The Bad Ad project (www.badad.co.uk) ran for a year, had over 200 contributors from the world of direct mail, and produced four conclusions.
- First that simply by recording all the direct mail that arrived at specific business and home addresses we could see that most junk mail is, well, junk. B2B direct mailed turned out to be far worse than B2C – but there was some awful B2C stuff out there as well.
- Second, that the simplest way to stop one’s own adverts descending into the junk domain is to get an outsider to take a look and tell you what’s wrong.
- Third, that certain well-established methodologies (mailmerge is the most obvious example) are recipes for disaster, and by and large reduce response rates rather than raise them.
- Fourth, there must be some particular factor at work beyond Advertiser Denial to explain why advertisers continue to put out such appalling junk.
Prior to the start of the Bad Ad project we (the Creative Team at Hamilton House Mailings) launched a free advertising review service. Advertisers submitted their adverts to us and we reviewed them free of charge. In undertaking the reviews we only asked one question – what sort of response rates the customer was getting? (And to be clear, we only asked after we had delivered our judgment – although sometimes advertisers told us without our asking.)
What we found was a correlation between what we saw as advertising which the University of Wales and the University College London research suggested would be a flop, and that actual results we were given. We reviewed around 500 adverts during the year in this way and the correlation was perfect around 95% of the time. What the theory suggested would fail, generally did fail. (We have some explanations as to what happened in the 5% of cases that slipped outside the net – and we’ll come back to that later.)
But we also found something else – something that only became obvious as we discussed with people what we thought of their advertisements. Something that further explained why advertisers kept on sending out poor adverts even when we showed them that they were almost certain to fail. We called it…
The XZ Theory of Direct Mail
On the surface it would seem that there should not be much bad direct mail sent out at all. After all direct mail is the most responsive of all advertising. You post 100 letters and you get some sales. If you get fewer than you need there is something wrong, and you need to go back and change the copy or the mailing list or the time of year and try again. It’s dead simple.
And yet many people don’t seem to do this at all. They produce rubbish, and then produce more. If it doesn’t work they blame direct mail, rather than the copy. It is as if they have taken Einstein’s view (that doing something that fails and then doing it again and again is a sure sign of madness) as a blueprint for how to behave rather than a way of spotting people who need psychiatric help.
Our hypothesis is that most direct mail advertisers can be placed on what we call the XZ Axis of Direct Mail. Someone at the X end of the axis is totally concerned with their response rate against cost. They would do anything, make any change, undertake any experiment, if it could lead to higher response rates without higher costs. This is the commercial end of the spectrum with no holds barred. At the extreme end the advertiser cares nothing for the Advertising Standards Authority, Trading Standards, morality, decency or anything else.
Of course few people exist at the very extreme X end. But there are quite a few who tend towards the X end while still retaining a slightly more balanced approach to life. Such people…
- Differentiate themselves from their work – thus a criticism of their advertising is not taken as a criticism of themselves or their product – and so discussions about their adverts tend to be open and frank even when critical.
- Are not only open to change but make time for change and recognize the need to change.
- Hold a belief that others can offer insights and that outsiders are indeed willing to be helpful without necessarily having some dastardly underhand motive. (That is to say, they don’t say things like, “If this idea was any good he/she wouldn’t be telling me about it.”)
At the Z end of the continuum there are people for whom the key issue is not primarily the response rate at all, but it is instead their own integrity, their own self-esteem. They identify closely with the product and feel criticism of the product and its adverts as being criticisms of themselves – criticisms they find hard to take. If it is a choice between sales and their reputation they will defend their reputation every time. These people…
- Identify their work with themselves, such that a criticism of their advertising or their product is taken as a personal attack, and has to be rebutted rather than accepted.
- Are distrustful of change. Of course all of us accept change at some level but Z people often find ways of deflecting change by appearing to accept it but then not engaging in it. Sometimes they reject the need for this change in particular (while saying, “of course no one welcomes change more than I do”), or express doubts about whether this change has been thought through well enough.
- Hold a belief that others have no right or ability to offer insights and that anyone offering critical insight has some sort of ulterior motive.
- Distrust almost everyone. Thus they will reject the option of asking another to review their advertising on the grounds that “as soon as he sees it he will steal the idea and do it himself.”
Between the X and Z extremes there lies a continuum which represents people’s views of the process of marketing and of the people involved in that business. Those in the middle are, as you will have guessed, at the Y position – they balance their views of themselves and their need for higher sales, their willingness to take a risk with their desire to stick with the known, and so on.
In short at one end of the spectrum are people for whom business and the psyche are separated, such that one can say, “your advert is awful” and the individual will reply, “please tell me how and why – I would love to put it to rights and make more money”. While at the other end of the spectrum are people who will never willingly submit an advert for review, and if they find someone doing a critique they will issue statements such as “what gives you the right to say that?” and “what you are saying is slanderous.”
People with a high sense of commerce, and a high level of self-esteem tend towards the X end of the axis, but they will often move along the axis when faced with moral, political or religious issues that they feel to be relevant. The response, “That form of advertising might make us more money, but I just feel very uncomfortable with this approach,” reveals a person moving along from the X end (the commercial/co-operative view) towards the Y position, half way along. Indeed as I have suggested there is a good argument to say that we should be cautious of X people – for they would appear to have no access to any over-arching reference system – no moral, religious or political beliefs that might temper the excesses of their advertising. For what it is worth I feel that somewhere between X and Y there is a position which brings in high response rates without entering into a rather repulsive amoral world of the X extreme, nor the no-risk, no change, trust no-one approach that you tend to bump into towards the Z extreme.
The effect of the X Y Z continuum
The hypothesis is that advertisers who have failed to grasp the findings of teams such as those at Bangor University and University College London tend to bunch towards the Z end of the spectrum. These people are often producing advertising that doesn’t work very well, and they drift into Advertiser Denial. Since they identify directly with their own advertising and with their own products, they take criticism personally and are resistant to significant levels of change – which reinforces the need for the denial. They could change and adopt different approaches, but their personalities lead them elsewhere.
This fact has two interesting effects. One is that as competitors to you they are doing you a great favour, for quite obviously they are doing themselves down all the time. If you are in competition with someone who exists towards the Z end of the axis, and you are lurking around the XY midpoint, you can rest assured that your rival will go on putting out poor adverts, while you can change and change again until you find exactly the right sort of advertising to overcome your competitor.
The second is that because Z type advertisers are flooding the advertising channels with endless amounts of junk, they are making recipients less and less likely to read your advertising – because they become less likely to read all advertising. It’s not your fault – it’s their fault – but you have to live with the consequences – which is why the work cited at the start of this review is so important. You need to find a way to overcome the Advertising Overload.
The advantage of being an XY Type
Midpoint XY-Type companies, like XY people have a number of characteristics that most of us find rather alluring. They tend to be warm, open, giving, kind, supportive, helpful, personable, friendly, outward-looking, lively, fun, and understanding. By and large most of us like such people – what we don’t like are people and companies who show the opposite characteristics.
Which leads to a couple of obvious conclusions – in your advertising you have to show people that yours is a midpoint XY type company and you are a midpoint XY person. Above everything else you have to differentiate yourself from the Z Type opposition and make it utterly clear that you are not like them.
This also means that if you ever feel that your company has the wrong sort of image among its potential customers, the easiest way to deal with this is to slide yourself along the XYZ continuum until you occupy a place closer to the XY midpoint.
Raising your response rates as a midpoint XY company
Midpoint XY companies do four things to raise their response rates.
- They set up systems that constantly review their own advertising, both internally and externally, taking note of current research into how people view advertising.
- They study what their competitors are doing and ensure that their advertising instantly stands out from their rivals.
- They accept that most direct advertising is awful, and that their advertising has to be seen through the haze and fog of rubbish that their rivals are putting out – as predicted by the Overload Theory.
- They work out where they currently stand on the XYZ continuum and draw up plans for ways of moving themselves across to the XY midpoint. Just to make sure this is clear – Y is the midpoint between the X (amoral, lets make a profit no matter what) and Z (my advertising is wonderful and no one is going to tell me it’s not) extremes. Our view is that the ideal position is half way between this Y point and the X extreme.
Reviewing your adverts
The Creative Direct newsgroup, and the www.Mailing.org.uk web site are operated specifically for companies that would like to be half way between points X and Y on the XYZ continuum. They exist to create environments that allow us to exchange advertising ideas with each other, and which in turn allow us to find fellow advertisers who will critically review our adverts and they exist to encourage debate into contemporary advertising theory.
In addition you can…
1. Send in your own advert to be reviewed privately. Email it to Creative@mailing.org.uk as a pdf file or a Word document. Alternatively fax it to 01536 399 012. Please write “Mailing review” at the top of the communication. If you are in the UK, and if you give your phone number, one of us will call you back and discuss your ad with you. The conversation will be confidential – it will never be written up or referred to on the news group, web site or anywhere else. If you don’t supply a phone number (or if you are outside the UK) we will email you back our comments.
2. Tell at least one person about the news group and the web site. The level of work we are putting into this is only worthwhile if a lot of people read the site and the group. And those of us involved in evolving this theory and its practical applications need people to be interested, otherwise apart from their being no point, we won’t know if we are on to something or not.
3. If you would like to find someone other than the operators of the group and the web site to review your material join the news group and then send in a request for a reviewer. If the theory is correct and this group is full of midpoint XY people running midpoint XY type companies you should be able to find someone. (Which is why it is worth trying to get just one person to join this news group – that way everyone has more reviewers available to them).
4. If you feel you would like to have an outside agency design or write any of your material, or undertake a full competitor awareness analysis for you, get in touch with The Creative Team at Hamilton House Mailings Ltd. We’re one of the leading copywriting and competitor analysis teams in the UK. Call 01536 399 000 or email Creative@hamilton-house.com . Yes that is a blatant advert – HHM is a commercial company and they are paying for all this. But remember you don’t have to use HHM to benefit from this discussion.
5. Comment on the theory by joining the Creative Direct group and letting others know your point of view.
Free analysis of your mailshot
This article is written by Tony Attwood, Chairman of Hamilton House Mailings Ltd. If you would like to discuss the writing or design of your mailing campaign, or indeed a single mailshot, with Tony, without cost or obligation, just call 01536 399 000, or email Creative@hamilton-house.com You can also send Tony a copy of your latest advert and he will call you back with his thoughts on how your response rate could be raised - again without cost or obligation.