Cannes 2010: Don't call direct mail a folding shit: Patrick Collister

By Patrick Collister , Directory Magazine, Cannes | In Advertising | June 21, 2010
The former executive creative director of Ogilvy London and the editor of Directory Magazine, in an exclusive piece for afaqs!, advocates how direct mailers can be used effectively

What on earth is a copywriter who's won Gold at Cannes for TV doing bigging up mail? Direct mail is crap that folds, isn't it?

My own conversion to response-oriented communications began pretty much about the same time I started my own business.

It was great to spend vast quantities of someone else's dollars on TV campaigns; but when it was my own money, it was a completely different proposition.

How can you build a business on next to nothing? Ask any three people who have left the safety of a big agency to start their own shop. Muffin, Crumpet and Teacake, integrated advertising solutions Inc.

What's the first thing they do on their first day in their small and sparse office? Write letters.

Dear Former Client, exciting news! Top agency talent is now available at a fraction the price.

Of course, the moment they win their first account, they start selling TV, print and digital ideas. Mostly because they are easier.

Mail makes you think.

Who are you talking to, exactly?

What do you want to say to them, specifically?

More importantly, what do they want to hear, really?

And what do you want them to do?

Key questions, which if you answer properly, can lead to spectacular ROI. And by that I don't mean return on investment. That, by and large, is a number based on predictive analysis. In other words, based on what you did in your last campaign and based on what your competitors have been doing, this sort of investment can be expected to make this sort of a return.


It's the science of repetition. Yet, wasn't it Einstein who once said that repeating yourself endlessly is a form of madness?

Most direct mail IS madness. It is samey, dreary and only barely justifiable. But concentrate on Return on Idea, and your ambitions suddenly become greater. Imagine if you wanted to create a mailing that would generate 100 per cent response. What would you do? Definitely not something ordinary.

DHL in Spain delivered live carrier pigeons to dispatch managers of Madrid's top 80 companies, asking if they would meet one of their representatives to discover how DHL could help them.

"Just send us back the carrier pigeons. They all carry a message saying 'yes' to our request. If you don't want a meeting, well, pigeon pie is nice."

All the pigeons safely flew back and 80 meetings were made.

Mail demands real creativity -- looking at the problem, looking at the target audience and coming up with solutions.

It took me nearly 20 years in advertising to discover that just as important as the proposition in any creative brief is defining your target audience. The moment you know who they are, both the nature of your message and the nature of your media suggest themselves to you.

Thus, when Oktober, the post-production house in Auckland, wanted to mail creative directors to talk about how they could make even the most embarrassing TV spots look great, they sent them a gilded turd.

Its target audience knew exactly what the piece was saying. But try sending poo to a company CEO, for instance, and you're talking the wrong language.

Creativity in mail is the same as in any other media. It's about understanding that it is a means to an end. I worry sometimes that Cannes glorifies creativity as an end in itself; when what we do is usually meant to drive awareness, interaction, sales or to create a relationship of commercial value.

That said, most award-winning ideas are also the most effective ideas. Take Haagen-Dazs in Austria. They created stamps, which could be used legally to mail postcards across the country, and which tasted of the ice-cream flavour depicted. Sales doubled within two weeks.

That's creativity. Someone looking at the rules and wondering how to rewrite them to the advantage of his/her client.

It's also why I'm proud to be in advertising; while there are creative people out there asking that question day in, day out: how can I make a difference?

Sometimes, the answer is in a letter.

(Patrick Collister is the former executive creative director of Ogilvy London and is the editor of Directory Magazine. His one plea to all Indian creative directors reading this is, please submit your best direct work to us at It's free. And it can help inspire our readers from Australia to Zimbabwe.)

© 2010 afaqs!