Accountable TV ads: Direct gets respect

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Move over gadgets and gizmos. Big brands and big ad spenders are using direct-response TV.

Marketers' focus on the bottom line and return on investment is making accountable and measurable media paramount, and the advertising world acknowledges the place for direct marketing in the communications mix. But direct-response TV is often misunderstood.

"If they're just putting an 800-number up there and hoping someone will call, and not making it trackable or accountable, then it's not really DRTV," said Ron Bliwas, president-CEO of Chicago-based A. Eicoff & Co., the direct-response TV unit of WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, whose clients include Allstate, IBM Corp. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. "Our creative not only has to sell, but it has to enhance the brand," said Mr. Bliwas, adding that Eicoff's work for Sears mirrors general-TV ads from Ogilvy and WPP sibling Y&R Advertising.

It works

And because it sells, it works. "Through DRTV you're able to tell which percentage of your advertising isn't working," said Gerald Bagg, president of direct-response TV media buyer Blagman-Century Media, Santa Monica, Calif., a unit of Blagman Media International. "If John Wanamaker knew that DRTV existed, he would have been a rich man."

The difference between direct-response and traditional TV is the way the media is purchased, making it a cheaper alternative to general-rate ads. Direct-response TV can be pre-empted; its rate is based on an ad-to-sales ratio; and it is measurable.

First, because direct-response time is not guaranteed, buyers can negotiate relatively low prices with sellers who don't want to leave any inventory unsold. As such, direct-response marketers usually buy a rotation, such as a two-hour window, not a specific time slot.

"Because we're willing to run at any time within a [time] block, the station is prepared to give us a discount" that could run anywhere from 10% to 70% off the standard rates, Mr. Bagg said.

Second, direct-response media is measured on a cost-per-order or cost-per-lead basis, instead of cost-per-thousand viewers; marketers aim for the lowest price necessary to generate a lead or make a sale. Therefore, TV events like the Super Bowl or NBC's Thursday night "Must See TV"-although coveted by general-media buyers-are ignored by their direct-response cousins.

"DRTV usually works better in those programs that people are watching because they're bored. The higher the rating doesn't necessarily mean the better response; it's almost the inverse," Mr. Bliwas said.

Finally, direct-response media can be tracked to determine which ads and time slots perform best, enabling marketers to change the schedule accordingly. Some direct-response TV specialists think the medium's measurability leads general-agency creatives-not accustomed to being judged on sales-to fear it, but others think Madison Avenue gets it.

"The fissure between direct-response advertising and traditional advertising is less so today than it was five years ago," said Tony Kerry, VP-marketing for direct-response TV production agency Script to Screen, Santa Ana, Calif., which has worked with agencies including Interpublic Group of Cos.' Bozell and McCann-Erickson. "There's a general progression by agencies and traditional marketers to treat direct-response as part of the mix."

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