Only Trust Professionals – and Other Lessons From the NFL

I’m not even a big football fan, but I could certainly relate to the pain felt by the Saints when that last minute touchdown call was ruled against them. Of course the problem was with the inexperienced referees, called in when the professionals went out on strike. The same blame game is used when a direct marketing campaign goes awry. The client’s pointing its finger at the agency for its work/ideas, while the agency’s pointing its finger at the client for its direction/changes.

I’m not even a big football fan, but I could certainly relate to the pain felt by the Saints when that last minute touchdown call was ruled against them. Of course the problem was with the inexperienced referees, called in when the professionals went out on strike.

The same blame game is used when a direct marketing campaign goes awry. The client’s pointing its finger at the agency for its work/ideas, while the agency’s pointing its finger at the client for its direction/changes.

A successful direct marketing campaign is comprised of many complex facets—and it takes knowledge, experience and expertise to execute it flawlessly.

Despite the fact that many agencies claim complete integration and global knowledge, the reality is they often talk a good strategic game, but when handed a DM assignment, the executional details are left to the inexperienced.

I’ve received several calls recently from colleagues who want me to “help their agency” with the direct mail portion of a campaign. Not the strategy or the creative (their agency won’t let anyone touch that golden egg), but the list. It seems the agency doesn’t know the first thing about lists … and had been trying to sell the client something found on the internet from an unknown supplier.

That’s like asking the NFL referee to make the call on the Saints interference, but not on the Seahawks touchdown. The two are inexplicably entwined.

So I am asking, no begging, that clients identify and leverage agency partners based on their specialty. Spend your time understanding what skills are truly in the agency’s wheelhouse—and not a “sure, we can do that too!” skill. If the agency specializes in branding, then that’s what they’re probably very, very good at … and if it specializes in digital marketing (kind of a broad skill, but whatever), then ask them for help with your digital needs.

Good direct marketing agencies understand how to step back and think about your marketing needs based on your business goals and objectives. They delve deep into target audience research, trying to understand the audience mindset and identify key messages that will resonate and motivate a response. They may, in fact, recommend that you don’t use email (horrors!) or direct mail (gasp!) in your campaign mix for a variety of reasons, including the inability to find blue-eyed, left handed crane operators in any meaningful quantity that would make sense.

Good direct marketing agencies know how to source lists that are compiled from reputable sources. And they know how to evaluate those lists, identify the potential winners, and set up an unbiased test matrix to test and learn from a statistically valid sample size.

Good direct marketing agencies know how to design a campaign that will yield the desired response from the target. They’ll have solid rationale as to why a #10 package makes sense instead of a postcard, or why a three-panel self-mailer doesn’t make sense—even though your brand agency designed one that was “cool.” Or why an email shouldn’t consist of product images, or have a Subject line that’s longer than 40 characters.

Good direct marketing agencies know how to write compelling teasers, headlines, subheads, Johnson Boxes, P.S.’s and body copy based on years of testing and experience. They know how to leverage customer quotes, and the difference between a brochure, a buckslip, and a lift note.

Good direct marketing agencies don’t pick an offer because it sounds like fun, or because the client wants to get rid of the pile of chachkies in the warehouse. Their recommendations for offers is based on a deep understanding of what can motivate a target, an evaluation of the ROI model, and in-depth experience based on years of testing.

So if you view direct marketing as a skill set that can be handled by the temporary ref, then let your branding agency take charge. But if you want real results, bring in the pros.