Blame it on the Cocktail Party Syndrome
Living in Texas and being a freelance direct mail writer puts me way outside the mainstream of recognizable (and respectable) professions a grown man should be engaged in. Being a somewhat successful practitioner of my trade after nearly 22 years, my income allows me to share a ZIP code with an Apollo 13 astronaut, big-time sports stars (including a future Yankee Hall of Famer), imprisoned corporate moguls, and members of our president's family.
So when the inevitable question "What do you do?" comes up at a neighborhood cocktail party full of divorce lawyers, heart surgeons, and real estate tycoons, I mumble something about advertising/publishing and quickly change the subject. Topics like the coming quarterback controversy at the University of Texas works nicely, for example.
If I'm asked to go into more detailthe Syndrome kicks in. With this crowd, tales of creating direct mail for magazine subscriptions ranks right up there with exterminating for roaches, vacuuming swimming pools, or operating a valet parking service.
That's a long-winded way of explaining why you can blame the Syndrome for my wanting to do this column. I've got this urge to communicate with my peerspeople who know what a control is, what Johnson boxes are, and why polys can beat double postcards if you design them right. I've been a fish out of water so long I'm starting to feel like sushi.
So, let's talk. I'll start the ball rolling. And you can chime in and tell me why you think I'm nuts. Think of it as talk radio without the immediacy.
What are we going to talk about? How's this? In issues to come, I'll be sharing my thoughts on ...
* what's killing our industry (vouchers).
* why direct mail doesn't seem to be working as well as it once did (too many untalented writers/designers getting too many assignments).
* why these people continue to get assignments (too many circulation managers who haven't been shown how to evaluate creative portfolios).
* the most misused weapon in your circulation-generating arsenal (renewal series).
* the second most misused weapon in your circulation- generating arsenal (billing series).
* why bad things happen to good magazines (bits and pieces of all the above).
* who's doing things right (Meredith).
* who's doing things wrong (more than there should be).
* how great direct mail packages are made (it's not as easy as it looks).
* why freelancers exist (because most clients can't write or design).
* why circulation people exist (because freelancers can't crunch numbers and analyze lists).
* why consultants exist (I'll get back to you on that one).
* who I'd hire to do my writing and design, and who I wouldn't (one list will be short, the other not so).
* why too much time is spent on minutia, and not enough on the Big Idea (it's a forest and tree thing).
* why there really is a New York state of mind that sabotages potentially great creative work (it's a lifestyle thing, trust me).
* why older writers and designers are better than younger writers and designers (I speak from personal experience).
* why good writers and designers are born, not made (look, I could never be a physicist).
Get the idea? In this column, I hope to blow the dust off long-held ideas about direct mail, spark debate, rattle a few cages, point out hidden truths, and provide a forum for an exuberant exchange of ideas.
For those of you who don't know me, I'm responsible for everything from the SPY package with the Gorbachev Lick-n-Stick birthmark to the Walking package that urged readers to "Step on this envelope." I warned Men's Journal subscribers that "what's inside will turn your stomach" and told Fast Company prospects to "Throw away this envelope." I've also launched Details, Brill's Content, ESPN, Talk, Rosie, Blender, and others. I've got a track record a mile long and a winning percentage bested only by Bill Jayme's.
Now, though, while I've got you here, I'll share a quick "case in point" that will set the tone for this column. Whenever I accept an assignment to create a new direct mail test package for a book or magazine, I ask to see all the past packages the client has tested. I want to see how other creative teams have attacked the same barricade I'll be confronting.
A recent examination of previous test packages left me shocked and amazed. This stuff was not only dull, but it didn't come close to selling the product (a magazine with a museum affiliation.)
The test results bore it out. They were pitifully low. No wonder the client was frustrated and questioning whether direct mail worked anymore. This wasn't direct mail. This was nothingness masquerading as work worthy of testing. It wasn't.
Why didn't the client demand better? Why was this not only accepted, but mailed? Who's putting out this stuff? Well, it's names you know. The ones you hear bandied about as "good writers and designers." Please, people.
When Detroit was making clunkers, Detroit got the message because drivers stopped buying them. Not in our industry. Clients are still buying assembly line clunkers that are in truth creative death traps. Why?
Do you circulation people think that's the best work out there? Do you make your creative team decisions on what looks good rather than on what works? Do you know your team's track record? How many controls do they currently have? One or two? The good teams have 25 or 30. I personally know of creative teams who have tested against me half a dozen times, and haven't produced a winner yet. But they keep getting assignments. Why?
Am I just tooting my own horn? Feathering my own nest? Some of you will say "yes." But I hope most of you will see that, as an industry, we've been letting our standards slip, and the bar keeps getting lowered. Hands are wringing and clients are saying "We can't rely on direct mail as a source for us anymore." Well, DUH!
My aim in this column is to right this ship. Direct mail works. It's as dynamic a source as it always was. We've just become poor stewards of its power. We can do better. In fact, we can do great!
Let's agree that enough's enough. Let's stop the bleeding now. I'll supply the tourniquet with this column. And I welcome a few good twists from you.
If all else fails, at least I can tell my cocktail friends that I'm now a columnist. I just won't reveal what kind. Cheers!
Ken Schneider is an award-winning direct mail writer/designer specializing in magazine, book and newsletter promotions. With more than 35 circulation direct marketing awards, he has been honored more than any other individual or direct mail organization. Ken splits his time between Houston, TX, and Aspen, CO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.