It seems a bit creepy to be patting Royal Mail on the back for understanding the value of a good idea. Stroking the hand that feeds you.
If anyone ought to understand what direct mail can do, it’s them. But my sermon today is not so much about input but output. Not so much ideas but how they are executed. The sad fact is, in direct marketing, as in every other area of life, you get what you pay for.
Imagine if Sony had said to Fallon: “Love your idea, chaps, but if you think we’re going to spend a million quid throwing a quarter of a million balls down a hill in San Francisco, you’ve got another think coming.”
Similarly, if Royal Mail had said to Proximity: “Love the idea, chaps, but we can’t afford the sort of money an idea like this will cost”, what would have happened?
Compromise is the greatest single enemy of effective communication.
There is no doubt that a bean-counter somewhere could justify the decision to unload 25,000 balls down Gold Hill in Shaftesbury just as he could producing a letter printed onto brown paper that looks like chocolate.
The bean-counter could say, entirely justifiably: “We haven’t changed the idea.” And, strictly speaking, he hasn’t. But in failing to invest in it, he has failed to recognise that how you say something can be as important as what you say.
The great Jeremy Bullmore has written about this in Behind the Scenes in Advertising.
He asks you to imagine for a moment that you are walking down a country lane. You see a sign, roughly drawn on a piece of cardboard, that reads: ‘Fresh Eggs’. And you think to yourself: “I bet those eggs are really fresh. The farmer just has more than he needs for his own use and he’s quickly made up this sign to sell his surplus.”
On the other hand, see a sign that has been carefully sculpted out of marble and adorned with gold leaf, and what the sign suggests is that the eggs are not fresh at all. They have been stockpiling for months and are probably inedible.
Alternatively, where you might expect an elegant and carefully produced plaque - in Harley Street, say – but instead you see a crudely drawn sign, you will not feel reassured the surgeon within is professionally at the top of the tree.
So what’s the message? It’s how you deliver it that counts
It is often all too easy for a message to be contradicted by the manner in which it is delivered. The bank that sends you a tacky and obviously mass-mailed invitation to be ‘a chosen one’, a Premium customer, is telling you a lot about itself. The retailer whose envelope bears the legend: ‘You mean everything to us’ and then spells your name wrong is telling you the exact opposite.
I saw a letter recently, purporting to come from the editor of a redtop newspaper, a paper celebrated for the wit of its headlines – Flock in frock shock, above the story of a sex-change priest – which had been written in such colourless English, it would have genuinely dismayed the woman who was meant to have written it, had she ever seen it.
The letter was meant to be telling us how exciting the new, revamped rag is. What it communicated was how tired it’s become.
If there were 25,000 balls bouncing down the high street of a small market down in the shires, it would tell us Sony is only a bit-player in the LCD TV market.
A leaflet about the power of direct mail with a headline photographed to look like piped icing on chocolate would tell us they are not confident people at Royal Mail. It would reinforce the prejudices of many of its recipients, that direct mail is junk mail. And the client who saved money on production costs, would end up costing the company untold sums.
It is alarming to think that in marketing departments everywhere there are middle-managers convinced their jobs are all about reducing costs.
Remember those eggs? You have to break a few to get breakfast. I’m not arguing that you have to spend large sums to get noticed. Often, the tighter the budget the more ingenious the solution to the problem can be. As the great Dave Trott is said to have growled: “You can spend a fortune gilding a turd but it never stops being the turd it is.”
What I am arguing, though, is that unleashing the procurement rottweillers on every production estimate may not just harm the piece, it can damage the brand.
Making direct mail sexy
With 2007's Chocolate Letter, Royal Mail isn’t just selling its services, it’s selling direct mail itself. Many marketers think direct mail is a little bit tacky. So everything Royal Mail does has to try to combat that prejudice. Almost certainly that means spending money.
Postal services around the world are faced with the same issue. Fascinatingly, pretty much the same client brief that went into Proximity – make direct mail relevant as a business tool to thousands of marketers – went into Hjaltelin in Copenhagen. But it handled it in a completely different way.
CityMail’s proposition was: “If it will go through a letter box, we’ll deliver it.” The agency thought it’d be fun to dramatise that – literally. They rented an empty shop in Copenhagen and inside it began to build a wooden summer house of the sort you find near every beach in Denmark. The plans, the nails, even the paint all got delivered by CityMail posties via the letter box.
Marketers were mailed details of the service and given a url so they could see from a webcam how the building was progressing. Then they were invited to the grand opening of the house.
Again, not cheap. But just as Royal Mail will coyly admit to “around £2 million” in incremental business as a result of Chocolate Letter, a return on investment of about ten to one, City Post says just under 800 marketers were mailed and just under 1,000 went to look at the website.
Beyond that there are few numbers. However, the CEO of CityMail is reported as saying: “We are without doubt working with the best agency in Denmark.” You don’t get CEOs saying that sort of thing if they aren’t completely happy.
We end up, then, repeating the old saw: to wit, in direct mail, as with everything in life, you gets what you pays for.