There I was, sat staring at my blank PC screen, wondering what to write for this column. So, like everyone nowadays, rather than have to think for myself I turned to Google. I searched ‘direct marketing’. Reassuringly, ADMA was listed first (well done, Rob), then a small consultancy in Queensland (which is obviously better at search engine optimisation than the rest of us!), then B&T magazine. All interesting enough, but not much fodder for an article.

I then tried ‘direct marketing principles’. Bingo! ‘The 30 Timeless Direct Marketing Principles’ by US industry legend Bob Stone. Now this is what we all need – some hard and fast rules, developed in a market entirely different to ours, from a time before the internet and mobile phones existed. Perfect.

Despite all that, some of Bob’s principles are perfectly sound. It’s hard to argue with “people buy benefits not features”. And we each accept that “all customers are not created equal. Give or take a few percentage points, 80 percent of repeat business for goods and services will come from 20 percent of your customer base”.

That last one gets me every time. Everyone agrees with it, yet there is still an illogical obsession with customer acquisition. Doesn’t make sense to me.

So, Bob’s still on the money with some of his principles.

But I must take issue with this: “Maximising direct mail success depends first on the lists you use, second on the offers you make, and third on the copy and graphics you create.” I agree that these are the three drivers of success, but this has often been interpreted that creative doesn’t matter as long as you get the targeting and offer right. And I just don’t buy that.

It’s like throwing a bad dinner party. You invite the right mix of friends to make for an interesting evening (the ‘list’). You entice them with a gourmet menu featuring the finest ingredients money can buy (the ‘offer’). And then you blend all the raw prawns, steak, vegetables, and fruit together into mush and serve (the ‘creative’).

Doesn’t make for a top night, does it?

So while it’s true that great creative sent to the wrong list will fail, the opposite is also true; junk sent to a great list will fail.

Creative isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have – just like smart targeting and strong offers.

This doesn’t mean self-indulgent creative. The best direct mail succinctly nails the offer and leverages the targeting by making a personal connection with the reader. Great creative springs from the targeting and the offer rather than gets in the way of it.

OK, back to Bob’s principles. Here’s number 28: “A TV support commercial will increase response from a newspaper insert up to 50 percent.” What? Proof that integrated campaigns actually pull better than stand-alone direct marketing? Don’t tell the old school, but even one of their champions recognises that multimedia thinking makes sense.

Wouldn’t the world be a great place if media planners got on board with that (or ‘media-neutral channel planners’ or whatever they’re calling themselves at the moment)? As a start, wouldn’t it be great if they actually recognised direct mail as a medium and included it on schedules! We can but dream.

Overall, most of Bob’s principles still hold true, despite the fact that they are mostly based on catalogue marketing in the US. He also has a canny knack of dropping in some snazzy percentages to add a dollop of science. Take number 26: “A print ad with a bound-in card will outpull the same ad without a bind-in up to 600 percent.”

Brilliant, but what does ‘up to 600 percent’ mean? Five percent better? Fifty percent better? Five times better? Still, like most punters, once I see some impressive figures thrown around with confidence I’m sold!

The bottom line is that principles are just that – principles. They are start points for DM thinking, not definitive rules that guarantee success. Taken this way, Bob’s top 30 gives every direct marketer a head start in how we should approach our work. You just need to apply the common sense filter of how well these principles fit your market, product and customer.

So what are you waiting for? Google – and Bob – are ready and waiting for you!

Extracts reproduced with permission from ‘The Past, The Present and Future of Direct Marketing’ by Bob Stone in Beyond 2000: The Future of Direct Marketing by Jerry I Reitman (ed).