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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5 Responses

  1. Yes yes, yes!

    And it gets even more specific once you dig in.

    For example, this year we had a catalog client who employs “designers’ who are not strategic – they just do pretty stuff, but it does not sell very well.

    This year, they decided to try to get some sales rolling in and after hearing me talk about direct mail, they had their own people do a self mailer.

    It was so ‘soft’, it flat-lined. Had they spent a few dollars to have me do it for them, they would have had a profitable piece. instead, they saved a few thou, and then lost about $65,000 in printing and postage.

    Now they think direct mail doesn’t work. Well, it doesn’t work, in the hands of the inexperienced. I would have led them to a good offer strategy, and used language and design that called for response… and it would have paid for them to do it. Heartbreaking!

    Bottom line: just because someone knows how to use InDesign, Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop, it does not mean they can create a winner for you in the mail. Ask in advance for case histories, response numbers, and track record. Hire a pro.

    P.S. Also consider – the best salesmen can sell anything. A solid DM creative can create effective mail for whatever widget or service you have, even if they’ve never done that widget before.

    I see more folks hiring a mediocre talent just because they did work in that particular field, thinking that an ‘outsider’ can never figure it out. But it simply is not so. Consider that my first computer plotter catalog.. we literally doubled their response! i didn’t even know what a plotter was when i first met with the client. Strong DM creatives are hungry knowledge-seekers and learn quickly what’s important to your customer!

  2. I love it when Carol speaks! Thanks for adding to the discussion!

    • I want to add my support for what both you and Carol have said, Jim. As you can imagine, the direct mail medium and it’s success with marketers is of the utmost importance to the United States Postal Service. We know that when a new mailer gets connected to a professional who knows the unique territory of direct mail, vis a vis other direct response or simply digital media, they invariably have success. When the program falls into the wrong hands, however, and people no longer test or give credence to the basics – the result often causes program disruption, frantic experimentation and loss of business. It is rare when one finds a medium that is timeless, timely and present-in-the-moment as soon as it is held in the hand of your targeted recipient. The knowledge to make it work like a well-tuned engine is out there and it is the result of years of detailed testing and measuring. The responsible marketer must make sure they tap into it. There’s too much money left on the table if they don’t do so.

      • Thank you Doug. If you would like to write a guest article on this subject please contact me.

  3. Don’t forget to include your printer/mailer. I had a client submit art this morning for a digital job. The postage doubled with the layout they presented.

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