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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

How Do You Get the Best Creative Work?
by Alan Rosenspan

Why do some companies always seem to get better creative work than others?

You may think it’s their product. You might say, "Well, if I were selling Volkswagens, or Power Macs, or (INSERT YOUR COMPETITORS NAME HERE) then I could do the same great stuff!"

Not true. Sorry. Doesn’t wash.

The quality of your product or service is extremely important. It will determine whether or not you get repeat business; customer loyalty; referrals; and ultimately whether or not your business succeeds.

But product quality has nothing to do with your advertising or your direct marketing.

You know the old saying, "If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door."

Today’s updated version is "If you build a better mouse, the world will find you on the Internet."

But any way you phrase it -- it’s just not true anymore.

So how do you get the best creative work? As you can imagine, I have a few suggestions. And the best part is that these ideas apply whether you’re working with a large agency, a small boutique, an in-house department, or even a freelancer.

What is Quality Creative Work?

Before we go any further, let’s define our terms. What do we mean by the best creative work?

Do you want the best-designed work? The best-written? The most creative? How would you feel if everyone loved your TV commercial, and David Letterman and Jay Leno poked fun at it, and it won a bunch of awards, and it didn’t sell a damn thing?

I don’t think you’d be happy. Not for long, anyway. You probably want creative work that actually works. Because then you can afford to keep doing it.

How do you get it? Here are 7 things to consider.

My first tip isn’t one of those touchy-feely ones where I tell you to "celebrate the creative process" and "get in touch with your karma" This is more practical.

The creative people are going to hate me for this one -- but here goes…

1. Get it fast

The best work is usually done immediately after the creative team has been briefed on your project. Immediately should mean the next few days.

Your words and directions are clear in their minds. Hopefully, you’ve been able to convey a sense of excitement or drama or even urgency.

They will never again be as motivated to do a great job.

What usually happens?

Your project gets placed behind several others, and by the time the creative team gets to work on it — a week or two later - they’ve forgotten half of what you’ve told them.

At that point, they’re less motivated by the work, and more by the deadline. Their attitude may be, "Look, we have to get back to them by Monday. Let’s just put something on paper."

The result is very often bad and ineffective work.

I recently did a direct mail program for a company that launched a seminar series for business-owners.

The timing was fierce. They had already booked the hotels but they didn’t even have a name for the seminars.

The deadline was just about impossible. They needed everything — name, ideas for a three-part mailing, full copy and design — within three working days.

(By the way, my definition of a working day is probably similar to yours — as long as it takes)

What happened? I did my best work. I had to, because we had no time to make mistakes.

We called the seminars "The Secrets of Selling Your Business" and the direct mail pulled four times as many leads as they had planned for.

I’m not telling you to set arbitrary or impossible deadlines. That will always make you more enemies than friends. But set a reasonable deadline, as short as possible, and you can even reward people for meeting it.

2. Inspire your team

If you don’t, who will?

Many years ago, a young nurse sent me a number of interesting letters. They were friendly, chatty letters about her life, her job and what she did with her time.

I had absolutely no idea why she was writing me, until I received the last one.

It read, "As I hope you can see, I’ve always had a knack for writing letters. But I’ve never worked for an agency. Would it be possible for me to do some freelance work for you?"

The letters were wonderful and so I hired her, part-time at first, and then as a copywriter. After several years, she left the country and joined a large agency in the U.K. and worked her way up to a Creative Director.

Today, that nurse — Pauline Lockier — owns a thriving direct marketing agency of about 75 people called Target Direct.

Last time I saw her, she shared with me a great example of how to brief an agency.

"Imagine Pope Julius II briefing Michelangelo," Pauline said.

He could have said, "Please paint the ceiling…"

He could have said, "We’ve got terrible problems with damp and cracks in the ceiling. Could you cover them up for us?

He could even have said, "Could you throw in some biblical scenes —- or some angels, cupids, devils and saints?"

But what he probably said was, "Please paint the ceiling of our holy church, for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson to his people."

"Please include frescoes which depict the creation of the world, the fall, mankind’s degradation by sin, the diving wrath of the deluge, and the preservation of Noah and his family."

The result, of course, was the Sistine Chapel.

The Pope knew what he wanted and why; he knew his audience; he gave clear guidelines; but allowed room for creative interpretation.

More importantly, he inspired his creative team.

As the great advertising genius Leo Burnett said, "Reach for the stars. You won’t catch them, but you won’t end up with a handful of mud either."

So ask your creative people to reach for the stars.

3. Do your work first

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just hand off your project to an agency or creative team, and just let them "do their stuff?"

You don’t have to give them a detailed brief. They’ll know what to do. After all, they’re the experts, right?

Sorry. It doesn’t usually work that way.

The amount of thought and work they put into the creative work will be a direct result of the amount of thought and work you put into the brief.

Even if they’ve done a dozen other projects like this one — you will never get exceptional creative work by just asking them to do it again.

I can’t tell you how many briefs I’ve taken where it was painfully obvious that the client either (A) didn’t take the time to think the program through, or (B) didn’t care enough.

That attitude is as contagious as the Plague.

On the other hand, one of my clients is the Director of Marketing at Keyspan Home Energy Services.

In his brief for a new mailing, he included: previous packages, along with the results; competitive packages; an analysis of the market; plus a wealth of other important information.

It was obvious how much he cared about the program and the results — and I did my best to live up to his expectations.

And this leads me to my next point.

4. Get them into a higher gear

"This project is really important to our company," is a great way to begin a meeting.

Or even, "This is one you’re really going to be able to do something terrific with!"

Most people have at least two different gears. The first gear is maintenance — business as usual — the same level of performance you do every day.

But second gear is something else. That’s when you try to do something special.

You’re not just doing the usual stuff. You’re working on something important, something that demands your complete attention and your best effort.

And that’s the gear you want them in when they’re doing your ad, your direct mail piece, your e-mail campaign.

How else can you get them into that higher gear?

5. Show your appreciation

Remember that seminar program I talked about earlier?

When it was completed, the President of the company sent me a letter. It read, in part, "I am writing to thank you for the best direct mail campaign I have ever seen in the Mergers and Acquisitions industry.

"Our response to your mail has literally been 150% better than any program with which I have previously been involved."

Notice he said, "your mail" not "our mail."

Why is he thanking me? After all, he paid me to do the job.

But he showed me how much he valued my work. And you can be sure I’ll do everything in my power to do even better on my next assignment.

And all because he sent me a letter.

You don’t have to wait until a project is over to express your appreciation. (That may even be too late) There are many other ways to show creative people that you value their efforts.

Sometimes you just have to tell them.

6. Change is good

How many times can you go to the same people, or the same agency, and expect them to come up with something new and fresh and different?

Twice? Three times? The answer will vary, but sometimes it pays to change horses, even in mid-stream.

When I ran the team that did all the Winback work for AT&T, I learned how difficult it was to ask the same people to do the same work for the same client as always.

So I had to rotate them as regularly as my tires. Otherwise, bad work and major burn-out.

How do you know when it’s time to look for a new well? When you start seeing the same ideas over and over again, or when nobody wants to work on your business.

In-house agencies are even worse. Sure, they know your business. But because of this, they often look at your products or problems with the same perspective as you. And they rarely take chances, because they’ve probably been beaten back so many times before.

What you may need is an outside perspective.

7. Get them to care

I’ve written about this before in "The Care and Feeding of Creative," but it’s so important I’d like to remind you again.

You can go to the hottest agency. You can hire the single most talented freelancer. But you will never get consistently great creative work if you don’t remember this:

Creative people may not get to decide what they work on.

But they always get to decide how much time and effort they put into a specific project.

If you can make them care enough about you, your product, your company and your project, you will almost always get exceptional work.

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