Direct Mail in the Go-Go 80s
What was direct mail like when Denny Hatch launched Who's Mailing What!now Inside Direct Mailand the Archive 20 years ago? I'll tell you, but first a few words about Denny and what he has done for all of us in the direct mail business.
I first met Denny in 1975 when I was at McGraw-Hill and one of the VPs hired the Walter Weintz Agency, where Denny worked. Denny was no less brash in those times than he is today. I can't remember the specifics of the meetings, but it was a tug-of-war because the McGraw-Hill VP wanted dignified direct mail that would have died.
Later in the '70s, when Denny was freelancing on his own, he wrote copy for me when I was on the account side at March Advertising. I learned a great deal from him, and am still learning.
When he started this newsletter, Denny added a strategic dimension to the business. We were all pragmatists, but how could you do what worked if you didn't know what was working? Now we could see what the top practitioners were doing; we could engage in competitive intelligence. As an agency guy, I could get samples before I pitched an account or when I sat down to write. Denny's "Anatomy of a Control" features got us back to basics. He also crusaded against deception from the very early issues.
The title of this article was carefully chosen, because the '80s were not only go-go years for the stock market; it was that way in direct mail, too. We weren't afraid to risk or fail. There were good reasons for our confidence and optimism:
* We really didn't have competition from other media. Of course, there was no e-mail or online advertising. Space advertising was working for relatively few direct marketers, and the same was true of television. If you didn't mail, you didn't do business.
* Because mail volumes were high, your tests could be, and had to be, much bolder. If you had a loser, your control was mailed in enough volume to make up for it, and you would always make budget. If you found a big winnerand that's what you were looking foryou became a hero to the bean counters who wanted you to exceed budget.
* We were not in the "Age of Disbelief." Consumers were not bombarded with the same number of advertising messages they receive today. They had greater attention spans, and they read the long letters, lift notes and brochures. They were more believing of what we said and offered. We could get away with the exaggerations and over-promises that are (or should be) anathema today.
* Almost everything cost less. Bulk rate postage was about half what it is now; printing and mailing was less, too. So we could afford full packages, and those were fun to create. Double postcards were around, of course, but our talents weren't confined to voucher or statement of benefits formats.
Do not mistake these recollections for nostalgia. Despite predictions to the contrary, direct mail is alive and well in 2004 (much healthier, in fact, than it was even two years ago), and we are doing many things better than we did in 1984:
* Strategic thinking. The "fire and aim" method has its limitations. We now think much more about how to be customer-centric, develop relationships and build brand while generating response.
* Isolating prospects. We knew how to select lists 20 years ago, but not how to find the best individual prospects. Two decades of modeling have helped us do that.
* Creative segmentation. The combination of modeling and printing technologies has allowed us to get different messages to different prospects cost effectively.
* Packages that are graphically appealing, yet work. Copy is still king, of course, but the Internet has made everyone more
visual. Our packages have kept up with that trend. "Ugly" packages still work in some arenas (investment newsletters, for example), but in most segments the Lew Smith mantra often evoked by Denny"neatness rejects involvement"no longer holds true.
* Telling the truth. Fortunately, we have ceded most blatantly crooked promotions to Internet marketers. We have learned that lying to a prospect is no way to start a relationship. It's tougher to generate response without the hyperbole, so the basic selling premises linking prospect to product/service need to be stronger.
* Quality of efforts. Excluding publishing, which used to be the major leagues for any copywriter, the quality of the packages mailed in many categories has improved considerably. The nonprofit sector comes to mind first, with insurance (particularly health) and technology companies following. The latter category is interesting, because the smart mailers are focusing more on the emotional and business needs of the prospect than on the technology itself.
I've been involved in direct mail since 1964 (I tell my clients that I started when I was six), so 1984 was the halfway point. I must say we've come infinitely further in the last 20 years than the first 20. I can't wait to do a retrospective in 2024. Of course, I may not remember what happened!
Lee Marc Stein is an internationally known direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He has extensive experience in circulation, insurance and financial services, high tech, and B-to-B marketing. He works with direct response agencies in addition to having his own clients. Read more of his articles at www.leemarcstein.com.