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

7 Rules for Direct Marketers
By Alan Rosenspan

I’ve just finished re-writing my booklet, 101 Ways to Improve Response, and it occurred to me that there are many rules for direct marketing…

…but none that I know of for direct marketers.

And so even though I agree with David Ogilvy that "rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wise men (and women)" I would like to set down the rules for direct marketers.

These "rules" are the result of years of practice, including many mistakes on my part. They’re personal rules, but I pass them along to you so that you can avoid making those mistakes for yourself.

Please let me know if you disagree with any of them, or if you’d like to add your own by e-mailing me at

Here are my 7 rules:

1. Respect your Audience

How should you think about the people you’re marketing to?

First of all, they’re people – just like you.

Your goal shouldn’t be to fool them, or trick them into responding. Your goal should be to give them information that can help them, or improve their lives, or make their jobs a little easier.

I’ve known direct marketing professionals who had the very lowest regard for the people they marketed to. I’ve heard them say things like, "They’ll really fall for this" or "This will trick them."

People who feel like this usually don’t last very long. And they’re not happy being in the business.

On the other hand, when you respect your target market --- and their taste and intelligence – you will almost always be successful.

And never send something out in the mail or e-mail that you wouldn’t want your mother to receive.

2. Respect your clients

My wife Laura sometimes gets upset by the amount of direct mail we receive. This is particularly true when I come home from a business trip, and there’s a huge box of accumulated direct mail waiting for me.

Whenever this happens, I tactfully point out that "direct mail built our house."

And that’s also how I feel about my clients.

They pay my salary; they’ve helped me take care of my children; they’ve made it possible for me to buy things and travel and enjoy my life.

Your clients have done the same for you – and even though they may not always know as much about direct marketing as you do (Thank goodness, or they wouldn’t need you!) they still deserve your respect, if not your affection.

People do business with people they like. When you like and respect your clients, you will never have to worry about new business.

3. Respect your clients’ knowledge

When I first got to Boston, I was the Creative Director of the Direct Response group of a large general agency.

The general agency went through a terrible period where they lost 7 major accounts in the space of a year. No one had any idea why, and so the agency called in an outside consultant.

The consultant spent 30 days talking to people within the agency and all our ex-clients.

He then reported back to the agency management board, of which I was a member. His presentation had only 14 slides – two each for every one of the clients we lost.

He began by saying, "I talked to Friendly Restaurants (one of the lost clients) – and this first slide is what they said about you: "Your creative work is good. However, you charge more than other agencies. And they don’t feel you’re responsive to their needs."

Now this slide is what you said about them: "They’re stupid. They don’t know good work when they see it."

The consultant went through lost client after lost client. And while each client said different things about the agency, the agency had the same thing to say about every client.

The consultant concluded, "If you continue to think that your clients are stupid, you will lose every single one of them."

I learned an important lesson that day – but they didn't. Today that large Boston agency is out of business.

Your clients, even if they are relatively new to their job, know a lot more about their business – and their industry, and their customers, and their market -- than you do.

When Bill Bernbach started working with Avis Rent-a-car, there were two cardinal rules.

1. Avis knows more about renting cars than the agency will ever know. That’s why Avis will have the last word about anything having to do with car rentals.
2. The agency knows more about advertising than Avis. That’s why the agency will have the last word about any advertising issues.

This formula produced a long and productive relationship and dramatically successful advertising.

You should not only respect your client’s knowledge, you should use it.

The more you listen to them; the more questions you ask them; the more likely you are to be able to help them solve their problems.

4. Don’t ever promise results

When the famous author Kurt Vonnegut taught writing, he cautioned his students.

"Don’t ever attempt to explain why someone did something. You can never know why. You can only write about what they did."

The only time you can promise a specific response rate is when you are mailing out the exact same package to the exact same list.

And even then, you can’t be sure – because you are mailing at a different time.

Every direct marketing effort is different – with different goals and objectives. And the world has changed. Remember when the "average" response rate was 2%? Virtually every large company I’ve worked with would kill for that average today.

Promising a specific response rate sets up expectations that will be very hard to fulfill. I’ve had clients, new to direct marketing, that were disappointed by a 17% response (!)

"I just can’t understand why everyone didn’t respond…" the client lamented.

On the other hand, I’ve had large financial services companies that were positively thrilled by a 1.2% response.

Direct marketing amateurs promise response rates. Direct marketing professionals never make that mistake.

5. Do what you say you’re going to do

This is the mantra of my good friend Ray Considine – one of the few people I know who always lives up to it.

Mark Twain once said, "Tell the truth. It will please some people, and astonish the rest." The same is true of doing what you say you’ll do.

So few people actually manage to accomplish this – it will make you stand out from the crowd. You may even get a reputation for it.

The second reason to do what you say you’ll do – it makes you much more cautious about making commitments and agreeing to things in the first place.

If you’ve promised the work by Tuesday – do it by Tuesday. If you’ve agreed to include a testimonial in the direct mail package, or make certain changes, don’t complain about it or explain why you couldn’t.

Just do it.

6. Don’t be biased about media

As someone once said, "If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Just because you specialize in one media, don’t turn your back on other media, which may be even more effective.

You do direct mail? Terrific – but don’t ignore telemarketing and e-mail, both of which work very well. And of course, a combination of different media can be amazingly effective.
As a direct marketing professional, you have an obligation to know about the advantages and disadvantages of all the tools at your disposal.

And this leads us to the last and most important rule of all.

7. Know your stuff

11 years ago, I started teaching Direct Marketing at Bentley College. I had given speeches before, but this was the first time I was responsible for a class.

I began by giving an overview of the direct marketing industry – tossing out statistics I only half-remembered from my reading.

I was astonished when everyone in the class began taking notes.

Were my statistics accurate? Um, I think so… Was I absolutely sure? After that class, I checked them a little more carefully than I had in the past – because I realized that people were depending on me for accurate information and knowledge.

The same is true in business.

When clients come to you, they are coming to an expert. Or at least, they should be.

As a direct marketing professional, you have an obligation to keep up with new developments in your field. You need to get and read the industry magazines and newsletters; you have to read the latest books.

You’re not only being entrusted with your clients’ money – their jobs or careers or the future of their company may be at stake.

The average agency has 20-40 clients. The average client has only one agency. They deserve your very best efforts, your knowledge and your best and most-informed advice.


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