Life or Death Direct Marketing | Bruce Turkel

In the great world of marketing there are many subsets of practices and practitioners. Advertising, branding, promotions, public relations, and online marketing are perhaps the most widely known but there are lots of others. Theoretically they’re all concerned with the same outcome; manipulating consumers to get them to buy more of the marketer’s clients’ products or services.
There are differences in theories, media, and practices, of course, and there are also differences in process and production. But probably the biggest difference between the disciplines is in their metrics. That is, the way the benefits of the work can be measured.

Usually the more artistic and esoteric the endeavor (branding for example) the harder it is to quantify and measure. We all know that a car with a BMW logo on the front or a cup of coffee with a Starbucks logo on it is worth more than their plainer cousins but who’s to say exactly how much? And who knows how much of that is due to the brand itself?

On the other hand, the more quantitative the practice (direct mail, perhaps, or click-based online sales) the easier it is to track. If you send out a direct mail two-for-one offer, it’s easy to count exactly how many coupons were redeemed, divide the cost of the program by the revenue the promotion generated and know precisely how much the program was worth.

While the stakes of marketing can be very high, it’s unlikely that many practitioners find themselves in a life or death situation when they produce campaigns. Sure ad agencies get fired when their work doesn’t produce and plenty of writers and art directors lose their jobs when their company loses a big account but people don’t usually die when their work doesn’t deliver. Or so I thought until I pulled off the expressway the other day.

My city is like many others where jobless men and women line up at red lights to panhandle for change. Sometimes I drop a dollar into the proffered cup or soiled baseball cap and sometimes I don’t – you’re probably the same. But while I was deciding if I was going to give, it dawned on me that panhandling is the ultimate form of direct marketing. The beggar prepares his or her sign or materials (creative and production), presents it to the lines of cars (media, specifically out-of-home), collects whatever they’re offered (fulfillment) and counts the proceeds when they’re done (conversion studies). I have no real way to know but I suppose that unusually successful signs are reused and the duds are replaced the next day (message testing).

When you look at it that way, panhandling is the ultimate form of direct response marketing. The results are instantaneous – either the car window rolls down or it doesn’t. The stakes are high – when the signage campaign works the practitioner eats (or drinks or shoots up or whatever) and when it doesn’t they go hungry. And the variables are both endless and relentless –consumer confidence, the weather, and the economy, among many other things, all conspire to affect the number of coins that pile up in the panhandler’s cup.

I guess the cynical response is that those of us in advertising needn’t worry about getting canned; we have the skills we need to collect at street corners. But I think the compassionate response is that the desperate people on street corners begging for change are actually our marketing brothers and sisters. As such they deserve both our professional respect and assistance. And while I don’t expect the AdFed, Public Relations Society of America or Direct Marketing Association to create street team memberships anytime soon, I know I’m going to be a little looser with my dollar bills from now on.

After all, if I don’t pay for good marketing, how can I expect my clients to? I’m betting that after you give it some thought you might feel the same way too.

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