Why Big Brand Agencies Hate Direct Marketing (and Big Data Loves it!)

By Robert Ian French

If you’ve ever heard advertising types trash-talking direct marketing, especially after a margarita or six, you know the fear and loathing they often harbor towards the world of direct, measurable and accountable advertising.

When pushed to explain their disdain, they toss around clichés about the importance of “not being a slave to numbers (data be damned!)”, “cutting through the chaos” – and, my personal favorite – “following your gut”.

It almost makes me weep on my spreadsheet.

Of course, it’s nonsense. What really irks them is not the supposed lack of creative freedom in direct marketing; it’s the fact that the mountains of measurable data which expose the true effectiveness of any given ad campaign clearly show that many of their assumptions and beliefs about advertising are wrong. Very wrong.

What assumptions and beliefs am I referring to?

Take the following quote – lifted from the prestigious digital pages of Inc. Magazine is an article remarkably titled, The 12 Habits of Successful Marketing Executives. According to its author, John Rampton, successful marketing executives need to understand that consumers want advertising “that looks like regular content, is entertaining and informative, and has nary a sell in sight.”

Nary a sell in sight! Wow! How naïve is that? Let me count the ways.

Selling It Short (or Not Selling at All)

First, anyone who has ever done any reasonable amount of testing, or run even one focus group, knows that what consumers say they want versus what actually motivates them to purchase are two completely different things.

Of course, consumers say they want advertising that’s entertaining, exciting, sexy and fun. I do too! But the truth is – entertaining, exciting, sexy and fun advertising doesn’t motivate consumers to buy. Unless, of course, they’re buying something exciting, sexy and fun like a new Porsche, the latest 3D flat screen, or a death-defying Jurassic Park Adventure Cruise.

When it comes to buying your common, everyday product – the products most of us marketers sell day in and day out – consumers don’t want or crave entertainment. They want information. This should be obvious, given the fact that the very first step almost all consumers take before they buy is research the very product or service they’re looking to purchase.

They price shop online, read reviews and solicit recommendations from friends and family. Hell, they even do crazy, unimaginably boring things like compare features and benefits. Sometimes, they even summon the nerve to ask about price. Can you imagine?

What this means for direct marketers: if you have a product that has multiple features and benefits that are better than your competitors’, and you really want people to buy your product instead of your competitors’, then guess what? That’s right. You have to actually communicate that information to the consumer. In other words, you have to sell.

Education Over Entertainment

Second, consumers will never buy your product or service because they think your advertising is cool. They buy because they think your product or service can benefit them in some way. And that is a very different thing.

Mr. Rampton’s confusion is understandable. The idea that you must “entertain” consumers in order to sell them something is an enduring myth of brand advertising. It is also, as every direct marketer worth their bonus check knows, misguided. People who are shopping for insurance, mutual funds, a new mortgage, a hot tub, an affordable flight to Europe, or the right daycare for their toddler don’t want to be entertained – they want to be educated!

In a word, they want information that is relevant.

Of course, any information should be presented in an interesting and engaging manner, with logic and credibility, to allow the consumer to make an informed purchasing decision.

But, that doesn’t mean they want dancing ducks.

Third, Mr. Rampton’s assertion that advertising should “look like regular content” implies consumers don’t understand that commercials are created with the sole purpose of selling them things.

Really? Does anyone truly believe that making your advertising look like “regular content” is going to fool people into thinking your message is any more credible?

Direct Advertising is Valuable (and Measurable)

Consumers are not mindless idiots – they know exactly what advertising is trying to do. These people are your family, friends and colleagues. And guess what? Most consumers enjoy commercials. Of course, they get bored seeing the same commercial over and over, but as a general rule, consumers find advertising a valuable way to learn about new products.

No offense whatsoever to Mr. Rampton – as I’m sure he’s a very nice man – but frankly, his philosophy is flawed.

Of course, if he used direct marketing – if he tracked, measured and optimized by adapting creative and media based on how well consumers respond – he would know that the Kool-Aid he is selling won’t help you sell anything to anyone.

But, the truth is that most big brand agencies don’t really want to measure, track and optimize their clients’ campaigns. Nor do some CMOs. It is a scary proposition to see the apple cart of assumptions and irrelevant awards topple over.

And that is why they dislike direct marketing so much.

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