Lessons from 30 years in DRTV

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 lean times makes this a particularly valuable lesson as there is precious little room for failure.

My career began in a recession.  As I sat in my first office on the 30th floor of the Time Life Building in midtown Manhattan overlooking Radio City Music Hall, I could watch the silent buzz of the city 300 feet below.  On the minds of all those little dots down below were the Ayatollah Khomeini and his “students” as they held American hostages, interest rates which were at a Sopranoesque 20% and even Prince Charles was in the news as he had just checked into a Florida hospital with a serious sunburn (which, today, has likely developed into skin cancer).  The year was 1980 and Judy the Operator from Time Magazine was about to shake up the world of DRTV.

Judy was my first DRTV experience as a young copywriter for Time Inc’s corporate circulation division.  The 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 neat, sanitary vehicle in which to hawk unseemly things like premiums and 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 draped gentlemen in ad sales loathed Judy. The calculator-carrying circulation people adored her.  Judy was like Billy Mays with a poofy 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.

The Judy experience launched me into DRTV and for 30 years I have planned, created, directed, cut and shipped over 800 DRTV masters to scores of clients and hundreds 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 creative 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 be in the commercial. We unwittingly turned her down. Through some SI arm-twisting 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. We suddenly had a crew, a media schedule to fill and thousands of subscriptions to sell and no quarterback.

We figured 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 random lessons that come to mind … 60s clear better than 120s but 120s bring in a better 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 … Bob Vila, Fran Tarkenton and David Oreck can sell anything … a real person looking straight into camera is the way to go if you have only one shot at making your spot work … don’t assume your viewer is listening, tell your tale with titles too … Lyle Alzado was a sunny soul and there’s no way those massive pipes were natural … 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 I was the Creative Director at Kobs & Brady in Chicago (just bought by Bates who was then swallowed by Saatchi) when a pre-world domination Howard Draft snagged a DRTV assignment from Fidelity Investments.  To my knowledge they had never tried 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.  In a sign of making it to the adult’s table, DRTV spots were now regularly shot on 35MM film.

Through the 90s every category got into the act:  telecom like those non-stop MCI friends and family and 1 800 Collect spots, pharma, Internet IPs, 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 a disaster every time.  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 calculating the lifetime value of a customer hunched over a spreadsheet.

But online advertising is rapidly changing the game.  Online advertising IS direct marketing in hipper clothing.   The next few years will see DRTV migrate online and to your mobile. But despite the fancy digital tools and tactics the core principles of success will remain the same.

Wrap it up, Jack.  Give me an easy-to-remember acronym

Well, combining my direct experience over the past 120 quarters with what I’ve seen and heard throughout the 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 a 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 30 or 60 seconds, be sure there’s a riveting story at the heart of the spot.  The story can be the frustration felt by Verizon DSL customers who then had an epiphany and switched to Road Runner … 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 an incredible offer can lift your response rate to pay for said crazy offer.

SODA … Demo

At the risk of sounding like Professor Obvious, TV spots are shown on TV. Many people forget this. Or don’t take full advantage of it.

Video is the most dramatic medium for demonstrating your product. 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.”

Recessions will come and go, times get fat and lean, but always, at the core of it all, is a great idea, well executed.  (With a real DRTV media buying agency placing your spots!)