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The List
By John L. Cimino

I learn all my lessons the hard way. So despite my earlier futility at a CRM seminar, an interactive email marketing workshop, a web branding symposium, and a wireless 3G technology roundtable…for some reason, I still opted for a seminar on creative titled, Successful Direct Mail Copywriting.

Oh, I knew it was a mistake as soon as I signed up, but as I said, I learn all my lessons the hard way. Why should this barren experience be any exception? At least I got away from the office for the day.

The speaker had an impressive list of credentials. Worked for some of the best advertising and marketing agencies in New York. Lots of awards. He was cool, calm and collected. Unfortunately, what he said made no sense whatsoever.

After introductions and explanations, he began to describe the system or process he sets in motion at the outset of a creative assignment.

“The very first thing I do,” he said, in a most convincing tone, “is to make a list of all the important ingredients my new test direct mail package should include.”

Oh darn, I thought, I was hoping for Bill Jayme. Instead I get Emeril Lagasse. At the sound of the word, list, that was it for me. Like a predictable melodrama on TV, I knew what was coming next. The old creative laundry list which usually starts out with broad, bland protestations about fear, greed, exclusivity etc. being the key drivers in direct mail, yadda, yadda, yadda. Then comes the laundry list of powerful, force-fed communications with magical words like free, new, guarantee, blah, blah, blah.

Geebus! I already know that. Everybody knows that. We’ve heard it and read it a couple of hundred times in seminars, speeches, articles, and books. Tell me something I don’t know. Like how I’m supposed to stay awake for the next forty-five minutes.

What struck me as odd was the fact that I have always believed the beginning of a creative assignment is the time to let your imagination fly. Think of some new, different, creative ideas. Have a little fun. Starting out is the time to think outside the box. You can make a list later. If you hire someone to write copy or conceptualize a new direct mail package, and the first thing he or she does is make a list…the first thing you ought to do is find a new writer.

So much of the direct mail copy you read these days sounds like it was written by a committee and directed at no one in particular. There’s no passion. No humanity. No one person actually speaking to another person. That’s what you get when you start out by making lists. When everybody follows the same formula, everything becomes sort of the same. The way people make decisions to buy things or use certain services is extraordinarily complex. It takes a lot of hard thinking and polished writing skills to come up with breakthrough direct mail packages.

Instead of trying to oversimplify the task, why not help seminar attendees to try and view the copywriting and creative process from the standpoint of the person who has to execute the creative assignments. That would be especially helpful to people in large corporations who have to manage and guide the creative product through a labyrinth of marketers, accountants, attorneys, and executives.

After all, I don’t really believe that you can teach someone to write copy. Writing may be a learned skill, or at least a skill you can learn to hone or improve. But to do it successfully time after time requires talent. Besides, I think the majority of people who attend these seminars are not there to learn how to write, but to learn how to manage the writing process, and to have more control over the finished creative. So in that regard, if it were me leading the seminar, I would direct my comments more toward how to communicate effectively with writers to ensure that creative results are more in line with marketing objectives.

Keep in mind that copywriters need to “study their role,” so to speak. Like method actors, they need to “get into” the minds and emotions of prospects to convince them to take action. A truly great piece of copy gets people who don’t really need your product or service to buy it anyway, just because your arguments were so persuasive.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. I know why people like to speak or conduct seminars. It’s all part of personal branding. It’s perpetual PR to attract new clients. But if you’re going to speak, or conduct a seminar, or lead a roundtable or whatever. Put some thought into it. Make it useful. Try something no one has ever tried before. Even if you fail to pull it off, people will appreciate your effort and think highly of you. That’s human nature. That’s just the way people are.

By the way…next month I’ll be sending out a first-hand review of the next seminar I’ll be attending: How to Write a Really Boring List!

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