CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - DRTV. DRTV advertising needs higher creative standards

Why should such a useful medium have such a bad reputation?

Over the past decade, the DRTV commercial has established itself as a regular fixture of TV schedules. Anyone who's ever been sick or out of work and forced to watch daytime TV will tell you as much.

Yet quantity does not seem to have bred quality. DRTV advertising still has a poor reputation among critics and creatives alike, with many viewing it with the same distaste and suspicion they reserve for its much-maligned relative, the advertorial.

But why should it be that an ad's creative worth is demolished by the mere addition of a response mechanism? Is there something intrinsically damaging to a brand about such a direct approach?

Or is the image of the DRTV ad unfairly dragged down by a small number of cheap and nasty executions?

A big part of this image problem stems from the type of products DRTV ads tend to promote. The medium is a favourite tool of both the financial services and charity sectors. The ads for the former are too often dry and dull, the latter, predictable and crudely direct.

"One of the worst culprits is fundraising," Bright's creative director and founding partner, Chris Martin, says. "These clients behave like sausage factories. A lot of them place far too much importance on the bit at the end that says: 'For just £2 per month, we can ...' This may well be based upon research, but these advertisers are putting that research before what the consumer actually needs from the ad."

Martin sees DRTV ads as essentially over-prescriptive. When the Direct Line commercials burst on to our screens in the late 80s, a successful formula for generating mass response was born. Unfortunately, very few agencies have ventured beyond this formula during the past ten years.

141 Worldwide's creative director, Jo Arscott, believes that DRTV ads fall into three categories. The first is the brand awareness ad that carries a response mechanism as an afterthought at the end. The second is the cheaply made direct appeal that views like a mini advertorial.

"But category three is the one we're beginning to get right," she explains.

"In these ads, DRTV principles aren't ignored. Phone numbers are featured, terms and conditions are present and there's a voiceover to repeat the number.

"But the work isn't tied to these principles. We can put an idea into these commercials, put a story behind it, put craft into it. There could be a proper director, not someone from a cheap outfit. We can apply contemporary film-making techniques to contemporary DRTV ads. In a lot of DRTV commercials the craft is lacking and there is no excuse for it."

The issue of craft is inextricably linked to the issue of budget. DRTV ads are seldom well-financed. Ideas too ambitious have very little chance of being realised. Faced with this low ceiling, agencies too often produce executions that look functional, ill thought out and, worst of all, rushed.

However, not everyone is prepared to take budget problems as an excuse.

"A lot of DRTV commercials have very little money spent on them, but that doesn't excuse a bad idea," WWAV Rapp Collins' executive director and head of creative, Ian Haworth, laments. "I'm a firm believer that the better the idea, the better the response it will generate.

"Nowadays, there are ways to shoot a commercial to make it look like you've spent a lot more money on it then you have. A lot of directors want to do good commercials if they've got a good idea in them. We're very open with the directors we use about how much budget we have and, consequently, we get some really good directors want-ing to work with us."

Haworth also feels that close co-operation with production departments from the outset of a brief can go a long way towards overcoming budgetary constraints. In a recent execution for NSPCC called "magic carpet", WWAV shunned traditional expensive animation techniques in favour of Flash software. Although Flash is relatively untested as a TV tool, the final product, which is animated in the style of child's drawing, is both appropriate and impressive.

"Magic carpet" is one of several DRTV successes WWAV can lay claim to over the past few years. The agency has a strong reputation in direct marketing for TV advertising - this is underlined by the fact that it recently captured the entire Cancer Research UK account, winning the above-the-line business from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO in the process.

Of course, not all of WWAV's DRTV efforts are solid gold. But with a production rate of around 25 spots per year, the agency has had ample opportunity to learn from any mistakes and has developed into something of a specialist.

"People are not practiced in the craft of DRTV," Harrison Troughton Wunderman's creative director, Steve Harrison, explains. "The industry is not producing these ads at anywhere near the rate at which above-the-line ads are produced.

Consequently, it's a craft that has yet to develop. If all an agency does is one DRTV commercial per year, chances are it's not going to get it right."

Those agencies that do commit themselves to DRTV may well reap the rewards, as some clients are unwilling to entrust their briefs to enthusiastic newcomers.

"This does drive our agency selection process," the AA's marketing and sales director, Claire Salmon, says. "We're looking for people who aren't well-intentioned amateurs."

As a result of last year's repositioning, the AA now splits its TV strategy between DRTV and pure brand awareness advertising. As such, it's important that the quality of the former doesn't compromise that of the latter and undermine the brand. This ethos has been the driving force behind some strong recent DRTV work from the AA's retained agencies, EHS Brann and Rapier.

However, some clients believe there should be even more overlap between their below- and above-the-line offerings. Patrick Collister, the executive creative director of EHS Brann, was particularly impressed with the way Barclays approaches the two disciplines. During its last review, the bank appointed a team of individuals to work on its marketing, irrespective of what outfit they belonged to. The result was a truly integrated agency roster.

"It was brilliantly visionary," he exclaims. "Unfortunately, most other clients draw a line between the two disciplines. While demanding integration from their agencies, they are also extremely good at preventing it from happening."

Having worked as the executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, Collister is certain that there is much that direct creatives, who specialise in the power of copy, could learn from their above-the-line counterparts about TV. He is equally adamant that they could teach brand-awareness specialists a thing or two about response generating.

"There is a case for collaboration," he explains. "In the past, I have offered to help above-the-line agencies when they've been given a DRTV brief. But they've all told me to fuck off."

Over the past year, advertisers such as the AA, Morgan Stanley, Cancer Research UK and NSPCC have shown that it is possible to create idea-driven, well-produced TV commercials that generate healthy response levels without damaging the fabric of the brand.

However, the fact that most direct agencies produce only one or two pieces of TV work a year means that quality DRTV is still a rarity. Perhaps regular collaborations with their above-the-line partners would put direct agencies in a better position to stretch their clients' perceptions of what can be achieved with the medium. And perhaps then the cheap DRTV executions we've come to know and hate would be overshadowed once and for all.