The 3 Levels of Creative Mastery in Direct Marketing

by Dean Rieck

We direct marketing types are well-known for our reliance on "proven" techniques. Our books, newspapers, trade magazines, and club meetings overflow with zillions of hints, tips, tactics, formulas, commandments, rules, and all manner of well-organized wisdom. That's why most of the mainstream advertising industry — 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 general 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.

Viva technique!

But while we can chide our chums on the general 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.

In the past, I have been rather outspoken in my criticism of the ad industry. Years ago, I coined the term "Creative Conspiracy" to describe the wild, irrational fixation on entertainment value at the expense of bottom-line results. This was aimed primarily at agencies that churn out funny, overproduced ads so they can win awards, impress people, win more clients, create more ads, win more awards, and so on.

However, unlike many hard-core direct marketers, I don't discount the whole notion of creativity just because it is misused. In fact, the danger we 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 response 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. Yes, we'll use our cherished techniques, but we'll have to wake up. We'll have to 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. You wouldn't hire him to build a nice dining room table, would you?

Such is the case with many direct marketers. After all, if your only tool is a 6" x 9" direct mail package jammed with hard sell copy, you're going to see the solution to every marketing problem as a hard sell 6" x 9" 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 to 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.

In the next session, we'll take a look at some the things creative people do that can help you in your journey toward the magical Third Level of creative prowess.

Copyright © 1999 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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