The 3 levels of creative mastery in direct marketing

creativity in direct marketingBoost Your Direct Marketing Creativity
- Part 1 -

We direct marketing types are well-known for our reliance on “proven” techniques.

Our books, trade magazines, and club meetings overflow with zillions of hints, commandments, rules, warnings, tactics, and all manner of well-organized wisdom.

That’s why many people in the advertising industry — much of which thrives on ultra-creative, out-of-the-box ideas — consider us rather old-fashioned and conservative.

And that’s just fine with me.

Because we have a different job to do than our brand advertising brethren. We’re looking for immediate and direct response. We’re going for instant return on investment. Our massive technique tool box allows us to make sales, generate leads, and raise funds in predictable and measurable ways.

But while we can chide our chums on the brand side about being too creative, they certainly have every reason to chide us for not being creative enough. While they often don’t follow any rules at all, we often follow too many.

The danger we direct marketers face is falling into the “Technique Trap, ” slavishly sticking to what is proven, afraid to try anything new. When this happens, healthy, fresh, creative ideas that might otherwise work wonders are smothered by tired, wheezing clichés. Our profitable, proven techniques then become a self-referencing dead end.

Okay. But you might ask, “Is this really a problem? If it works, it works. Right?”

Sure. If you’ve been selling miracle widgets with the same ads for 50 years and sales are strong and you’re happy, fine. No complaints. But for most businesses, times change. Competition increases. Costs go up. Response goes down. Regulations and privacy concerns threaten.

And guess what? Not everyone is willing to slog through the classic direct mail package with a 16-page letter. You can’t get away with slipshod design for carefully branded products. And there’s more than just direct mail now — there’s TV, radio, the Internet, and all manner of powerful alternative media.

And direct response advertising is no longer just a shadowy group of salesmen hawking Ginsu Knives and Whoopdeedoo Fishing Lures at 2 a.m. on local cable stations. It’s a major force in the advertising industry.

Our techniques are being applied to every demographic to sell every product and service imaginable, not always with the expected results. Old line gurus who thought they had it all figured out are scratching their heads wondering what the heck happened. Why aren’t the tried and true techniques working any more?

Well, they are working. Nothing has changed on a fundamental level. People are still people with all the same wants and needs. And the proven techniques are still just as powerful today as they ever were.

It’s just that direct marketing has broken free of its exclusive domain and moved into the mainstream. Things are tougher now. Our buyers are more sophisticated. The media is paying attention to us, warts and all.

So we simply can’t toss around techniques in our sleep anymore. We’ll have to wake up and develop a deeper understanding of why our techniques work and specifically when and where we should apply them. And we’ll need new techniques, too. We’ll need real creativity. Real innovation.

Which is why I say there are …

3 Levels of Creative Mastery in Direct Marketing

Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Can you imagine hiring a carpenter whose only tool was a claw hammer? He’d be great at banging things together or ripping things apart, but his handiwork would be crude and limited.

Such is the case with many direct marketers.

After all, if your only tool is a 6” x 9” direct mail package, you’re going to see the solution to every marketing problem as a 6” x 9” direct mail package.

Your handiwork, too, will be crude and limited. And the situation doesn’t improve much if all you do is collect a bunch of pet techniques — lift letters, yellow sticky notes, tilted stamps, personalized membership cards — and force fit them into every promotion.

Those who do this — and our industry is full of these technique hounds — are forever trapped by what others have already done. “Copy smart,” some shout, attempting to make the copycat approach appear more savvy than it is.

But while these people often wield great power because of the strength of direct marketing techniques, they are ultimately little more than overpaid short order cooks, whipping up quick meals with yesterday’s sausage.

Let me suggest that there are three levels of creative mastery in our business:

  1. The Novice, who doesn’t know the rules.
  2. The Hack, who has learned the rules, but is trapped by them.
  3. The Professional, who knows the rules and, every now and then, breaks the rules, or even comes up with new rules, when it’s appropriate.

Needless to say, if you’re seeking long-term success, you should aim for the Third Level. You should strive to find a balance between technique and creativity, between the tried and the new. We need our techniques because they are powerful, but we also need creativity because it is empowering.

Next time, I’ll show you some of the traits you’ll need if you want to reach this vaulted Third Level of Creative Mastery. Stay tuned.

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4 Responses to “The 3 levels of creative mastery in direct marketing”

  1. Fern Lee on February 8th, 2011 10:49 am

    Great thought leadership and great analogy. If you have a hammer, you look for nails. Perhaps those with hammers should also think of getting an electric drill!

  2. Amanda Moore on February 10th, 2011 2:14 pm

    Great post! I think the direct marketing industry has been pitted against the advertising industry for a very long time even though we have different objectives and different implementations. However, there is no reason why we can’t borrow some inspiration from our more creative and risk-taking counterparts.

    I agree that not much has changed in the industry concerning our tried and true techniques. We know what works, we know what is successful, and we know what to offer our clients. However, I think that our client’s expectations have evolved and their target audience is becoming immune to some of the direct marketing clichés. This doesn’t mean that we reinvent the wheel or abandon ship on our tried and true techniques. It also doesn’t mean that we keep pumping out the same old solution for every client and every situation. As direct marketers we need to find a way to use our old techniques and technologies to promote in a more creative way. Direct mail can be dull, but we know that it works, perhaps we spice it up by making it personalized and incorporating integrated techniques that tie it to mobile and internet marketing.

    The same techniques still apply and we are still doing the same things we have always done. We just need to think about it in a more creative way, take some risks, and break some rules.

  3. George Crankovic on February 14th, 2011 12:43 pm

    Dean, thanks for the terrific post. Maybe DM is too stodgy compared to advertising. But if so, it’s because DM’s purpose is so different from that of advertising. DM tries to model consumer behavior while advertising tries to change it. That difference necessitates divergent creative approaches. While the Technique Trip is real, I’d hate to see DM, even as it goes mainstream, fall into the trap of creativity for its own sake, as we see in some advertising. Still, DM has to evolve — and it will. It will change as it continues to model changing consumer behavior.

  4. How many of these 11 creative traits do you have? on February 15th, 2011 7:01 am

    [...] In my previous post, I talked about the 3 levels of creative mastery in direct marketing. [...]

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