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Q&A with direct marketing guru Drayton Bird


Q&A with direct marketing guru Drayton Bird


Drayton Bird’s commonsense approach to marketing always rattles a few cages at the big end of agency land. Malcolm Auld chats with a man regarded by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of the 50 individuals who have shaped marketing today.

Unlike most marketers, Drayton Bird is a prolific blogger, social network user and publisher, so he has a very real grasp on what is working and what isn’t in digital channels – which of course are the now most popular direct marketing channels. I’ve worked with Drayton Bird in various capacities for over 26 years and am pleased to be able to bring him to Australia again as part of the Masters of Marketing Seminar Series in February and March this year.

I’ve asked him a few questions to give you an idea of how he thinks, and the sort of things you can learn from him.

Malcolm Auld: Since you were last here we’ve had the GFC and global meltdowns. What effects have you seen on marketing as a result?

Drayton Bird: Shortsighted marketers have engaged in the usual false economy – cut back on everything. They see marketing as a cost, not an investment. They should be more selective. Spend more on what works, cull what doesn’t.

Many have switched more and more online. I have, for a start. 80% of my work and 95% of my own promotion is now online. Unfortunately, very few have the faintest idea what they‘re doing and are easily seduced by promises that one magic bullet will solve all problems. Once it was the database, then it was CRM, now it’s AdWords or SEO. Or, if you really want to blow a lot of cash fast, try rebranding.

It’s no use winning on search if what people end up on – your site or landing page – doesn’t harvest names. It’s no use harvesting names if you don’t sell to them. And it’s no use branding or rebranding if you don’t measure the results

MA: Given your increased use of the internet, what have you stopped doing to promote your business?

DB: Nothing. I still write articles, do interviews and make speeches. I now also do them online.

MA: What advice do you give marketers in tough times?

DB: Stop theorising and start measuring and testing. Get rid of the dead wood. Eliminate anything that you can prove doesn’t get you customers economically, keep them longer, or sell more to them economically. Eliminate anyone who isn’t helping you do these things and can explain how.

Study. Those who know more can do more. Especially, study the internet. As more and more people hope it will save their bacon, it gets tougher and tougher to get good results.

MA: You’re a strong critic of the quality of marketing management, what are the common mistakes you see around the world?

DB: The last I heard, the average marketing director lasts under 14 months. Not long enough to achieve anything much. And no wonder. I’m sorry, but marketing is awash with idle bullshitters. Too many get by on charm, looks, knowing the right people – networking is the fancy word for that. They don’t study (that word again).

New marketing directors over-promise to get the job, and then change everything, good or bad, to show they are doing something. Fatal. It destroys morale, confuses, costs too much money and rarely achieves much. Unfortunately, many of those who hire marketers – often accountants – know nothing about marketing. Many confuse it with advertising. They often, rightly, do not think much of its practitioners, and this leads to a lack of interest in the discipline itself. How can they hope to tell good people from bad?

MA: What skills do marketers need today if they are to build both their company’s bottom line and their own career?

DB: A complete knowledge of marketing. Here are the disciplines you should know the basics of to succeed at the highest level:

  • Research
  • advertising
  • PR
  • point of sale
  • sales promotion
  • direct and interactive – online and offline
  • product placement
  • word of mouth (viral, MGM)
  • personal selling
  • experiential
  • package design
  • sponsorship
  • workplace marketing
  • cause related marketing, and
  • guerrilla marketing.

If you want to do really well, learn how to present.

MA: How should people qualify the expertise of the alleged internet experts that promote themselves online?

DB: If anyone makes you promises, make them provide proof and link payment to results.

MA: Given that the internet is a direct marketing channel, why do so many agencies still separate their direct and digital teams? Why don’t they understand?

DB: They want to get more fees from clients. Dividing things up makes that easier. They have this weird idea that customers grow a second head when in front of a screen and they don’t realise that the same techniques work online and offline.

MA: How can companies get a positive ROI from an investment in social media channels?

DB: Communicate more, and more imaginatively. People worry about communicating too often. They are wrong. Those who talk more often do better. This is true of all marketing: Procter and Gamble advertise more than others, so they make more money. Apple communicates more imaginatively than others, so they make more money.

Recent research reveals that those who blog every day make twice as much money as those who do so once a week. I send out as many as 30 messages a week – emails, blogs, tweets, and Facebook stuff. My unsubscribes have not gone up from when I was doing so two or three times a week.

Be sociable. You don’t like the bloke sitting next to you at the bar who starts flogging you insurance. It’s not sociable, is it? So don’t sell too overtly. Try a little subtlety. Write like an ordinary person, not a marketing drone.

MA: Is social media more suited to consumer rather than business-to-business brands?

DB: Why should it be? Business people – with the exception of a few clients I’ve met – are human beings. The copy I write and the approach I take for my clients who sell financial services to business are pretty much the same as I do for selling to the same sort of people at home.

I think this is a great opportunity for businesses, but they haven’t grasped it.

MA: Why haven’t they grasped it? Where can they learn?

DB: I think this is caused by the same thinking that imagines selling to businesses is utterly different to selling to the domestic customer. True, motivations are slightly different and decisions often take longer and involve more people, but we are trying to persuade people with hopes, fears, and ambitions. Tapping those emotions works better than appealing to logic.

The workplace is social. We have people we like and people we hate. I have research that shows that as many as 60% of people in this country would like to physically attack a colleague at work. I believe you have to study what drives people and write about those motivations. And study what has worked in the past in other media.

For instance, there is a whole raft of UK legislation compelling businesses to comply with all manner of requirements vis à vis their employees. Very costly and tricky to implement, with horrendous fines if they don’t do what is required. Is this about logic? No, it is about fear of what will happen if they don’t comply, and rage that they are being saddled with costs they can ill afford, which in turn threatens their businesses and their own and their families’ future.

MA: Why is so much copy – particularly online copy – so infernally dull?

DB: Because so many copywriters are infernally bad and even if they aren’t, so many clients take their copy and screw it up with dreary jargon.

MA: Do you believe customers and brands are engaging more through social media? I certainly don’t tweet my friends for opinions on yoghurt while shopping in the supermarket.

DB: If you want to get engaged, try proposing. But if you mean ‘are social media working?’ the answer is yes. It all reminds me of Dr. Johnson’s remark back in the 18th century. He had just seen, for the first time, a woman preacher. When asked his opinion, he replied, “It is like a dog walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to see it done at all.”

MA: Why do marketers think that changing a logo or rebranding will change consumer behaviour?

DB: Often because they look inwardly at their own business rather than outwardly at where their money comes from: the customers. They fondly hope or imagine cosmetic changes will eliminate the need to make real improvements in what they offer and often very persuasive salespeople encourage them to think so.

I can think of several cases where marketers spent millions on cosmetics and then had to reverse sharply. Barclays Bank is one case that springs to mind. The Royal Mail wasted God knows how much money when they changed their name to Consignia – then had to backtrack.

MA: What can we expect to see at your presentations at The Masters of Marketing seminars?

DB: Well, I’m afraid I’m a one trick pony. So all they’ll get is commonsense, simple ways to make more money from your marketing. I try to show what works, what doesn’t and why, with tons of examples – because theory is all very well, but one relevant example is far more useful.

But one theme I have been talking about around the world for the last three or four years is the way that everything that is happening online merely reflects what has been done in traditional direct marketing for years. The only difference is that you can measure more online, which few people are taking full advantage of enough.

People are wasting a lot of time and money reinventing wheels when they simply need to be put under a new vehicle. Media change, customers don’t.

MA: Given that all marketing on the internet is measurable, why aren’t marketers cutting their budgets to get the same result or getting better results for less?

DB: Because they don’t test and measure, and they don’t study to see what works. End of story. I have a client in Spain to whom I made one simple suggestion about his emails – it took less than two minutes to tell him what I had in mind and why. The first week he tried it his sales were up 30%.

There is one other change in emails I suggest to people that usually raises responses a good 50%, yet most firms, especially the big corporations, are totally unaware of it.

MA: See you in February.


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