How Digital Marketing Can Help Reinvent Direct Marketing

And Why the Apprentice Has Become the Teacher

By Published on .

Mat Zucker
Mat Zucker
Early interactive advertising was a first-rate apprentice of direct marketing, picking up tailored messaging, testing and accountability, as well as nurturing leads and closing the sale. Digital has become, of course, more creative and experiential, even usurping innovation -- once the exclusive province of advertising.

While digital keeps reinventing itself -- more exciting in the culture and more important in marketing -- traditional direct is stuck in the limits of a one-to-one model created and perfected for a previous age. It sends you stuff it guesses you want. If you don't respond, it sends you something else. Admittedly, it is stuck for good reason: We've put frequency and cadence ahead of the creative idea to persuade.

Direct seems to need two significant transitions: the evolution of predictable one-way communication to looser and modern two-way dialogue and, closer to my heart, the reintroduction of creative vitality.

The role of creative -- ideas that cut through and help a customer decide on a product -- seems to be a low priority in the face of all the analytics, if one at all. This wasn't always true. Creative persuasion is a hallmark of good response. Remember David Ogilvy's opening line in the letter for American Express? "Quite frankly, the American Express Card is not for everyone." When's the last time you were positively provoked to respond? That one letter connected with millions of prospects and worked for more than a decade.

Digital has some answers. Interactive has been through the meat grinder -- tested, debated and derided. Digital has exposed the worst and most annoying direct tactics: Repetition. Pop-ups. Dancing fish. But what we know from our digital experiences in the past 15-plus years, we really do know. When we run DRTV for a product, for example, we see online searches for it shoot up. We can see what works in real time and adapt the work in hours.

So here, then, are some thoughts on how digital can help reinvent direct:

1. Audacity works. The bold, irresistible idea needs to reassert itself in the work. I'd argue that last year's Whopper Freakout and this year's Yellow Pages Yellow Tree Restaurant (New Zealand) are among the best branded-promotion/direct-response/public-relations campaigns. They were product-focused, broke through and changed the rules.

2. Design it to be shareable. Detachability of content and the widespread adoption of social networks have made it easy for fans to share. Most direct is still not shareable. We had great success recently with a Mother's Day promotion for Kodak. Driven by a viral video, consumers had the chance to create a free Mother's Day card on the Kodak Gallery site. Not only did consumers share what they created, but it gave Kodak the opportunity to remind customers about the benefits of the Kodak Gallery. Many have called pass-along "social currency"-- after all, it's more powerful than getting $2 off.

3. Be less direct. This will be hard for people who don't date. When fostering a customer relationship, every e-mail or text does not need to be a full-on solicitation. In too much direct, we try one offer, and if that doesn't work, offer another. Modern direct can think more loosely and long-term: You can shepherd a conversation, which leads to places you didn't plan on going. From experiences in e-mail newsletters to webisodes (good and awful), digital has learned how to have two-way conversations that sustain for weeks or years.

4. Eliminate waste. Little-brother digital can ward you off wasteful boondoggles such as shortsighted promotions where the data are never used again. You can skip steps to sell. Lego Codes (Germany) let you take a mobile photo of a Lego code, decode it and order that box set. Direct has plenty of waste to deal with, such as DRTV developed without an online-video plan, freestanding inserts and the unremarkable No. 10 envelope.

5. Update DRTV for the video age. Digital can teach DRTV to be more efficient, shareable, dynamic and interactive. "The Great Schlep" for Obama tackled worry with action and could be this year's best example. And just because it's on the web doesn't make it interactive. Direct can teach digital how to create video that actually helps people decide, not merely earn votes on YouTube. We need to reinvent DRTV as DRV (direct-response video) for the digital age, and do volumes and volumes of it.

Mat Zucker is senior partner, executive creative director of OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York. Follow him on Twitter or join the conversation at
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