Choose the right design team for your direct mail creative (a primer)


When clients come to me with questions about starting a catalog and/or direct mail program, invariably the subject of creative development comes up. This is the question: Should it be handled by their internal creative department (despite its limited knowledge of direct development), their agency (which really knows the business) or someone else entirely?

My answer is always this: Choose designers who specifically know the mail order market. Why? Consider the following: Catalogs/mailers accustomed to generating sales via mail/internet ordering are a very different animal from a branding vehicle. They may look similar, but companies that create mail order catalogs and direct mail know exactly how to leverage creative that not only builds their brands, but also sells product. That’s the key difference. What looks simple is actually highly specialized and technical.

Beautiful doesn’t always sell. Direct mail design companies know how to generate sales for a couple of reasons:

  1. They understand the key drivers of stimulating response.
  2. They understand the budgetary constraints that separate mail order from brand building.

How to Start, Who to Choose
If you’re entering the direct mail arena for the first time, you’ll likely have a limited testing budget and no time to figure out how to build mail order creative on your own.

A catalog-specific or direct marketing agency, especially one with specific knowledge in your category, should be a core member of your team. Start by contacting a number of these creative agencies and invite them to develop creative concepts for you. You’ll immediately see who gets your business and who doesn’t based on their comps.

In choosing an agency, look for one that does all facets of the production process, from photography to layout and design, and even pre-press (or pre-media, as it’s often called now). That gives the agency a major stake in the process and provides you with complete accountability.

You’ll also see a wide range of prices for building your catalog or direct mail piece. Gauge the price/performance ratio of direct marketing. Remember this as you review pricing: Every penny more your mailer costs per unit, you need to generate 2 cents more in sales. And don’t skimp on design. A good design company can help you balance this out.

Direct mail serves a strategic purpose. Do the math up front to calculate your break-even points and projected P&Ls. Don’t get so hooked on the creative that it takes on a life of its own. Photo shoots and design are the “sexy” side of the business, but you make your money based on targeting the right product to the right market, and then building creative to speak to that market in a manner that sells.

Thus, I implore you to remember the 40/40/20 rule. Lists and offers (merchandise) make up a combined 80 percent of the potential impact you can have on your direct marketing efforts, while creative comprises only 20 percent.

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