Why Buy a Dog if You're Doing the Barking?
In the dog-eat-dog world of direct mail copy and design, many creatives would like to see the above phrase etched in stone and then bolted to the desks of every one of their clients. Why?
Because time after time, clients take the work we submit and run it through a meat grinder. What's left is not the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth filet mignon they were presented, but a pounded down, indigestible hunk of mystery meat full of gristle and fat.
Of course, that's what gets mailed. And of course, that's what doesn't beat the control. And then, of course, that's when they say, "Gee, your package didn't do too well and we're so disappointedwe really loved the package."
Well. of course they loved it! It was their worknot yours! And yet they don't remember (or choose to forget) the slice-and-dice job they did to the originally presented material.
Here's the honest truth. The success of a package has an inverse relationship to the amount of "futzing" from the client. The less severe the client changes, the better a package performs. In fact, my biggest successes have been with packages that the client barely touched.
I've got a hunch that's the way it is with most competent copywriter/designer teams. (Keyword: competent).
I'm sure there are many creative teams out there who submit horrifically bad workwork that truly does need "fixing" by the client.
But maybe the client shouldn't have hired these bozos in the first place.
It all goes back to what I've been saying in this column for months nowif you hire the best talent, you'll get the best results. But I'm adding to that this caveat: Once you've hired the best talent, give them the freedom to do their best work, and don't mess with it.
Now, a word change here or a paragraph massage there is fine. Even a healthy photo discussion is OK. But you must listen to the "reason why" the creative team did what they did. You must hear their thinking about the headlines they wrote to go with the photos they chose.
Here are two examples:
Client: American Express
Magazine: Food & Wine
Control: a 9" x 12" sweeps.The goal was to find a package that could break the sweeps strangle-hold both Travel & Leisure and Food & Wine had endured for years. I came up with a 6" x 9" package that sold the epicurean benefits of reading the magazine, and wrapped it around a typical free issue soft offer.
There was a beautiful four-color brochure, two-color outer with a "free" sticker showing through from the four-color order card, and a four-page letter full of "fascinations" about cooking, wines, and entertaining.
I never saw the package until after it was mailed and the results had been tabulated. The package performed miserably against the sweepstakes control. But when I saw the printed samples, I understood why.
My original package had not just been altered, it had been neutered. StickerGONE! Four-page letterGONE, replaced with an anemic two-page letter. Brochurereduced in size and folded incorrectly, so the message didn't track. Soft offergrafted onto the standard American Express sweeps/continuous service mumbo-jumbo.
It was as if some mole inside American Express had sabotaged the package to make sure it would fail. Why? Was there some sort of corporate conspiracy going on behind closed doors to tip the scales in favor of sweeps? Were "the powers that be" at parent company Time Inc. out to get the new circulation director whose charge was to "get us out of sweeps?"
I contend that to beat a sweeps, you've got to come at it with a whole new offera true soft offer. That flies in the face of the rules of testing, I know. But here's the rub ...
Part of the appeal of the sweeps offer is the chance (however slim) of getting extra prizes, trips, goodies, etc. For that chance, consumers will agree to the "got-ya-by-the-you-know-whats" offer that states you're subscribed for life at a higher annual rate than you came in on unless you call an 800 number and cancel. None of this "write 'cancel' on the invoice and send it back" stuff that is standard "soft offer" language. Since your credit card account is charged from the get-go, you've got to call a number and play push-button roulette if you want out. What if you lose the phone number?
Without the camouflage of sweeps bells and whistles, this kind of offer is nakedly exposed in a traditional soft package. Oh, I know, Time Inc. has spent millions fine-tuning the language and salability of continuous service or AR (automatic renewal) as they call it. But I'm focused here on a head-to-head sweeps versus non-sweeps test.
That non-sweeps package was doomed before it even hit the mail. A total waste of time and money. But then, nobody asked me.
Client: Time Warner
Magazine: World Championship Wrestling
I was to create the first venture into the mail, even though they had published several issues. On the theory that photos of wrestlers are a big part of the appeal to this audience, we designed a 9" x 12" polypack. Big brochure. Lots of sweaty wrestlers. Several buxom babes. Big action shotsthe whole nine yards.
It was only after approvals on all the components and the final disks being shipped that I was informed the client had created his own brochureone he liked better than ours. Not only that, but he refused to pay for my brochure. Now understand, this was the first inkling I had that he was dissatisfied with any part of the package. Since I was working through a consultant, there had been lapses in communication throughout the process. But this wasn't a lapse, this was one of those "bend-over-and-grab-your-ankles" moments.
So, I was never paid my full fee for work that was signed, sealed and delivered. The package mailed with the client-designed brochure and not mine. (Remember, because this was a poly, the cover of the brochure showed through one side of the clear poly.) And guess what? The package hit the mat with a thud and never regained consciousness.
The moral of these stories? It's like watching a magician. Leave the creation of successful direct mail packages to the professionals. If you hire a verifiably good copywriter and designer teamone whose track record and reputation you can check, and double checkyou shouldn't have to meddle.
Minor changes are fine, and expected. Questioning why this word or that photo or that color or that typeface was used is fine, and expected. But if big differences crop uplike with the tone and personality of the piece, as in the Food & Wine example, or with individual component issues, like the World Championship Wrestling brochure exampleyield to the experience and talent of the people you've hired to do the job.
The next time one of your packages does a nose dive, think back to the approval process. Can you recall a lot of barking noises echoing through the corporate corridors? Beware!