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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

This little site is designed to introduce him and his thoughts to the world. (Whether the world appreciates the intro is another matter.) If you'd like to chat, then you can guess what the boxes below are for.



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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell






    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye






    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler


    Entries in direct mail (8)


    the result of this chicken-and-egg dilemma?

    I know I've posted about this before, but the fractured reality of all things marketing was really brought to life in a recent chat I had with a senior leader at a not-for-profit organization.

    This group is relatively established and successful; they've had growth, and some success in getting funding for interesting and effective programs. That said, their funding continued to be unpredictable, and they'd also had some layoffs. 

    Being a curious marketing weasel, I was interested in her marketing plans. Turns out they had a social media manager working internally, which was encouraging, and an agency doing a pro-bono awareness TV spot once a year.

    What about individual fundraising? I asked. Awareness and engagement are great, but at some point you have to translate those things into real cash money. 

    We can't afford an individual donor program, she said.

    Her group accepted individual donations, of course, and whipped up a newsletter which encouraged giving, but there was no systematic outreach to people who'd raised their hands. (Which I already knew, being one of those occasional donors.) Other than that, they relied on large corporate and government grants, a few individual major donors, and asks at their events. 

    The reality is that building an individual fundraising program using email and direct mail is just too expensive for many organizations, since they'd have to build the infrastructure to do it, and it would take too long to pay off. Her hope was that they could continue to grow in their typical two-steps-forward, one-back way until one day such a program would be possible.

    And, while I want to write that this is slightly unbelievable, when I think about it, most companies in Canada these days (whatever their relationship to profit) are having a problem building relationships that pay off. It is a big cost, and there so many media channels to cover off, let alone understand; the relatively small economies of scale in this country can't support that kind of investment for long enough before seeing real ROI. It's understandable that many managers look at that chicken-and-egg scenario and decide it's not worth it.

    For me, however, the problem with neglecting CRM (which is of course what we've been talking about) is that those emails and DMs help keep people feeling involved, and keep dollars coming in. Awareness and engagement are pointless if something like CRM isn't keeping those one-on-one relationships (forgive the pun) solid and fresh.


    another reminder that David Ogilvy knew what he was doing

    Mark Phillips, of London's Bluefrog Agency, recently posted this item on SOFII about David Ogilvy's 1968 letter for the United Negro College Fund. Take a look and grab the pdf. It's a great and really instructive look at how to connect with a specific target audience, based on thinking about who they are, what they do and where they are – and actually doing something with all that.

    And it's the opposite of what far too many advertisers are doing today. Because too many people on both the client side and agency side continue to harbour the frankly goofy impression that humans as a species no longer read.

    Sure, some people don't read much. Some people never have. Thinking that social media has replaced all other forms of social interaction so that all your advertising has to be under 140 characters is a recipe for failure.

    For instance, working on DMs aimed at C-level executives over the past decade, I've had suits and clients insist that senior execs don't read – "they're far too busy" apparently – as a way of bludgeoning me into keeping the copy brief. But that meant there was nothing in what we ended up sending out that could get their interest; beyond a slick headline and picture, there was no reason for them to engage in our communication, and no way for them to be moved.

    Think about subway advertising, and how few ads there take advantage of the fact that their target audience is sitting there doing not much. Perfect opportunity to hold their attention with long copy. By, say, telling a story. But I digress.

    What Ogilvy did was simple – exploit everything he knew about the audience (even, it has to be said, fears and racial unrest that don't read so well today) in order to make a connection with them and move them to action.

    Keep that in mind next time you write a brief. Or approve a brief. Or work with one.


    why direct mail still works; or, because you just get your screen dirty when you touch your Facebook messages

    Now that Top Gear seems to be blinking in and out of regular weekday airing on BBC Canada, I find myself with a little more time to do things in the evening like, well, think. 

    And one of the things I've been grappling with is the survival of direct mail in the age of social media. How can this strange 19th century habit of writing people letters and having them delivered by a government monopoly as an advertising medium continue to survive through a second century of dizzying technological change?

    Since its inception, generations have grown up having ready access to a startlingly interactive technology called telephony. Radio, TV, comic books, PowerPoint and Facebook have all in turn destroyed the minds and reading skills of our culture's young people.

    And yet, people still open, read and respond to direct mail.

    They still see their name at the top of that piece of paper and are drawn in. They still feel as if some one person has actually sat down and composed a piece of correspondence to them.

    Personal revelation: I find myself having this personal, one-to-one feeling sometimes even when I myself have written the client letter I'm looking at. It makes no sense, but's happened. And I know other writers who have also had this experience.

    The letter format is damned powerful.

    Now, I'm not claiming that DM letters will beat down the Internet in popularity any time soon. But done well, with a relevant message and an emotional conenction, direct mail does something that I think is actually quite difficult to do digitally – allow a brand to make a personal connection with someone for at least a few seconds. The recipient actually holds your message in their hands as they make a decision to open your envelope, or not.

    Direct mails offers a physical experience of a brand and a moment of focus on it that is increasingly rare: PVR increasingly makes TV ads a hit and miss proposition; the proliferation of outdoor makes any single message weaker (as Howard Gossage feared); if you're like me you never even open most emails, seeing them only in the preview pane; and the only things anyone trusts on Facebook come from your friends, not brands. (Or they have to be really cool, gross or funny.)

    I know that digital already dominates the continuum of marketing. It's where and how consumers speak to each other, and speak with brands or experiences that they like. And I think that's a good thing; the immediacy and empowerment that the Internet has brought to millions of people are tremendous benefits that can't ever be changed.

    But as I've said before, that doesn't mean that direct mail is dead. When done well it is working, still, even with young audiences you might not expect. Simply parroting the expression that "no one reads any more" is not sufficient reason for killing off something that is working. 

    Let's acknowledge that direct mail will live on as a unique way of reaching people. It will never be as prevalent as it once was, but neither is radio, and radio continues to exist as a powerful marketing tool. The Internet will not kill TV, but it is changing it and will continue to do so.

    Unlike old soldiers, old technologies don't die or fade away. They simply find smaller, more profitable niches.


    focus only comes when you're under the microscope

    I spent most of the week on the road with focus groups, with inexplicably limited ability to get wireless access; hence posting was non-existent. Sorry about that.

    Focus groups are a necessary evil of the ad business. Creatives hate them as a matter of course, and believe that, when it comes to judging work, everyone is too reliant on them.

    Years ago I watched a client try to get groups to pick the "best" creative out of three we'd presented for a DM package. Most of the time was spent listening to people talk about how much they hate "junk" mail and they didn't want to see any of the concepts darken their doors. Eventually, in the last five or ten minutes of each group, we pried a little evaluation out of the participants, but it was half hearted. People's reactions were so negative, the groups completely drained the client's energy for the project.

    The moderator has to let people blow off steam if the groups are about a typical consumer irritant, like banks, insurance, DRTV, or yes, even "junk" mail. Once they've stated their feelings, they can begin to open up about whatever you're trying to explore.

    But that process can be painful to watch, especially when it's your work that's on the table.

    And yet, done right, focus groups offer something valuable. Because with a good moderator, once you filter out the expected reactions, common hatreds and inevitable dislikes, you'll hear people's genuine concerns about your category. You'll get a lot of first-hand language that you'll probably both love and hate, and knowledge that you can use to make your work better for the client over the long term.

    You'll get a little dose of reality from the people you're trying to sell stuff to, and that's always good.


    the toughest creative challenge there is

    I know what you're going to say when I tell you what I think the hardest job in this business is. (And what you say *is* going to be bad.) But I've thought a lot about this over the years and time and again the truth of this seems to bear out.

    I think the toughest thing to do well in this business is the outer envelope (OE) of a direct mail (DM) piece.

    I know, I hear you.

    "Scott, you're fucking crazy. An OE is the hardest thing a creative can do?!?"

    But wait a sec – think about it.

    With TV spots and banner ads, you're likely seeing them in the middle of a show or a site who's content you're actually interested in. More than merely knowing something about the person's vague prediliction for the content environment, you know that they're probably more or less enjoying it. There's an expectation of entertainment or engagement both from the content the audience is there to get, and from the ads (TV or banner) that you're serving up.

    And you're probably sitting down as you experience each one, on either a couch or an office chair; you're physically comfortable.

    On radio, whether you're in the car or at home, it's a similar experience. You're listening to a station whose music or talk you probably already like, and the audience is predisposed to liking you, or at least not immediately punching one of the other station presets.

    Billboards don't get the same help from their environment, and they have to work in no more than 3 seconds, but again at least you're relatively comfortable while looking at one.

    With a DM package, you don't get any of that help.

    When your target audience member is grabbing their mail, they've just got home from work. Maybe they're  a little pissed off, or just exhausted, either from their day or from the commute. (Hey, I'm just trying to paint a typical picture of what happens when people first get in the door.) They may still have a computer bag or purse in their hands, and they're juggling keys and maybe a shopping bag too. They're desperate to get their coat and shoes off, and as they approach the kitchen counter with a fistful of other mail like credit card applications and bills (which really get them in a positive mood)... that's the moment when they may first see the OE of your package.

    It better be damn strong.

    Your OE has to reach through all that psychic crap and say something to the person holding it, in less than 3 seconds, because the person holding it is likely standing very near something called a garbage can or recycling bin. Months of work can disappear in the blink of an eye.

    The creative, the offer, the spelling of the person's name... and the recipient's experience of the brand... they all have to work magic together for that second or two, just to have a hope of being opened, and engaged with, and just maybe responded to.

    That, my friends, is a hell of a challenge.


    nasty stories of creative directors who once interviewed me

    When I was trying to escape from the in-house marketing department I'd started in and get an actual agency job, I interviewed for over a year. I had no contacts in the agency world and a book full of retail work based on what I hoped were clever lines and extremely repetitive, product-focused layouts. I was fueled by hope and desperation, and not much else.

    I cobbled together a list of agencies and headhunters from award show books and the yellow pages (remember, this was before most companies and agencies had much of any presence on the intertube) and tried calling around. Most were never available; any switchboards I managed to get through led me to voicemail, not voices. It was a very long process.

    One of the first CDs who agreed to see me was at Dentsu. Their offices were at University and Dundas, not far from where I worked at Eaton's, so I "had a dentist appointment" one morning and humped my nascent portfolio down there, hidden in a large knapsack. It being my first time in one of those things called an agency, I was terrified. Sweat waterfalled off my palms and forehead as I approached the receptionist to announce my presence, and pooled as I sat waiting for the Creative Director. A few minutes later he was there, introducing himself and being somewhat humourless, and he took me into a small boardroom.

    Within 90 seconds whatever weak hope I had had been punctured. He hated everything; told me briefly how I should change each piece, and I was in and out of there in about ten minutes. After that I did not make any calls for several dark weeks.

    Looking back, of course he had no reason to understand the situation I was in, no reason to be nice, no reason to try. Today I understand his impatience – I can only wince thinking at how awful my book my have been – but I don't understand why he showed it. If I agree to see someone junior or new, I think I owe them a certain amount of patience. Not an endless amount, but some.

    Much later, while I was freelancing, I met the ACD for direct and digital at a small "integrated" shop. She liked my work; liked it so much that she took me to see the executive CD. He was a mass guy, mucho awarded. The ACD introduced me, said some very nice things about me and my conceptual DM work, and left me with the CD. He didn't have time to see my book at that moment, he said, but wanted me to make an appointment to come back before I left. He was very friendly, he talked about their recent work and how they liked to work; he even showed me some work that wasn't final yet. I thought we had a terrific connection, so I was really looking forward to my time with him the next week.

    Things started to go downhill as soon as he opened my book. He saw direct mail and the temperature in the room dropped thirty degrees. He didn't look at me as I tried to talk about the strategy of the work, flipped through a few more items, and suddenly had an urgent meeting to go to. I was in his office for a grand total of five minutes.

    This time, I wasn't crushed. His agency had approached me because of the work I was doing in DM. I knew why I was there, and was confident about what I offered them. He was clueless, and dismissive of work he knew nothing about.

    The first CD taught me some valuable lessons, and forced me to go back to my book and rework the hell out of it. It was a necessary, if painful, first step.

    The second CD was just an asshole. The only lesson he taught me was that some creative directors are just assholes.


    an undercurrent of fear

    A long time ago, at WCJ, we went to a meeting and were told that the agency had agreed to let in CBC's media show Undercurrents, hosted by Wendy Mesley, so they could show Canada what the people who made "junk mail" were really like. None of our clients would agree to this, of course, so it had been determined that, in order to demonstrate our process, the agency would come up with a DM package for the show itself.

    And by agency, they meant Kimberley (art directrix supreme) and I. We'd been chosen as the creative team to be put on display for the cameras, which was at once very flattering and enormously terrifying. Knowing that the crew were kicking around language like "junk mail" for what we did, we were sure it was going to be a hatchet job, against the agency and quite possibly us.

    Now, as you'll see from the video, it didn't turn out that badly of course. What did turn out badly was my wardrobe (what the hell was it with vests?) and our ability to look like idiots while we did our jobs.

    It's impossible to have a camera hovering over you while you try to do something as freeform and personal as writing. Knowing that the camera would not approve of me sitting and silently typing with headphones on, I began trying to perform the act of writing, which had the result of making me look like a babbling idiot. And believe me, there was worse left on the editing room floor.

    But the most terrifying thing, a couple of days before the presentation, was the realization that we had some okay concepts, but nothing that was going to show what we were really capable of. Nothing that, if the show's producers really were out to nail us, would be so smart and self-aware that it might just save us on national TV.

    I'd had an idea that I'd shared with Kimberley, but as we talked about it we were both sure it would get us fired – because it would be all about deconstructing how DM manipulates you, the target reader. Not exactly the message I thought WCJ would want to tell the world about our work.

    And yet, showing the concepts to Trish the president and Michael the creative director a few days before the on-camera presentation, I knew that they too thought what we'd done was ho-hum. I knew I had to go for the Hail Mary, even if it cost me my job. I gulped and told them about a concept using "This is a blatant attempt to manipulate you" as the OE teaser.

    And they loved it. (You never know.)

    The rest, as they say, is TV and DM history. Or rather, a very small and very forgotten part of it.

    Still, this is one DM package I wish we'd been able to produce; I love it.

    NOTE: Watching this, I'm reminded that WCJ had a real Murderer's Row of talent at that time: pretty much everyone in the room is insanely talented and has had a lot of success here in Toronto, in the U.S., or globally. Pretty remarkable.


    "if it's something my tailor does, why is it such a big deal for my site?"

    Measurement is one of those things that everyone thinks they know and do, but few people actually seem to understand or succeed at.

    I once sat in a room with a really smart client who actually said, "I can measure my TV ads in GRPs. I don't see any way I can measure any of this digital stuff."

    Everyone's jaws dropped. We'd just spent an hour taking him through his brand's digital ecosystem, thinking he at least got the basics. After hearing that we quickly went back to square one. Again.

    It's appalling to me that today every organization doesn't know exactly what users on their sites and other digital properties are doing. It's imperative from a response point of view. You have to know what helps, what hurts, and what's extraneous – in order to gain any efficiencies, and in order to get better against the competition. It's a basic of how smart people do their business well, from Lester Wunderman to the 37 Signals guys, in DM and in building digital apps. Know the data, test, learn from the new data, test again, learn again. And technically, you build everything from your tracking needs outward.

    If your number one priority isn't wanting to know exactly what your consumer is doing when they engage with you, I suspect you're not going to last long in the business of this century.