Higgs, chairman of the council and director of independent media buyer Tri-Direct, pointed out at the event: “An awful lot is known about direct mail, but not about door-to-door. There hasn’t been any attempt to formulate golden rules.”

Pressure has been mounting on creatives because volumes per household have risen from six to 12 items per week, depending on the time of year. “As a creative, trying to stand out on the doormat is difficult in that environment,” said Higgs. One response has been to push more adventurous creative work, of the sort that appeals to awards judges.

The problem is that some of these items may cost £50 per thousand to print, a price most clients will not accept. Yet equally, the majority of items do not appear to be the result of any creative effort at all. “There are items that are boring beyond belief. I can’t think the consumer will do much more than move them as swiftly as possible from the doormat to the dustbin,” said Higgs.

Among creative agencies, there is a recognition that it is tempting to play safe with door-drops. Fenix client services director Sally Tarbit, says: “You can become staid and boring, falling back on the tried and tested.”

With so much attention paid to direct mail, door-to-door tends to be overlooked. This even happens in briefing, when adding a door-drop to the media schedule at the last minute is relatively common. And briefs can be highly prescriptive. “What often happens is that we are asked to adapt the direct mail piece for door-to-door,” says Tarbit.

Where clients recognise the unique qualities and potential of the medium in its own right, the results can be significant. In January, Fenix created a £2m television, press and door-to-door campaign for Quorn that took its theme from the January sales. A total of 5 million A2 leaflets were produced using the “Make Massive Savings” theme, offering savings in both fat and calories, plus money-off coupons.

“Quorn is very interested in the medium and the door-drop has been very successful. For a company such as Quorn, door-to-door is perfect because the margin in its product means it can’t afford to use direct mail. Door-to-door can provide good coverage and tie in with the TV campaign,” says Tarbit.

Some distributions have taken this too far: agencies report being asked to turn the TV ad into a leaflet. And while it is possible to combine good ideas and strong results, the hard-working bread-and-butter items are unlikely to catch the eye of awards judges.

“The work submitted to the awards is the cream of what agencies do. For door-to-door, that only represents about five per cent of the volume that goes out. In direct mail, it is more like ten per cent,” says Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel deputy planning director Caroline Parkes.

It all hinges on cost

She acknowledges that the biggest challenge for agencies in bridging this gap is cost. Clients often buy door-drops because of the low distribution cost. Compared to the media overhead, creative costs can seem disproportionate.

Circular Distributors (CD) recently undertook a qualitative research exercise involving consumers, clients and creatives to try to develop creative guidelines for door-to-door, explore the impact of different strategies and styles, and examine the influence of different design components.

It found that as well as using classic promotional techniques, door-drops can deliver positive brand imagery. While many brands use catalogues to demonstrate the scope of their range, they can also create an emotional image and let consumers “touch the brand”.

“What makes a good leaflet is image, relevance and brand identity,” says CD chief executive Nick Wells. “An item has to be relevant to consumers. It also has to be tied to the brand. For integrated campaigns, it is important that the creative treatment is consistent across media.”

Significantly, clients at the DMA session said their hardest-working items have often been in the field for many years.

Norwich Union motor insurance delivery manager Kelly Eyre told delegates: “We tend to drop 250 million-plus items across all our products. Creatively, because we drop so many, we try to keep the cost as low as possible. We have learned some creative lessons the creatives will hate.”

A prime example is the banker item for motor insurance – a manila window envelope overprinted with “Priority Car Insurance”. The letter inside resembles part two of a UK driving licence, but with insurance offers instead.

After many years using the item, however, Norwich Union has now been asked by the DVLA to change the piece because some consumers believe it is official.

That means the company needs to find a new pack. “We do a lot of creative tests, but it keeps coming back to this original piece. Creatively and cost-wise we have a huge issue – what we have is cheap and it works,” said Eyre.

That is not a combination that always produces results. LinkDirect marketing director Edward Fulbrook told delegates of an upmarket cleaning service that failed with its leaflet. The piece was one-sided A5, printed in blue and grey, with a black-and-white photo of a woman dusting a radiogram.

“And this was to send a message about a modern, up-to-date cleaning service. The copy said: ‘We are always looking for new cleaners’. Now, why is that company always looking? Probably because the cleaners it already has are so bad, they get fired,” said Fullbrook.

boredoM threshold

Estate agents have fallen into this trap by relying on a format-driven approach using the same supplier. Each agency uses its own logo and house details, but the design and layout are the same. So if three agencies in the same town use the same creative style, consumers will have little chance of remembering which was which.

Creatives are rarely told whether their ideas have produced results. But common assumptions are often wrong. WWAV Rapp Collins London group creative head Jon Harvey said at the DMA session: “One of our most successful door-drops is a three-page letter for a charity, which may contradict the idea that people haven’t time to read them.”

Conversely, Hicklin Slade joint creative director Malcolm Caldwell told the event: “It may be a cliché, but the less time you have to put a message across, the more creative you have to be. So you should give it more time and thought.”

Without the benefit of personalisation to gain attention, door-drops need to be immediate. This is sometimes interpreted as a need to use unusual formats or ideas to stand out. Yet the reality is that most hard-working items on the doormat use relatively constrained creative work, which is constantly tweaked.

Colin Keywood, managing director of research agency The Front Door, pointed out that whatever knowledge client companies do have about the medium often leaves when individuals do.

He said: “It is a relearning process. So often I have gone back to a client every six or 12 months just to go through the basics again.


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