Feature

The Direct Approach: Where have all the great writers gone?

There is no denying that standards in DM have slipped recently. The tyranny of the bottom line is undermining quality and diluting brand values.

You remember the scene in Casablanca where Sam is at the piano? Of course you do. Do you remember the song? As Time Goes By.

And what about the lyrics? "You must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by ..."

They may be cheesy, but they're true of life, and also of DM. Trust me - circumstances will always change, human nature never will. As professionals, we should rejoice in the unchanging aspects of human nature rather than become diverted by the dizzy pace of change in delivery systems.

When I started my career in DM at Ogilvy, the Dead Sea was merely poorly. Yet David Ogilvy's principles are as true today as they've always been - a bit like Hovis - with truth and trust right at the head of the list.

Yet, where once-naive consumers responded to the sheer novelty of being targeted by name, rather than lumped together in "admass", today they see straight through it.

Where once they examined all the groundbait before biting on the one with the hook which most appealed to them, today they are altogether more worldly wise or downright cynical.

In today's marketing-savvy world, soft touches are rarer than a Labour leader's real friends. And those unscrupulous DM practitioners who have deliberately tried to deceive their prospects over the size of the gap between promise and performance have queered the credibility pitch for the rest of us.

A single verbatim from one recent millennium interview puts it plainly enough: "These shysters send me so much rubbish ... It's like spam through my letter-box every single day!"

And just as a bad TV ad at the beginning of the break can have thousands of prospects reaching for the remote control, simply to escape, so a handful of sub-standard dross on the doormat can justify a faster decision to feed everything into the recycling bin.

To put it bluntly, I'm saying standards have slipped and that we should not hide behind the facile excuse that our offers are being rejected by a new breed of super-sophisticated, hyper-cynical, super-human consumers.

So, what has happened? The pressure for profit has meant that fewer people are doing more work for less money in real terms. Where once family businesses took personal pride in their products and services, the corporations which acquired their names are primarily answerable to their shareholders.

The words on the mission statement may sound fine in the annual report, but they can never replace the pride of ownership. More often than not, the "vision" is created by corporate spin-doctors wishing to make the company look good in public.

In both cases, the contemporary language is predictable, specious and devalued. The tyranny of the bottom line tends to undermine quality. Brand values are diluted. Genuine offers are overtaken by shallow lifestyle puffery. Where are the great writers of yesteryear?

Some are running their own agencies. Some have gone freelance. Others have been put out to grass because they were seen as "expensive" by short-sighted financial management, which prides itself on knowing the price of everything - yet, in reality, knows the value of nothing.

The senior creative with years of priceless experience and on a six-figure salary is now a high-risk target.

If the company still has a final salary pension scheme, it makes financial sense to unload him quietly at 50 and replace him with "young blood" for a fraction of the price.

From personal experience, we know the truth of the truism: "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys." But it's worse than that: monkeys produce crap. Cheap crap? Yes. Cheerful crap? Sometimes. Nasty crap? Often. Lots of crap? Always.

One of the enduring attractions of mainstream brand advertising is that it is largely unaccountable. Robin Wight, the founder of WCRS, envisions two kids finishing their time on the same course, at the same art school and tossing a coin to see which one will be the writer and which one the art director.

Then, this new writer/art director team often sets its celebrity-focused sights on agencies with TV and poster opportunities. What do they have in common? Neither medium demands many words. On posters, brevity is the soul of wit. On TV, it's the IDEA, man!

(The agency will also expect some flavour-of-the month commercials director to "add value" - to sprinkle some of his famous stardust on the execution. That's what they're paid for, after all ...)

But in DM, it's a totally different scenario. You are fully exposed, in an open ring where you can run but you can't hide. You can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee - but when the final bell rings, all the points are counted. The public has voted in ways that leave no margins for doubt.

You are totally accountable for your competitive performance. You live by your words, you die by your words. The words you wrote or the words that you approved - and that applies equally in both creative management and marketing management.

You should accept total responsibility for your part in the process - success or failure.

Of course, you can fold your arms and use both hands to point the blame in any direction you like. But sooner rather than later, the truth will out.

Let me now return to the beginning ... Who wrote the words AND the music for As Time Goes By? One Herman Hupfeld, no less.

And here are the words that, if I were gambling man, I'd bet you've never heard before:

"This day and age we're living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention ...
So we must get down to earth at times
Relax ... Relieve the tension ...
And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed ...
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by ..."

- Kevin Lavery is the agency group managing director at The Direct Marketing Group.

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