There’s gotta be a better way

January 18, 2012 - Leave a Response

Yes, I fell into the trap.

I started a blog, and posted faithfully for a few short weeks.  Then I got busy and the posts stopped. Now everybody will tell you that is NOT the way to create attention and build your business … and I agree.  But how do you find the time to keep your blog going, update your website, post to Twitter, answer questions on LinkedIn and STILL do paying work?

I thought I’d look at what some of the experts day, and then evaluate their advice based on what I consider to be “real life” for the busy freelance creative. So here’s my take on some excellent advice.

  1. Get Organized. Make a list of each thing you have to do. Do it and cross it off your list.
    Okay this sounds easy enough. Just make that list of important tasks and work your way down it.  And it works great — untill the telephone rings and client wants you to drop everything and tackle a new project that “Absolutely, positively, must be done NOW.” Well, they’re paying, so they get to dictate the terms and your list goes out the window … at least for today, and tomorrow, and every day until the project is complete.
  2. Define what you’re doing. Steve Slaunwhite, author of “For Copywriters Only,” insists that you need to have a quick, effective way to define the work you’re doing.  He suggests you begin by defining a “task” as something that takes less than 20 minutes and a “project” as something that takes more than 20 minutes.
    Okay, so  now I know the definition of a “task” and a “project.”   So I guess calling the client to ask a question is a task … until the client keeps me on the phone for half-an-hour.  Then it’s a project.
  3. Set up a system.  From labeling a file folder with the name of your project to turning to online tools, there are dozens of “timesaving” systems out there that promise to get you organized in no time.  Just set them up and then use them.  You’ll never spend time hunting for a missing phone number or e-mail address or statistic because it will always be right where you put it.
    Okay, so I’ve set up a whole bunch of timesaving systems … and then I get busy and forget to use them. Luckily, the one I’ve stuck to – a link on my computer desktop to my work folder, which I called “Marjstuff” – continues to work for me.  If I wasn’t at least a tiny bit organized in my “virtual” world, I’d never find anything. You don’t want to see the top of my actual desk!
  4. Create reminders with alarms.  You can use reminders in Outlook, or a little alarm clock on your desk to tell you when to move on to the next “task” or “project.”
    Okay, but here’s my problem.  In order to get that “reminder” or hear that “alarm,”  I have to remember to SET it. (Sigh!)
  5. Reward yourself.  Don’t just sit on Facebook or LinkedIn all day.  Don’t browse around YouTube.  Wait until you’ve accomplished your tasks or completed your projects. THEN reward yourself with a little surfing. Visit Facebook. And laugh at that dancing YouTube baby.  Leverage the things you like to do into a prod to keep you working until your important jobs are done.
    Hah!  My Facebook friends think I’m dead. I never post or comment.  Who has time?  For that matter, I haven’t had time to post to this blog. Until now.  Must mean work is slow, and assignments aren’t coming in at their usual rate.

That brings me back to the beginning.  Don’t do what I do.  Find a system. Get organized and post to your blog on a regular basis, rather than waiting until you have nothing else to do.  You’ll thank yourself (and me) for it.


Everybody SAYS, “I love breakthrough creative.”

April 20, 2010 - 3 Responses

Recently a colleague of mine referred to Hollywood as “the place where creativity goes to die.”  I think that any art director or copywriter who has sat through a particularly brutal creative review would say that there are times when this criticism can be leveled at all forms of advertising, as well.

 I have come to believe that everyone loves breakthrough ideas after they have been proven to work, but very few people either recognize them – or have the stomach for their risk – to appreciate them when they first make their appearance.

 Over and over again, I have sat in creative reviews that began with an individual praising some great advertising he or she just saw, only to have that person choose the safest concept presented.

 Or people will come in demanding “cutting edge” advertising, which simply means that they want something almost exactly like an edgy ad they saw in Vanity Fair last month instead of something truly original.

 It can be very frustrating.

 Back in the days when I was a young copywriter, I was challenged to come up with some breakthrough creative for a direct mail solicitation of a mutual fund. It seemed that creative after creative failed to pull more than a dismal .25% – and that was for an invitation to inquire.

 I went back to my office and examined previous packages. They all touted the benefits, of safety, consistency, and high yields.  I got bored. Sure if I was investing in a mutual fund, I’d want all those things. But so what? What did it really mean to me?

 That’s when it hit me – all the “benefits” we were selling were merely features. The real benefit of investing is making money.  What’s the point of investing to make money? Getting to spend it, that’s what!

 So I wrote a package that concentrated on what you could do with the money you earned with your safe, consistent, high yield investment. You could send your kids to college…retire in comfort…visit Hawaii…buy a vacation home.

 I walked into the creative review and I was savaged. When I fought back and pointed out the wisdom of my approach, my own creative director told me…

 “If your idea was any good, someone would have already thought of it!”

 So much for the concept of originality.

 As for cutting edge, one of my former clients is a big player in commercial playground equipment. They wanted to revolutionize their advertising because smaller competitors were gaining on them

 “Give me cutting edge!” the owner insisted.  “We need something totally original,” the marketing director cried.  They didn’t stop there.  “Here, make an ad out of this,” they said, and handed me a story about how they miraculously put up a playground at a school that had been under water due to flooding a few short weeks before.

 Our ad featured the road sign for a school crossing peaking halfway out of a flooded river and had a headline that read, “Can you imagine children playing here? We can.”

 They hated it.

 “Where’s the photo of the new playground?” they cried. “You can’t sell playground equipment without showing a playground!”

 I tried to explain that the ad sold both the company’s expertise, and ability to react fast in a crisis, as well as the quality of their product – all the things that set them apart from the competition.  I also pointed out that this ad was designed to stand out in a sea of ads all dominated by big color photos of playground equipment.

 Naturally, I lost.  “That’s not what we mean by cutting edge,” I was told.

 I am sure that everyone reading this blog can provide me with their own horror stories. But the question I want to ask is how do we avoid having good ideas – ideas that may even be ground-breaking – destroyed at the concept stage?

 I think we do it with a careful plan of attack that prepares the way for the idea, and helps to deflate the circular logic that often derails it … and I’ll talk about my ideas – and yours – in my next blog.

When Did Copy Stop Being Creative?

April 10, 2010 - 6 Responses

It happened again! Another client set up a kick-off meeting and said, “Hope you can attend. We need both creative and copy present.”

 It’s so annoying!

Copy just isn’t considered creative anymore.  These days it’s all about art. Think about it. You’ve just gone over the creative brief and the account manager asks the client if he has any questions for the team.  Who does the client turn to for that spark of inspiration? I’ll give you one guess. It’s not the copywriter.

 Or you’re in the final presentation. Everybody is wowed by your concept…but who gets all the praise? The art director of course.

 Maybe art is the be all and end all in general advertising where getting a truly effective ad means going for a memorable visual effect.  But in direct marketing, copy is still king.

 How do I know?  Well, you can start by taking what I call the Alphabet Test.  Pick up any piece of direct mail and cover up all the type.  Include everything – even logo type. Then look at what’s left and tell me you have enough information about the product to make a purchase.

 I guess I wouldn’t mind hearing my art director partner constantly being referred to as “creative” if the big creative ideas always originated with the art.

 But here – step by step – is what really happens to me between the creative brief and the concept presentation.

  1.  The art director and I leave the meeting room and the art director says, “So, what are we going to do? Got any ideas?”
  2. I go to my office, review the brief and start noodling around some ideas.
  3. I get together with the art director to go over my rough concepts. I have an overall strategy for selling the product. I have formats. I have headlines and subheads for each piece in the kit. I have the opening paragraph of the letter and the intermediate headlines. I show how everything works together in my copywriter’s rough layout.
  4. The art director says. “Thanks!”  Sometimes I get to see the cool photos he or she has found to use in the piece. Sometimes there’s a neat format to try.
  5. I take the format or photos back to my office and work them into the concept …or revise my idea to fit the format.
  6. I bring my pile of ideas back to the art director who makes it look pretty.

 I know it sounds like I’m bashing the poor art director here. But I’m not.  I enjoy being able to bring my ideas to someone who appreciates them and who works with me to make them better. I especially like it when the art director looks at what I’ve done and transforms it with a visual that takes my work to a place that surprises me.

 It’s not the art director who’s at fault.  It’s everyone who thinks that color and design are the truly creative elements of advertising.  And it’s time that they realized that they are only half right.

How Many USPs Do You See?

March 12, 2010 - One Response

I had been working as a copywriter for a good 10 years before anyone introduced me to the concept of the Unique Selling Proposition. Perhaps I missed it because I studied English literature and Theatre in college rather than Advertising. Or perhaps it was because nobody had bothered to talk about it before then. But whatever the reason for the delay, I was blown away by the concept when I was first introduced to it.  

Still I wonder why it took so long for a concept that gets a whole chapter in the advertising book I used to teach my college students to come up out in the “real world” of advertising. 

Rosser Reeves, former chairman of the Ted Bates Agency, introduced the concept of the USP in his book Reality in Advertising, and it’s a formula that deceptively simple: 

  1. Make a proposition to the consumer that says, “Buy my product and you will get this benefit.”
  2. Make sure your proposition is one that the competition does not or cannot offer.
  3. Make sure your proposition is compelling enough to get the consumer to buy.

 Creating a USP takes a lot of research and a lot of thought, but it’s a handy tool to have in your arsenal – especially if you’re a direct marketer.  Once you know what sets you apart, it gives direction to everything you do. It puts all your products’ supporting benefits into a context that makes each benefit stronger and your entire sales pitch more compelling.

 Many direct marketers simply ignore the USP and try to build brand image. Others use the USP in ways that I find incomprehensible.  Here’s what I mean:

 I was working as a CD on a large financial account where we were selling the benefits of their credit cards.  The client loved the concept of USP so much that we not only had to have a different one for each credit card they offered. we had to also create a separate USP for each target market to whom they decided to offer that credit card.

 This meant that a single credit card could have as many as four or five separate USPs depending on the number of groups we were targeting. The result was advertising that had absolutely no continuity – not to the benefits and not to the brand. But the client was very pleased with their collection of Unique Selling Propositions.

 At the opposite end of the spectrum was a company who had an easily definable target market and a product that fit that market like a glove – a product no one else was offering. Yet in creative brief after creative brief, the reason given for developing the new campaign was this: “To sell more at a lower cost and improve our ROI.”  Wow!

 Knowing exactly what makes your product stand out from the crowd and appeal to your customers gives you an incredible advantage in the marketplace. It’s an advantage that, when used properly, will not only keep you in customers for decades, but also keep you ahead of the pack.

 Try it.  Sit down with your product – or your client and his product – and construct this simple sentence.

             “For [our target market] our product is the best
              choice because…”

 Keep it short.  Keep it simple. Keep it compelling. Oh, yeah and don’t forget to make sure it’s unique.

“Test me, Test me. Why don’t you arrest me.”

March 5, 2010 - 2 Responses

Kurt Medina, a Philadelphia-based consultant, recently told a story of a client who asked his opinion on a format and three creative executions. Kurt immediately suggested that they test to see what would work best. Then he further suggested that testing the offer would ultimately be more valuable than testing the creative.

Kurt’s client objected, saying, “No, we don’t need to test. That’s why we hired you – the expert. We want you to tell us which package will win.”

Naturally, Kurt replied, “Because I am the expert, I will tell you I don’t have the slightest idea! That’s why we test.” But his client wasn’t interested in waiting for test results and Kurt eventually lost the business.

This story – and others I’ve heard just like it – force me to ask, “When did testing become a bad thing?”

Direct Marketers are lucky. Because each and every one of our sales is the result of a two-way conversation with individual consumers, we know exactly who bought…when they bought…and which piece of advertising got them to buy. We never have to say, like retailer John Wanamaker, “I know half my advertising doesn’t work. I just don’t know which half.”

Instead, we know exactly which package we mail, which ad we run, or DRTV spot we air works. Furthermore we can test every aspect of our advertising to hone our winning advertising until it is a veritable money-making machine.

So what gives? Why are direct marketers singing along with the Grateful Dead, “Test me, test me. Why don’t you arrest me?”

Perhaps it’s because so many have forgotten the basic rules of testing, which to my mind are:

1. Test the big things. Before testing to see if a pink envelope will beat a blue, test the things that can really move the needle. These include:
• The list or media
• The offer
• The timing
• The format
• The copy platform
• The elements of your product or service

2. Test one thing at a time. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But I’ve seen far too many folks test the offer, the list and the size of the order form in a single test cell and then wonder which one actually accounted for the rise – or fall – in response.

3. Leave the control alone. You need something reliable to test against, so resist the temptation to “tweak” your control while you’re testing a new creative, a new offer or a new format against it. Once you’ve made a change to your control, you’ve invalidated your test.

4. Make sure your sample size is large enough and random enough. Direct marketing works on the laws of large numbers … so don’t set up five tests when you’re only mailing to 50,000 pieces. And don’t say, “List A and List B are about the same size, so I’ll just mail Creative 1 to the first and Creative 2 to the second.” Always do an A/B split to insure that there is as little variation in your test group as possible.

Or perhaps the reason so many marketers want to pass on testing is because they think they are saving money. How could they have forgotten this axiom – testing pays for itself!

Test a new offer against your control and one of two things will happen.

1. Your new offer wins. Bravo! You now have a license to make more money … and the increase in customers more than paid for this valuable knowledge.
2. Your control offer wins. You now know that your control is still working fine …
and the sales that from your test cell help to cover the cost of testing.

See? Testing is a reliable way of maximizing sales, and increasing ROI while making the sales that keep your business strong and profitable. It’s a true win-win situation.

So why pay an expert to guess at what might work? Instead take the time and make the effort to test … and enjoy the fruits of your labors.

Stop arguing already! It’s ALL direct marketing!

February 24, 2010 - 4 Responses

It’s a big topic of discussion these days – is direct mail dead? Has e-mail marketing killed it? Is social media marketing replacing the direct marketing paradigm?

 Over and over, in publications, blogs and LinkedIn discussions, experts argue these questions…and I say, “Hold on! STOP!! It’s all the same thing!”

State-of-the-art personalization in Grandma's day.

 Back in the day, direct marketing was junk mail – a printed letter was stuck into an envelope and an Addressograph machine applied the name and address using little metal plates.

 In those days the DMA was the Direct Mail Association and mail was everything. But times changed. Addressograph plates gave way to inkjet and laser imaging and letters got a lot more personal. Toll-free numbers appeared … the every-present reply form became just one more way to respond … and the DMA changed it’s name to the DMMA – the Direct Mail Marketing Association – and then back to the DMA again. Only this time, its name was the Direct Marketing Association.

 Of course, direct mail has always had competition. On-page ads, radio spots, television commercials, infomercials have all arrived without budging the direct mail packages out of our mail boxes. Even e-commerce sites haven’t slowed down the flood of catalogs and mailers I receive.

 But of course, e-mail marketing and social media marketing have changed all that.  It’s a revolution and they are killing direct mail DEAD!

 Oh really?

 This isn’t a revolution. It’s an evolution. These “totally new” marketing constructs are simply built about the foundation of basic direct marketing principles.

 For example:

  • Direct Mail marketing uses a targeted list of names and street addresses to reach
    potential customers.
  • E-mail marketing uses a targeted list of names and e-mail addresses to reach potential customers.
  • Social marketing builds a targeted list of names and e-mail addresses of potential customers who self-select by becoming followers, fans and friends.

 Shall we go on?

  • Direct Mail creates a dialogue between seller and buyer that demands a response using a printed material – typically a letter package or self-mailer.
  • E-mail creates a dialogue between seller and buyer that demands a response using an e-mail message, landing page or website.
  • Social marketing creates a dialogue between seller and buyer that demands a response using an ongoing conversation based on blog posts, tweets, event invitations and wall posts eventually linking to landing page or website.

    E-mails are state-of-the-art today. But things always change.

Furthermore, smart marketers have already created ongoing strategies that use direct mail, e-mail and social media to form a seamless stream of messages that keep the customer focused on their products.

 Here’s what I mean: I  like to knit.  So I get catalogs from a much-favored yarn manufacturer. When I first ordered, they asked for my e-mail address. I supplied it and began getting regular e-mail advertising that linked me to their e-commerce site. Then came an invitation to subscribe to their e-newsletter. I spend a lot of time online, so it wasn’t long before I became a Facebook fan and a Twitter follower.

 Now I get fashion news from Twitter and patterns from Facebook friends. Or I see something I like in the e-newsletter and click through to print the pattern. I shop for the yarn I need in my paper catalog – can’t watch TV and surf the web at the same time just yet. Then I order the yarn I’ve chosen online – unless I have a question. That question sends me back to the toll-free number in the catalog, so I can talk to someone in real time to get my question answered and my yarn ordered at the same time. Finally, guess what? The yarn is MAILED to me – just like in the “good old days.”

 See? It’s a seamless continuum of direct marketing messages and actions that gets prospects involved and keeps customers coming back. A continuum in which direct marketing principals are in use in every single step.

 So, please, stop all the arguing about which tactic is better.  E-mailing, blogging, Twittering and snail mailing are just the ever-evolving tactics of the highly targeted and personalized strategy we call Direct Marketing.

“What Not To Mail.” 6 Reasons to choose a letter package over a self-mailer.

February 11, 2010 - 4 Responses

The television show, “What Not To Wear,” offers women simple rules that create attractive outfits for individuals who don’t have a clue how they should dress.

If only there were a television show called, “What Not To Mail.”  It would offer marketers simple rules for creating effective direct mail that enhanced their ROI. And like “What Not to Wear,” it would demonstrate that a single solution – no matter how popular – may not be the right solution for every problem.

Take the self-mailer. As a format, it has a lot going for it. It’s a quick read. It’s colorful. It stands out in the mail. It’s often inexpensive. But all these advantages don’t necessarily make it the go-to piece for every direct mail solicitation.

A whole cottage industry has grown up around printing self-mailers for small businesses, making many individuals believe that a self-mailer – and I include postcards in this category – is the most effective format they can choose. But in side-by-side tests, direct marketers have found that letter packages in a #10 envelope continually beat self-mailers.

Here’s why:

  1. A letter in an envelope is “real” mail. Self-mailers are attention-getting, but they also announce themselves as “junk mail,” making it easier to throw them away. Because a #10 envelope is the standard business size, it automatically feels more important to the prospect. It also allows you to tease a prospect to look inside, which makes them more committed to reading your message.
  2. A letter is still the most effect tool a direct marketer has. In his article, The 12 Most Common Direct Mail Mistakes…And How to Avoid Them, copywriting guru Robert Bly lists not including a letter as “Mistake Number 3.” He says, “The sales letter – not the outer envelope, the brochure, or even the reply form – is the most important part of your direct-mail package. A package with a letter will nearly always out pull a postcard, a self-mailer, or a brochure or ad reprint mailed without a letter.”
  3. A letter package offers privacy. Think about it – have you ever received a credit card or insurance solicitation in a self-mailer format? That’s because these solicitations can carry personal information that the prospect may not want to be revealed. When writing direct mail for weight loss companies like Jenny Craig and NutriSystem I quickly learned that – despite the photograph of the newly slim person on the front – self-mailers bombed. Why? Because prospects were upset that people could see we thought they “needed” a diet.
  4. A letter package gives you room to tell your story. Self-mailers have limited space, so you are forced to write in headlines and use graphics to get your message across.  That makes them an excellent choice when the message is simple, the offer is compelling and the product is eye-catching. But sometimes you need both time and space to tell your story … and an envelope lets you tuck in additional pieces that allow you to approach the prospect in different ways and make a more complicated pitch.
  5. A letter package is more personal. Yes,digital printing allows you to change the photograph, the headlines, the body copy, and even the name on the product itself to target the individual, but the very nature of a self-mailer – a billboard in the mail – fights any attempt to make it feel like a one-to-one communication. Letters by their very nature are personal, even when the only personalization used is in the address and salutation. Take the time to personalize the letter further and the letter becomes even more effective.
  6. A letter package can be more economical than a self-mailer – and provide a higher ROI. A collectible company once asked me to test against a #10 control with a self-mailer. The self-mailer – which did an excellent job of showcasing the product : beat the #10 package by 60%. But the self-mailer cost 36 cents to print … and the #10 package just 16 cents. So we took the copy and art from the self-mailer and adapted it to a #10 format and tested it against both the self-mailer and the old control. The #10 format beat the self-mailer by 40% – and the old control by 100%. Best of all, the cost of printing the new package was just 18 cents, so we not only increased response, we also maximized ROI.

So next time a client reflexively insists that he or she wants a self-mailer, point out to them that – as attractive as the format may be – self-mailers may not always be as effective as a plain old direct mail letter kit.

The Same Old Territory

February 2, 2010 - One Response

When I walk my dog each morning, we follow the identical route. She finds it fascinating. I just cover the same old territory. Naturally, there are some changes. A neighbor paints their door a different color. Someone plants a new flower bed. One day the sun shines. The next day it rains. But basically it’s the same walk over…and over…and over again.

That’s true of the financial and insurance direct mail advertising I’m seeing these days. The type on the envelope may be a different color.  Styles or sizes might vary. But if you cover the company name it’s impossible to tell one from another.

Whether you’re looking at an auto insurance solicitation where the amount of savings figures large … or a credit card mailing where the teaser rate is all … each package covers the same old territory over… and over…and over again.

Marketers will tell you that they are using “what works.” And as response rates dwindle, they continue  to use “what works” and cut the cost of their packages. I’ve had clients tell me that we’re going with a double window #10 with an all-lasered letter and the company logo printed in one color. Why?  To save money because the ROI isn’t what it was. Frankly, when ROI drops this low, “what’s working” isn’t working any more. That’s when it’s time to be bold and break the mold. How can you do this? Here are a few simple ways.

  • Add Emotion. Yes, greed is an emotion. That’s why FREE is the most powerful word you can use. But there are dozens of other emotions that can drive prospects to become customers. Try substituting pride, i.e. “Your great driving record entitles you to a better rate.” or “With a credit score like yours, why settle for an interest rate higher than X?”  If pride doesn’t work for you try love…or fear…or…you get the idea.
  • Show Off Your Personality. Your company – or your client – has spent a fortune developing a brand. Why not use that brand personality to make your direct mail stand out. Capital One, for example, has a great tag line, “What’s in your wallet?” (not to mention those cute Vikings in their TV spots), but you don’t see either in their direct mail.
  • Try a Twist on an Old Theme. Every credit card company puts their teaser rate on the outer envelope. They say it’s because it gets the envelope opened. But if everybody’s doing it, you won’t stand out. How about trying NOT showing the teaser rate. Won’t work?  It will if you say, “We’ve got a rate so low, we can’t show it here.” I’d certainly want to know what it is. You would too.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Jump Outside the Box. Of course, it’s risky to try something new. But it’s not as risky as you think. So go ahead, test a wild idea once in a while. Even if it doesn’t work as well as what you’re doing now, you still make some sales and you’ll gain valuable knowledge about how your target market responds. But chances are, that wild idea will work really well. Then you have a new control and you’ve boosted your ROI.

I once had a boss tell me, “If that idea was any good, somebody would be doing it already.” Don’t fall into the trap of always covering the same old territory. Try a new path and see where it takes you. It might very well be the road to success!