The Grand Controls - A History
Even though the direct marketing community has gone Internet-dippy, direct mail is still the workhorse of direct marketing—and will be for a long time to come. For starters:
•More money is spent on direct mail than any other medium—$80 billion in the year 2000 vs. $7 billion on the Internet. (Telephone marketers will insist that their medium is bigger. However, half of telemarketing is inbound—much of it a response to leads, orders and contributions derived from direct mail, DRTV and space ads.)
• Direct mail is the medium of choice when it comes to talking to your customers. Many different media are employed to acquire leads, customers and donors. But once you have a customer, telemarketing is intrusive; e-mail is boring to look at; face-to-face visits are expensive. Direct mail is it.
•American direct mail is the best in the world. It's not because we are smarter, nor more creative. Rather it's because we have the unparalleled luxury of 100 million relatively affluent households and 11 million businesses. These folks can be reached via more than 25,000 lists and other delivery systems; if you factor in selects, the number is more like a quarter million lists. And the U.S. Postal Service will hand carry your message at a fraction the cost of equivalent service of every industrialized country in the world.
No other country has this confluence of factors to create the ultimate direct mail petri dish.
The result: American direct mailers can test small—and in secret. They can reconfirm the test and then—if all systems are GO—they can roll out and make a killing.
Why more awards?
The system for traditional direct marketing awards is to send a call for entries and then a bunch of volunteers to sit around and judge them.
However, direct marketing is the only truly accountable advertising technique—precisely measurable within tenths and hundredths of a percent.
Many years ago at a Direct Mail Writers Guild luncheon speech in New York, (then) U.S. News & World Report circulation director Dorothy Kerr said:
The way to be successful in direct mail is to see who's mailing what, what mailings keep coming in over and over again (which means they are successful) and then STEAL SMART.
In other words, in direct mail, the marketplace is the judge. We can't judge great direct mail; it judges us.
The secret medium
Unlike broadcast and space advertising—where an ad becomes public knowledge the moment it breaks—direct mail is secret. The only medium more secret than direct mail is telemarketing where no paper trail exists.
The only way an outsider can judge whether or not a mailing is successful is to see if it keeps coming in over and over again.
As publisher of the newsletter, Who's Mailing What!, I was receiving 3,000 to 4,000 direct mail pieces a month and maintained samples in the largest library of its kind in the world. That archive (now called DM Source) currently houses samples and data on about 200,000 mailings going back 15 years. I naturally received a lot of duplicates; plus, when we received a direct mail piece that was already in the files, we noted on the envelope (and in the newsletter): (1) that it had been received before; and (2) the date(s) it had been previously received. We then tossed out the old piece and keep the carefully annotated new one.
Enter Axel Andersson
A decade ago, I met Axel Andersson—a Swede who moved to Germany after World War II and created the largest home study business in Europe, the Axel Andersson Akademy, offering courses in languages, writing and commercial art. Andersson retired to Palm Coast, Florida where he collects direct mail on his own, plus all our dupes and purged pieces are recycled into Axel's vast collection. Where our library is filed by category, by mailer, by date, Andersson's is arranged by function (e.g., great leads, headlines, letters, envelopes, sweepstakes, lift pieces, etc.). The Axel Andersson collection is now so huge that he bought the house next door strictly for use as his library.
Early in 1991, Andersson called.
Why don't you give awards for mailings that are true controls... mailings that I keep seeing over and over again?
It was a brilliant idea!
After all, what is the only true measure of success for a direct mail package? Efficiency and longevity.
I immediately dubbed these The Axel Andersson Awards. Nickname: The Axels—quite fitting since in the world of figure skating, the most difficult jump of all is the Axel—named for another Swede, Axel Paulson.
The ground rules for the Axel Andersson Awards are simple: If a mailing had been received consecutively over a three-year period, it was a winner.
In the early days, we omitted financial services and charities; rather we concentrated on magazine and newsletter subscription efforts, continuity series, book and record clubs, membership efforts, merchandise sales and home study offerings. That year, 1991, we found 66 winners, and in 1992, we unearthed 49 more. Among them: Martin Conroy's "Two Young Men..." mailing for The Wall Street Journal, first mailed in 1974 and still control, having brought in well over $1 billion in subscription revenue. Amazingly, it had never won an award until its Axel.
How significant are the Axels?
Axel Andersson wrote in the forward to my 1992 book, "Million Dollar Mailings:"
My impression is that the majority of successful mailers don't want to participate in award competitions. For others, the entry cost is too high...
If many mailers spending $10 million a year or more do not enter award competitions, isn't that like the Olympics without the real star athletes?
The Axel Andersson Award is the only real, 100-percent, post-test award... because the award is given only after three years' results are in.
To pick winners, we didn't have to rely on the claims of success by mailers or agencies, nor on the opinion of judges.
Every mailer knows that when testing new mailings the initial response from a new package will often look good, maybe even beat the present control. But we all know that may be a statistical fluke; in a rollout, the old control will stand. So please remember all these winners have stood the test of time. They have been mailed over at least a period of three years...
A few of the winners have already been beaten, replaced by new controls. That's also how it should be.
The important thing is to study the difference between the old control and the new control and learn from the differences.
Going through the library of mail samples is an extraordinary experience, especially when you come across a mailing that had receipt dates scrawled all over it going back a number of years. These are the ones to study!
What is to be learned from these winners?
Lots. For example:
•Over the years I noted Emily Soell's launch package for Condé Nast Traveler. While the guts of the mailing remained the same for many years, the color of the outer envelope kept changing. Turns out every time the mailing began to flag, a change of envelope color perked it right back up. If you don't have continual envelope tests in the mail, you absolutely should!
•Have you taken a fresh look at your old controls? In over a decade of mail watching, I have noticed that a number of control mailings have disappeared, only to show up in the mail after a two- or three-year rest. This is currently the case with Nightingale-Conant. You may well find that dusting off a successful control from several years back, changing the offer and updating the premiums will knock the socks off the current effort you are struggling with.
•How are your competitors selling their products? What are the price points, copy points, design elements? Does your current effort call attention to all the benefits?
•Can you look at "best in class" in other categories of mail and adapt them to your offer? For example, while I have analyzed to death the "Two young men..." letter for The Wall Street Journal, Seattle agency head Bob Hacker took a fresh look in the January 1997 issue and came to the conclusion that Martin Conroy had taken a basic fund-raising model and adapted it to a subscription effort. For his long-term control for the Advance Financial Services home equity offer, Herschell Gordon Lewis used techniques that have proven successful in magazine subscription mailings.
The Axel Archive Today
Currently, the collection of Axels numbers around 450 and extends across many categories—publishing, financial services, fund raising, business-to-business products and services, associations and memberships, merchandise, clubs and continuities, children's products. Not included: Catalogs and seminar/conference offers. Catalogs continually change covers and products; seminars and conferences are never the same from year to year.
What is included is a wide variety of formats, ranging from simple double- and triple postcards to elaborate sweepstakes and magalog efforts.
The DM Source direct mail library is the result of 15 years of collecting and analyzing mailings and represents tens of billions of dollars in testing. The Axel Andersson Awards are the pure cream that have risen to the top.