Blazing New Trails Takes NERVE
By Lois K. Geller
Last week I went to an off-Broadway musical called "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" with a friend of mine. Williams was a small town Alabama boy who became a great country singer in the late 1940s.
Jason Petty plays Williams in "Lost Highway." To me, Jason and his backup group sounded better than the great Hank Williams, and I said so to my friend as we left the theater.
"Well, sure" she said, "He was imitating. Hank didn't imitate. He wrote new music, wrote new lyrics, arranged everything by himself and recorded every song in single takes. He did things nobody else had ever done. He was the first, the original, and everybody after him stands on his shoulders. They write plays about him."
And, of course, she was right.
Innovation and Imitation
History's full of people like that. They did things nobody else did—and then along came the imitators. If they're talented, imitators make the original better. Without them, TVs would still be in black and white. But the guy who invented the TV was the genius. The people who came after him merely were clever.
Direct marketing's like that, too. Very few originals—lots of imitators.
Part of the problem is that most people think they're better off being followers. Original ideas startle them. It's as if they've been eating roast beef and mashed potatoes all their lives, and then suddenly someone gives them sushi. They say things such as, "let's not re-invent the wheel" and "we've always done it this way."
Banks and insurance companies are the worst offenders. They get in comfort zones, and repeat the same things. Some examples include: "You are pre-approved," "low APR," "no medical exam required," and "safe driver discount."
But that's changing. AFLAC gave us the frustrated duck, and Geico gave us its gecko—suddenly insurance looks different.
Strike Out on Your Own
So, how do you have a creative breakthrough? There are three or four things you need to do.
1. Decide to do something new. Refuse to be a follower. Just make sure you understand how direct marketing works.
2. Get into your target audience's heads. It doesn't matter what you like, what your bosses like—what anybody else likes. Ask:
>What do the people you're writing to like?
>How do they think?
>What's important to them?
We work with a marketer of Apollo space program collectibles. We talked to a space-commodities collector who recommended we get a NASA spokesperson to give our collection credibility. That changed our direction.
3. New ideas aren't born fully-grown, so don't abandon them. If it makes you nervous, that's good.
Our creative director was told that a time-share client couldn't do a radio commercial because the legal text was obligatory and too long. It would bore people to tears. He turned the legalese into song lyrics and had a chorus of lawyers sing it. It was hilarious.
4. Forget about budgets at first. Just come up with an idea.
Internet guru Seth Godin looks at things differently when he fills Web orders for his new book, "Purple Cow." He sends them out in a milk carton that has purple spots on it. It gets people talking. Once you get the idea, you can figure out how to do it with your own budget.
The idea is to go somewhere no one has been before. Do something unique. Restrictions on telemarketing and spam mean more companies will be going back to direct mail. Now's the time to jump out and be unique.
You can be first. Just make sure you test.
Lois K. Geller is president of Mason & Geller Direct Marketing, a full-service direct-response agency in NYC. She also is the author of "Response: The Complete Guide To Profitable Direct Marketing," and is a speaker at industry events. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org