Letter From Vienna
What goes around comes around.
The story of fake and counterfeit drugs being shipped all over Southeast Asia that are responsible for the deaths of 200,000 or more people annually was foreshadowed by the 1949 thriller, The Third Man, set in post-World War II Vienna.
Directed by Carol Reed and starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, The Third Man was deemed the finest British film ever made by the British Film Institute in 2000, and is the only British film in the American Film Institute’s 1996 list of greatest films of all time. It ranks #57.
We spent four days in Vienna in 2005, just before Christmas. I had two items on my agenda: chocolate and The Third Man.
After 45 years in the business, I tend to view the world through the prism of direct marketing.
In the darkness of the late afternoon of the first day, it was cold and rainy when we spied a brightly-lit confectionery and coffee shop called AIDA. In direct marketing 101, AIDA is the acronym for the steps needed to get a response: Attention—Interest—Desire—Action. We got in out of the cold and had the ultimate cup of hot chocolate—dark, bitter-sweet, strong and with a huge dollop of real whipped cream floating in it.
But it was my pursuit of The Third Man—retracing the steps of Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten—that resulted in an epiphany about the sad state of direct marketing.
The Hotel Sacher
This blinding flash of insight about direct marketing did not hit me at the Hotel Sacher.
After the War, Vienna was a dreary, down-at-the-heels city that had been bombed to hell and was being run by the Four Powers.
A survivor was the Sacher founded in 1876. It was here that Holley Martins—an American writer of Westerns played by Joseph Cotten—stayed at the invitation of his old friend, Harry Lime. Famous for the Sacher Torte (originally created in 1830 for Emperor Franz Josef), the Sacher Hotel is today restored to 19th century perfection and elegance. In the Red Bar, with its plush, red banquettes, red velvet drapes and magnificent chandeliers and paintings, we had one of the best lunches of our lives.
In the Footsteps of The Third Man
We opted not to take The Third Man walking tour. The weather closed in on Friday and was bone chilling. The sewers of Vienna did not hold much appeal, nor did being rained on at the cemetery where Harry Lime was supposedly buried. But we did make our way to the giant ferris wheel—the Great Wheel—in the tacky Prater amusement park where Joseph Cotten confronted Orson Welles about his hideous crime spree.
Graham Greene, author of the novella and the screenplay, describes Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles) thusly:
Don’t picture Harry Lime as a smooth scoundrel. He wasn’t that. The picture I have of him on my files is an excellent one: he is caught by a street photographer with his stocky legs apart, big shoulders a little hunched, a belly that has known too much good food for too long, on his face a look of cheerful rascality, a geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world’s day.
When Joseph Cotten arrived in Vienna, he was not greeted by Harry Lime, but found himself at Lime’s burial. Only it wasn’t Harry in the coffin. Harry was loose in Vienna selling watered-down penicillin to hospitals with the result that hundreds of people—most of them children—were dying horrible deaths.
On a misty winter day, just like it was in The Third Man, we went up in the cast iron Great Wheel with its giant boxy red wooden cars nearly the size of an old railroad caboose.
When we reached the top, spread out 360 degrees before us was gritty, gray Vienna. At street level far below, the people were like tiny ants, and the chilling exchange between Harry Lime and Holley Martins echoed in my head. I later bought the novella so as to not misquote Graham Greene:
Martins said, ‘Have you ever visited the children’s hospital? Have you seen any of your victims?’
Harry took a look at the toy landscape below and came away from the door. ‘I never feel quite safe in these things,’ he said. He felt the back of the door with his hand, as though he were afraid that it might fly open and launch him into that iron-ribbed space.
‘Victims?’ he asked. ‘Don’t be melodramatic, Holley. Look down there,’ he went on, pointing through the window at the people moving like black flies at the base of the Wheel. ‘Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—forever?
If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—without hesitation?
Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax.’ He gave his boyish conspiratorial smile. ‘It’s the only way to save nowadays.’
The Direct Marketing Analogy
Suddenly, all the ills of direct marketing became crystal clear in my brain. I understood how many of America’s greatest, most respected companies—that should damn well know better—could be guilty of lost and stolen data and licensing highly sensitive, personal information to known scammers and criminals.
Here, too, is the reason for wild over-mailing, declining responses, list managers and brokers drowning in a sea of co-operative databases while others are on a merger spree.
Quite simply, we have lost sight of the concept that direct marketing is a warm, customer-centric business where success is measured by emotional connections and the ability to persuade one person at a time.
Direct marketing legend Stan Rapp calls it “intimate advertising.”
The hotshot MBAs and PhDs that have taken over direct marketing are as in love with statistics as actuaries are in love with death. They do not think about each blip of data representing a sacred trust—a live breathing person—you, me, our spouses and children, our brothers and sisters in Iraq, our beloved aunt dealing with dementia.
Rather, to the higher ups in our business, these blips are Harry Lime’s “dots.”
If data are stolen and a few folks robbed of their IDs, so what?
Direct marketing has become a business of data—data enrichment, data mining, data storage, data licensing, data updating.
We have gone from marketers whose success depended on our emotional connection with each client, prospect, expire, donor and customer to readers of printouts, numbers, balance sheets and percentages.
I remember hearing a lecture by a top executive of one of the three great credit bureaus explain how to manipulate data by putting various categories of people into “buckets.”
Would you put your spouse, your child or your dog in a “bucket?”
When I first got into the business, the gold standard of direct mail excellence was magazine circulation—exquisitely written and designed, deeply moving letters by America’s greatest freelancers and, very occasionally, an agency writer.
Today, coin of the realm is the Professional Discount Voucher. This is a low-price-driven, mass-market-like colorless, emotionless list of features (which are called benefits, because today’s copywriters do not know the difference between a feature and a benefit) with no letter and no description or picture of the publication; no reason to buy beyond saving money.
Recently, a guy asked me to critique one of his mailings and e-mailed me a Professional Discount Voucher. I e-mailed him back saying that I had no comment; I said everybody was doing these things.
He e-mailed me back and said, in effect, “Yeah, everybody’s doing it, but our responses are lousy and I am thinking maybe we should test an old-fashioned, benefit-oriented, promise-laden full-dress package.”
When he sent me his results by list, I could see why; many lists pulled exactly 0.00 percent. The overall average was 0.25 percent.
The Direct Mail Letter
With the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and the National Do Not Call Registry, once again direct mail is riding high—the workhorse of direct marketing.
And the linchpin of direct mail is the letter, that emotional and intimate message from one writer to one reader that talks benefits, benefits, benefits.
In the words of freelancer Malcolm Decker:
The letter is itself is the pen-and-ink embodiment of a salesperson who is speaking personally and directly to the prospect on a one-to-one basis.
The letter is the most powerful and persuasive selling force in direct marketing, once the product, price and offer are set. The writer creates the salesman, usually from whole cloth, and you must be certain that this sales representative is truly representative of your product or service as well as of your company.
The letter is likely to be the only “person” your market will ever meet—at least on the front end of the sale—do don’t make him highbrow if your market is lowbrow and vice versa,
Make sure he speaks your prospect’s language. If he’s a Tiffany salesman, he writes in one style; if he’s a grapefruit or pecan farmer or a beef grower, he writes differently. (‘cause he talks diffrunt.) I develop as clear a profile of my prospect as the available research offers and then try to match it up with someone I know and “put him in a chair” across from me. Then I write to him more or less conversationally.
The salesperson in the letter is doing the job he obviously loves and is good at. He knows the product inside and out and is totally confident in and at ease with its values and benefits—even its inconsequential shortcomings—and wants to get his prospect in on a good thing. Here is someone with a sense of rhythm, timing, dramatic effect and possibly even humor—getting attention … piquing curiosity … holding interest … engaging rationally … anticipating and assuaging doubts … and ultimate winning the confidence (and the signature on the order) of the prospect.
The great direct marketers of old knew that they were not writing to dots and blips, but rather to a warm, breathing, feeling person.
Those that can make this business of bean counters and statisticians fun, profitable—and above all personal—will sell a lot of product, raise a lot of money and put some serious cash in their bank accounts.