The DM Essays: Tim Hipperson and Ed Pritchard

Tim Hipperson and Ed Pritchard of McCann Relationship Marketing Partners believe DRTV needs to be led by advertising ideas rather than just response mechanisms.

Let's not be squeamish here. We are surrounded by junk TV. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries, video diaries, reality TV shows about the stars of reality TV shows. Most of these programmes are so bad that you're praying for a bit of light relief when the commercial break rolls around. But instead you're faced with a tsunami of mediocrity. And that's in primetime.

When you get to the graveyard of daytime programming, you enter the murky realm of junk direct response TV: cheap, tacky ads breaking up the tedium of This Morning, replete with tap-dancing elephants and irritating voiceovers shouting phone numbers countless times. It's time for a change.

To truly engage the consumer, we need to produce DRTV that is creatively led, not just response-driven. DRTV has, over the past decade, established itself as the staple fixture of daytime TV schedules and, in the process, become the ugly sister of the more glamorous "brand-building" TV advertising. Although DRTV now accounts for more than 16 per cent of all direct marketing expenditure, it still has a poor reputation among critics and creatives alike.

Without doubt there are some truly appalling DRTV ads out there. But why should it be that an ad's creative worth is destroyed by the mere addition of a response mechanism? Is there something intrinsically damaging to a brand about such a direct approach? Or is it that the image of DRTV is unfairly dragged down by a small number of cheap, crude executions?

The major problem that DRTV faces is that it's not seen as specialist genre - most perceive it as low-budget advertising with a telephone number (a bit like radio but with pictures). While a traditional ad agency may produce some stunning brand-building creative, it doesn't automatically follow that it knows how to produce an effective, creative and responsive ad. But if it doesn't go some way to building the brand and a brand relationship, it isn't working hard enough.

Often, lack of budget is cited as a reason for producing "hard working" response ads that lack any style or an idea. Let's be clear: low budget doesn't have to mean cheap. A combination of mould-breaking creative, an experienced producer and an open-minded director can have a huge impact.

Of course, there are techniques and technologies that will always be financially beyond the DRTV-maker's reach but that doesn't automatically mean that an ad has to look cheap. Digital technology means good-looking work is achievable without blockbuster budgets.

The best DRTV ads are precisely those that don't follow the same tired old formulas. They are ambitious and take risks. Interestingly, the DRTV ads that often do this to best effect are those produced for charities.

Last year's DMA grand prix winner for the DePaul Trust is a brilliant use of DRTV that demonstrates the kind of thinking that elevates DRTV into the stratosphere. The likes of Barnardo's and the NSPCC have been consistently brave with big ideas that have reaped rewards. So isn't it time commercial clients got in on the action?

The trouble is that it's in precisely this area that clients and agencies can find themselves in conflict. DRTV is a response facilitator but that doesn't mean its success should be judged solely on immediate profitability.

Customer lifetime value and the relationship potential that a response generates is a key benchmark to determining the success of a campaign and, although this cannot be evaluated overnight, the incremental revenue that these customers provide is often extremely significant. Fundamentally, a DRTV ad is as responsible for building the brand as a brand commercial.

And beyond that, when someone does respond, we should be looking to build the brand relationship at every touch point.

So why isn't more DRTV making an impact? Lack of budget isn't an excuse anymore. Whatever happened to the big idea? An agency entrusted with a budget, regardless of the fact that it may be one-thirtieth of the above-the-line budget, still carries the responsibility of developing creative that is impactful. Without that, you can forget about the measurable part of the brief - there won't be anything to measure.

Perhaps one reason for the negative perception of DRTV is that it has so far really been predominantly adopted by two sectors - charity and financial services. Many of the former are dull and unimaginative (with the exceptions previously mentioned), the latter crude and formulaic.

But this is changing. There's a new breed of DRTV campaign emerging where an advertising idea rather than a response mechanic is central to the campaign. That's not to say that DRTV principles are being compromised. Phone numbers are still featured and repeated but the work is not driven or restricted by these parameters. Instead the idea is conceived, the story developed and the response mechanism incorporated into it, rather than bolted on or dominating the spot - take a look at The Number's "runners" campaign to see how it's done.

With the "big idea" central to the campaign, agencies can attract renowned directors who may previously have been reluctant to get their hands dirty in the grubby world of DRTV. Better produced and directed commercials engage viewers, bear repeat viewing and create high response rates - we've seen clients who have embraced this approach achieve double average response rates at half the average cost per call.

We need to keep pushing the boundaries of DRTV. Agencies need to help clients understand how DRTV can build their brand, drive response and build a brand relationship at the same time. Clients need to open their minds to a different way of doing things. Then, perhaps, we can say goodbye to the tap-dancing elephants and the shouty calls to action of junk DRTV.


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus