Why You Want Your Agency to Fail

We all know that famous quote from Apollo 13 “Failure is not an option” and we try so hard to live up to this saying.

In school, we study for hours on end to pass a test. Once graduated we take continuing education classes or read self-help books with the goal of being perfect or the best because we feel that our flaws, our imperfections cause us to fail in life.

And it’s not just on the personal level where we try to be perfect. At work, our goal is to succeed. We’re praised by our success. And the more successes we have, the more valuable we are to the company.

This is especially true working at an advertising agency since we’ve been hired to make the client’s business better. So when we test a new concept and it loses, we feel bad because we came up with an idea that cost the client money. And when we report on those failures, we feel ashamed.

After all, we’re the experts. We should know better.

In the back of our heads we know that the client is counting how many times we’ve failed. And we wonder “what is that magic moment when the client calls it quits and moves onto another agency that never fails”?

And while striving for perfection t is not a bad thing, this overriding drive to be the best makes us forget two important things: 1) we will fail and 2) we learn by failing.

In “Daring Geatly” Brene Brown quotes an executive who says:

“People believe they’re only as good as their ideas and that their ideas can’t seem too ‘out there’ and they can’t ‘not know’ everything. The problem is that innovative ideas often sound crazy and failure and learning are part of revolution. Evolution and incremental change is important and we need it, but we’re desperate for real revolution and that requires a different type of courage and creativity.”

This statement is so true. Agencies – and people – need the freedom, the trust of their clients to be innovative and try something different. And if that means failing every now and then, then so be it. Because that means we’re growing, we’re learning, and we’re becoming the best agency/person we can be.


Why I love Chick-Fil-A

I read an article once that said “loyalty is the holy grail of fundraising”. In actuality, it’s the holy grail of marketing, not just fundraising. After all, it’s easier to “sell” to an existing customer than a new customer. This is why so many marketers focus on retention and lifetime value.

In the non-profit world, there are many ways to retain a donor that range from strategies to get a second gift to stewardship programs. The purpose of a stewardship program is to thank the donor for supporting the organization, letting him/her know the organization recognizes and values the gift. The idea is to keep the donor engaged and make him/her feel special and feel good about supporting the cause.

Often times you’ll see for-profit companies try to do similar stewardship through the “donor loyalty” programs.  The difference is, these loyalty programs don’t make the customer feel special or thanked for doing business with the company. Instead, the customer has to jump throw hoops in order to receive the privileges.  Airlines force consumer to travel many miles with them before giving them the option for a free upgrade or ticket, access to their private waiting areas, or even priority boarding. Many chain restaurants require that the customer eat there X amount of times (with proof) before giving them a free meal or sandwich.

The problem with these loyalty programs is that they don’t make the customer feel special. Instead, they continue to remind the customer that their relationship is transactional. The company doesn’t appreciate the customer; instead they want more of their business – or should I say – more of their money. There is no “good vibe” that the customer gets from this. Only the feeling that with another purchase something fee will come.

This is where Chick-Fil-A differs. It’s fairly common to hear that Chick-Fil-A is giving away free coffee, chicken biscuits or whatnots to anyone who just happens to go there that day.

Today, I didn’t bring my lunch so I went downstairs to the food court and went to Chick-Fil-A. As I was paying for my meal, the cashier gave me a Valentine’s card with a coupon for free chicken-minis. There was no reason for this gift other than to thank me for my patronage.

And each time this has happened to me, I walk away with a huge smile on my face. Why? Because these are unexpected gifts. They don’t have to give me a gift card. I wouldn’t be upset if I didn’t get one because I wasn’t expecting one. I wasn’t trained to spend a certain amount of dollars on them to get a thank you. All I did was show up and order. So my gift wasn’t transactional, it was meaningful.

And for that reason, it makes me happy that I went there. And in the future I will think of going there before any other fast food restaurant. Not because I’m expecting a freebie but because they appreciate my business – regardless of how many chicken nuggets I’ve bought in the past.

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What is creativity?

Working in marketing, the word “creative” is used all the time. And in multiple context.
“This person is creative.”
“Let’s come up with some creative ideas.”
“Send this to creative.”
“When is creative due?”

But what does this word really mean?

Many people would argue that being creative (or creativity) is “thinking outside the box”. Suggesting that in order to achieve new levels of growth, we must find ways beyond our normal thinking and beyond our current structure.

In theory this is a great idea. But in practice, is this true? Is it even possible?

As direct response marketers we know that while clients love looking at pretty, inspiring creative they have a hard time approving something never done before. This isn’t to say the client doesn’t agree with the concept. It’s just that there are parameters the campaign must stay within. Here are just a few:

The Offer: Sometimes the offer isn’t exactly want the people want. No fault to the organization. Donors want a world free without cancer. A cancer institute can’t offer that right now, but they can offer research to find a cure and better treatments.

The Message: What you say is what you mean. And for that reason, the copywriter doesn’t have free will to use any words to describe the product. Mandatory language needs to be adhered to. In addition, tone must always be set by the brand.

The Budget: As much as we hate to think about it, there is a pesky little thing called a budget. The most beautiful, innovative campaign that’s sure to raise awareness may be developed but if there is no room in the budget for it, it won’t be used.

The Results: ROI is king. Nothing in Direct Response is rolled-out to market without being tested. And the results have to be statistically significant at that. If a plain, non-descript package beats a fully designed, beautiful packaged, you roll-out with the plain package. No ifs, ands or buts about it.
So with these limitations, how can one be creative?

To this I respond: Because these parameters are not limitations stifling creativity. They are helping it grow. Creativity is born by challenge. It is the ability to generate alternative ideas or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems. And for our clients, the challenge is to bring more revenue with less cost than the year before.

Developing a campaign that cost 10 times more than the organization can afford does not help the organization. Neither does mailing a package that does not bring in response and revenue. And sending out a mailing that causes more people to complain about the organization doesn’t help anyone.

Creativity is not thinking outside the box. It’s finding a new way to think within the box.

The Devil’s in the Details

When it comes to the success of a mailing, direct marketers tend to focuses on the creative or the strategy, but most don’t pay attention to the execution until it’s too late.

This past week I received two offers from the same company on the same day. The purpose of the mailing was to upsell me. Sign up for a third product, bundle my services and get a discount.

The strategy was great.

The creative was great. (I opened both letters.)

But the execution was flawed.

Remember, I received both letters on the same day.

One letter offered me a $400 reward card if I signed up by May 10th. The other letter offered me a $500 reward card if I signed up by May 17th.

I’m going to assume the plan was to send me the first offer and, if I didn’t respond, to send me the second. And I’m also going to assume that no one paid attention to the delivery time of these letters. Otherwise, why would I get two competing offers…on the same day?

And this is where the Devil lies.

We need to ask the “What If” questions.

What if both of these offers arrive in home at the same time?

We’ve been in this business long enough to know that mailings get delayed, printers make errors, acts of nature happen, the unexpected occurs, etc., etc. The list could go on.

Years ago I worked on a campaign that used national monuments as the focal point of the creative. Two weeks into the first drop 9/11 happened. We pulled the campaign immediately and quickly went to work developing our Plan B. I’m sure all of you can think of a similar experience.

It is our job as direct marketers to pay attention to every detail. We need to be more than copywriters, designers, statisticians, and strategist. We need to be Risk Managers. We need to think about all the issues that have happened to one of our campaigns in the past and come up with a plan in case something similar happens again. We need to look at all the points in the process, not just what happens within our walls, and fill in the cracks so the execution is smooth.

What could this company have done differently?

Well, for starters, they could have paid attention to delivery dates. They could have planned more time between the drops, giving me time to respond. They also could have used email as the second delivery option. They have my email address. If the second email wasn’t a follow-up to my non-response they could have de-duped the mailing lists. There are so many different things they could have done. But the biggest thing they should have done was ask the “what ifs”.

One to One Marketing, Anyone?

I escaped Atlanta right before “Snowmageddon 2” and traveled to safer lands – the DMA non-profit conference in DC. It had been a while since I attended one of these conferences and I was very happy to be back. The DMA not only gives me the opportunity to meet with colleagues I don’t get to see too often  but it also gives me a chance to learn what other organizations have been doing and have found to work best for them.

As we all know, Direct Marketing is and should be channel-agnostic. As fundraisers, we should be using every medium that our constituents use to reach out to them. So I was extremely pleased to see a lot of sessions on digital and new technologies. In fact, I sat in on the session call “Emerging Technologies: Creating Real Change and Producing Far More Than Loose Change”.

As I sat and listened to the presenters, I couldn’t stop thinking about how direct marketing is becoming true one-to-one marketing. The main focus of one-to-one marketing is personalizing each interaction with the donor. The conviction being that through this personalization greater customer loyalty and better return on investment is fostered.

We already have taken steps to one-to-one marketing through the use of variable copy (and sometimes images) in direct mail and through emails with the use of PURLs. We treat donors differently if they give $100, over $10, or if they give once a year versus monthly. And, we include specific messaging to constituents based on their interest in our organizations. Dynamic listings in Google allow us to direct people to specific landing pages built around their interest.

But rather than focusing on one individual constituent (mainly due to cost), we do this to various segmentations of the donor file. But now it seems that the possibilities are endless.

A few sessions talked about the development of Personas: using demographic, psychographics and buying behavior to help build these Personas and then using the Persona to determine content and contact strategy.

We know that people give for different reasons, but we still build our campaigns for the masses and include a little personalization for some added “oomph”. With technology that we have at our hands, what if we were to go further?

What if– with Echo technology we start tailoring the telemarketer’s accent and pace to match that of the donor so they feel like they’re giving to a local organization? Donors living in Massachusetts would hear a Boston accent. Donors living in Atlanta would hear a Southern accent.

What if — with cookies we start serving up not just different ads but different homepages? A grandmother in Washington giving to a national organization would see images of the work being done in her home state. A young supporter fresh out of college would be served images of other college age people participating and making a difference.

It might take a lot of planning and some pretty tight programming, but wouldn’t it be worth it? Or would we just pull our hairs out going crazy trying to control and understand the madness we’ve created?

The technology is here. But is there anyone willing to grab and run?

Life Is One Big Improv

Here’s a blog I wrote back in 2009. Thought I’d share again on this new site.

After class last night, I started thinking about improv and how it relates to life. 

In improv, there are no lines to memorize, no actions to run through, no stage directions to follow. When you get up to do a scene, you don’t know what’s going to happen, where it’s going to lead, or who’s going to do what. 

Sometimes, all you know is the situation – if you’re lucky. 

Sometimes you just get a sentence. Or a word. 

Your creativity, your emotions, your actions determine how that scene is going to play out. You are the deciding factor. 

There are no rehearsals. There are no retakes. You’ve got one shot. And that’s it.

Kind of scary, uh? 

But isn’t that life. No rehearsals, no directions, no plot. 

Life is one big improv. Or a bunch of little ones going on at the same time. 

Think about it. 

Sure you can plan for things. You can prepare for what you’re going to say or do. But the truth of the matter is, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You don’t know what that other person is going to say, act or feel. 

You don’t know. 

But the good news is, just like improv, you are the one who controls the scene. 

Now grant it, some people are better at improv than others. But everyone can be good. Anyone can make a scene fun and exciting to watch, as long as they follow the “rules.”

So I started thinking, if life and improv are so similar and if we can make improv great by following at least a few of the rules, then maybe, just maybe if we applied those same guidelines to our everyday situations, we could have a great life. 

It’s worth a shot. Right?

So here they are:
1. Have a want
2. Define your relationship
3. Don’t negate what you have been told to be true
4. “Yes, and…”
5. Listen
6. Resolve arguments quickly
7. Don’t go back
8. Don’t hold back
9. Trust your instincts
10. Have fun

These are just the 10 that I thought of. If you have any more, let me know and I’ll add them.