After 30 years in DRTV today’s video marketing is easy

I’ve enjoyed a front row seat as DRTV evolved from kitchen knives on late night TV to gold bars online but year after year one thing has stayed the same: the formula to success is found in my simple acronym. – SODA. (skip ahead to see it spelled out)

DRTV is a ruthless teacher.  You win no votes for style or cleverness.  If your spot doesn’t convert a viewer into a buyer, you failed.  No matter how great your graphics or how funny your concept, if the CPO doesn’t deliver you cut bait as swiftly as possible. To paraphrase Kyle Reese from The Terminator: “DRTV can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse or fear.”

Today’s digital marketing can borrow liberally from DRTV as it, too, affords precious little room for error. Today you can burn through a budget at light speed … literally.

First some insights and lessons

My love affair with DRTV began in the 80s with Judy the Operator from Time Magazine. She was about to shake up the world of DRTV.

I was a just-out-of-school copywriter for Time Inc’s corporate circulation division.  Our ad agency – Wunderman Ricotta and Klein – created Judy. I was a minor player from the client side helping to pull the creative together.  Judy went on to become a major force in DRTV. She gave Time magazine a Town & Country vehicle in which to hawk unseemly things like free calculators, football phones and deeply discounted offers.  This spawned the term “Judy Wrap” (not an urban beat but a way to ‘wrap’ your offer around your messaging).  The Brooks Brothers gents in ad sales loathed Judy. The calculator-carrying (back when they were separate items) circulation people adored her.  Judy was a Mom with a poofy 80s doo from the Connecticut Junior League who single-handedly morphed DRTV from the slicer/dicer world to the province of respected brands. Lesson #1: offer is king. Especially when dressed like a queen.

The Judy Wrap was my DRTV initiation and since then have planned, created, directed, cut and shipped over 1000 DRTV masters to scores of clients and thousands of TV stations.

Some DRTV Dos and Don’ts

In DRTV your spot either works or it doesn’t so you learn something each time … like if you want to use celebrity talent, be thorough when structuring your compensation offer.  We booked Joe Montana for a Sports Illustrated commercial with a handshake and promise of a modest fee payment. The payment was very reasonable, but Joe’s 3rd wife was not.  She was an actress who wanted to star in the commercial. We casually (and, apparently, cruelly) turned her down. After a near production disaster we later learned it was she who forced Joe to drop out of the spot at midnight, 8 hours before the cameras were set to roll. This left us stranded with a crew, a media schedule to fill and thousands of subscriptions to sell and no quarterback.

We decided the only QB who could replace Joe was Jim McMahon leading to this insane 6am phone call to his agent, Steve Zucker:  “Yea, hi, Jack Maley here from Sports Illustrated.  Would Jim consider being in a commercial for SI?”  Steve replies “Yes, Jim loves SI.”  I press forward, “How about … today? Starting around lunch?”   We were shooting in LA and were prepared to fly Jim in on the next flight from Chicago.  Turns out, Jim was at a celebrity golf tournament … in LA … and was staying at a hotel across the highway from our hotel. The sports – and subscription – gods were with us.  We cut a clever yet McMahon-advantaged fee plus royalty deal and five hours later Jim showed up, sunglasses and all, and did a remarkable job. SI rate base met.

Other lessons that come to mind … 60s clear better than 120s but 120s bring in a better LTV customer … never schedule your shoot when a major snowstorm is due to blanket the city … don’t ask Dick Butkus to do anything that involves bending his knees … at minimum tease your offer upfront  … don’t let a branding agency buy your DR media … cartoons will fail 9 times out of 10 … no time frame performs like the first quarter  … a real person looking straight into camera is the way to go if you have only one shot at making your spot work … most of your viewers aren’t listening, tell your tale with titles … don’t vary from the tried and true when creating spots that sell music – it will fail … humor works as long as it’s, well, funny … “offer builds” work if there’s substance to the build … and always test, test and test some more.

Then came branded DRTV

After working on Time Inc’s famous titles, my first big brand beyond publishing was Fidelity Investments.  In 1987 they had yet to try DRTV and, like all brands, were worried the medium best known for the Chia Pet would sully their image.  So we created a spot where the benefits of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund were presented aggressively enough to make the phones ring but stayed true to the trusted Fidelity brand.  We chose humor to soften the impact of this then-exotic instrument called a “mutual fund.” The approach worked as thousands called toll free to get in on the Peter Lynch-led investment vehicle. (Alas, in every bubble there comes a bursting.  This success begat a follow-up campaign that was stillborn because, on the day we landed in Boston to present the storyboards to Fidelity, the stock market dropped 508 points on what is known as “Black Monday.” There are some things that even brilliant creative can’t overcome.)

HBO, Montgomery Ward, and Bristol-Myers meet Flowbee and the Thigh Master

Once some pioneer brands like HBO, Montgomery Ward, and Tupperware kicked the DRTV door open there was no turning back. Especially when big pharma burst in.  Pharma DTC marketing was rocketing with DRTV a massive part of their lead generation strategy.  They changed everything. DRTV were no longer scarlet letters.  Budgets exploded.

Through the 90s every category got into the act:  telecom with those non-stop MCI friends and family and 1 800 Collect spots, pharma, cable companies, credit cards, insurance … everyone was creating and buying direct response television. The industry boomed and with it came many pretenders, namely branding agencies.

At Time Life we employed the top DRTV media buying experts like Wunderman, Eicoff and Shain Colavito Pensabene. Occasionally an “image agency” like The Richards Group, or Oglivy or Geer Dubois would want to create a spot and, to make a little profit, buy the media.  No doubt there’s real talent at these shops, especially creative.  So the spots were well conceived and executed.   The media buying, on the other hand, was, to quote DJT, a disaster.  In the unforgiving world of remnant time, you can’t beat a hard-core DRTV media buying agency at their game no matter how much “media leverage” you have in the marketplace.  Unless you have daily experience negotiating rates, unless you have the right analytics tools and unless you know where the latest hot stations and markets are, you will fail at buying DRTV.  That lesson alone cost clients millions.

Eventually and inevitably, brand managers for packaged goods companies were soon jumping in with both paws. We created a campaign to help Mars Inc and their Pedigree brand find and serve the new puppy owner.  Across every category, including bug sprays (extermination below), brand managers were either exploring for themselves or being directed by management to “check into direct marketing.” True old school direct marketing is a real challenge for the package goods guys to employ.  They aren’t paid or promoted to recognize the long-term benefits a solid DM program will yield.  It’s also a big cultural shift to go from waving Nielsen ratings in the conference room to anticipating and calculating the lifetime value of a customer.

Video marketing, 2017

To get a profitable response to your online video, lean on these proven insights.  To make it easy, I’ve created …

… An easy-to-remember acronym

With all I’ve seen and heard in the DRTV industry, to have the best chance at DRTV success, think SODA.

SODA … Story

“Everything begins with a story.” Quincy Jones told me one evening over dinner at his house.  Robert Blake had just finished his soup and went home leaving us with his jaw-dropping story to carry us through dinner.  It’s the same with music, with film and with advertising:  start with a great story. Even if you have just 15 seconds, be sure there’s a riveting story at the heart of the spot.  The story can be the frustration felt by Verizon customers who then had an epiphany and switched to Sprint … or one about parents being able to send their kids to college because Fidelity Investments helped them save for it … or about retirees who successfully pulled off a reverse mortgage and now live cash-rich and worry-free. Always tell a good story.

SODA … Offer

Your offer must elicit “Wow!”

Your job is to have the viewer, while sunk into the sofa in a sugar haze, say to him/herself, “Seriously, how can they give away that much?”  If your offer doesn’t do this, you begin the DRTV process with one big hand tied behind your back.  Push the client to create the most compelling offer they can.  Test offers.  Test crazy offers.  You just may be shocked at how high a crazy offer can lift your response rate to pay for said crazy offer.

SODA … Demo

With video at your disposal, there’s never a better time to show your product.  Shake dat video.

Video is the most dramatic medium for demonstrating anything. So show it in action. Do circus tricks with it.  Animate it.  If it’s a service you offer like a wireless or cable connection, an insurance policy or a medication, use people and/or vignettes to do your demo work.  There’s always a way to show your stuff.  But show it.

SODA … Action

The old call to action.  This doesn’t simply mean to say, “Call or go online now!” as many times as possible.   Or make the URL flash in big yellow type.  Yes, you need to tell them what to do but you have to give them a good reason to do it and do it now. Like with an expiring offer, or maybe the time is now because of external circumstances (tax day is near, holiday season, legislation in congress may soon take this away).

Oh, one more acronym:  KISS.  Keep it simple, stupid.  Don’t feel compelled to amortize the cost of every second of airtime by packing in as many features and benefits as possible. As Salieri told Mozart, “There are simply too many notes. I can speak for the Emperor. You make too many demands on the royal ear.”

No matter what the media, at the core of a successful marketing campaign, is a great idea, well executed, with hands wrapped tightly around a SODA.