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Interview for ARAB AD MAGAZINE March 2009

In a world where people stopped believing in direct marketing, and where such a thing is synonymous to over-cluttered mailboxes, how come you are still such a staunch defendant of it?

Where on earth did you get such dinosaur views? Stopped believing in DM?


There is more budget going in DM these days than ever before.

And the reason is simple. It works. When written and created by people who understand the medium, it will deliver a better return on investment than any other medium. I know, because I prove it every day…

Clients are getting fed up of media wastage and mass marketing stupidity. It has never made sense to ‘market to everyone to get to someone’. And it never will.

What’s more, given the pressures that marketers are facing with budgets now, you will see DM become even more popular. Smart clients recognise that all their activity has to be measurable and accountable – and only DM can give them this.

In a recent interview you state that "I happen to have a talent for writing copy that sells and originating creative that attracts and influences. One to one communication is a massive challenge for a writer." Can you elaborate more on this issue?

Writing to an individual is the ultimate challenge. Yet very few people know how to do it well.

When a brief comes in, we discuss it and when I sit down to write the copy, I have a pen picture in my head of the person I am writing to. I then look at the product or service I am selling for the client and find the main benefit – the real ‘nugget’ that I believe the recipient will find the most interesting.

And I lead with that.

There are many other ‘rules’ and techniques that are then applied. You see, direct marketing copywriters deal in primitive human psychology and attack the very root of human motivation.

Much has been written about the different approaches and cultures of traditional advertising and marketing with that of direct marketing. There is a wide gulf between the two disciplines and approach.

In copywriting terms that gulf is a chasm. Direct response copywriters are salesmen. Copywriters in traditional advertising agencies and marketing companies are storytellers.

That’s why traditional ad agencies cannot create effective DM. They don’t even understand the culture, let alone the technique. That’s why when they try, they inevitably make a real dog’s breakfast of it - and end up wasting their client’s money.

You have invented some interesting statistics: "85% of all advertising and marketing is invisible, because it is so badly done. 14% of all advertising and marketing is extremely poor - either unattractive, stupid, patronizing or demeaning. The remaining 1% is terrific work." So, how does one climb up to the famous 1%?

By studying the art of communication - and understanding what works and what doesn’t. The only way anyone gets better at what they do in this crazy business, is by studying and learning from people who are better than they are.

I am amazed by the naiveté I see out there and the lack of knowledge when it comes to creating selling messages. And it is worse in the Middle East than anywhere else.

When I get on the plane to come down to Dubai on my regular visit, I pull out the in-flight magazine and I’ll get, on average, at least 6 ads that are simply laughable.

Basic errors are everywhere. Ads with headlines over the pictures instead of under: big blocks of copy reversed out, white out of black, which has a hugely reduced comprehension level: ineffective headlines with ‘clever’ phrases rather than ‘stoppers’: badly written copy that neither connects nor influences.

I shared a load of them with the delegates at my Masterclass in Dubai a few weeks ago. And so many people came up to me afterwards and agreed that the quality of work in the Gulf is so poor.

Who are the idiots that are creating this stuff and why are clients signing them off?

I stress to anyone that cares to listen, that there are so many great things to discover in our business if you just care to study. The work of the greats - Caples, Hopkins and Ogilvy, plus current legends like Joe Sugarman, Murray Raphel, Herschell Gordon Lewis and the irrepressible Drayton Bird are available to all.

Everyone must remember this. Times change, but people don’t.

How we react to selling messages, is pretty much the same now as it was in the 20’s and 30’s.

In one of your famous analogies, you state: "Let's say that a bath is full of water. The water level represents your customers. The objective is to raise the level of the water (to increase the number of customers). But, despite water coming in, the level stays the same or gets lower. You can't understand it. It makes no sense. The reason this is happening is simple. Someone has forgotten to put the plug in the bath. Put the plug in - and hey presto - the water level starts to rise. Good direct marketing to existing customers, is that plug for your bath." OK, so how do we go about plugging the bath?

That’s simple. Turn your attention to existing customers instead of getting new ones. It is far, far easier to sell to an existing customer than it is to get a new one.

And, in a downturn, this is even more relevant. I know, because I’ve been in two previous recessions. When things get tough, it’s your existing customers that will keep you warm. Forget them at your peril.

Yet, even though we know this, most companies are spending, on average, over 7 times more on getting a new customer, than on the one they already have.

It is total lunacy…

That customer has cost a lot of money to acquire. So, treat that customer as if they were gold dust. Because that’s what they are.

Talk to them regularly. If you don’t mail your customers at least 6 times a year, you are missing a massive opportunity. You must always include an offer.

And make it genuinely exclusive. An offer that only they can get. The rest of the general public cannot. This creates real value.

Finally, don’t forget to tell them how much you love them. People are like hearts – they go where they are appreciated…

The recent trend has been to profile people not through the classical demographic approach, but through some wider psycho-demographic way... How does this apply to direct marketing in your own understanding of the medium?

The tighter the targeting, the better the results.

Take a simple demographic overlay like the area that people live, then segregate into male and female, apply filters for young and old, past purchasing behaviour, salary details and many more elements - and you create micro markets.

A simple example like that - means you can write to all individuals in these micro markets differently - and you will generate more sales.

The closer you can get to your audience, the more they will find your approach relevant and interesting.

Sending the same message out to everyone is as dumb as you can get.

Smart direct marketers know that customers are not born equal. They also know that the secret of success these days, is to market on the differences of people, not their similarities.

And, only proven direct marketing techniques will allow you to do that…

Interview with Andy Owen
Birmingham, UK
March 16th 2009




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