Mention advertising in 2015 and the first thing that comes to the minds of many is Mad Men’s Don Draper. While not the charismatic presence of Draper, a more apt symbol for the realities of the industry today may be the show’s Head of Media, Harry Crane — a character whose emphasis on targeting and distaste for good creative are more fitting today than in the 1960s.
This is especially true in the political direct response space. Sasha Issenberg opens The Victory Lab, his account of how modern campaigns are changing electoral politics, by highlighting MHSC’s Get Out the Vote mailer supporting Michael Bennet. Whereas glossy, well-produced direct mail has become the standard, this mailer was laser-printed white paper sent in a traditional white envelope. It was, in a word, ugly. It was, in another word, effective — turnout among recipients increased by 2.5 percent.
In the digital direct response, we often see similar results. Rising Tide Interactive regularly runs creative tests on display advertising and predicting winners is a fool’s errand — while certain themes tend to be regular high performers, intuiting between creative iterations in nearly impossible. Prospects see spaces like their Facebook newsfeed as personal — and serving them content that does not feel like traditional advertising is crucial to generating a positive response.
This logic extends beyond ad creative to landing pages and upsell pages as well. While highly designed pages may strike our fancy, they often do not perform better than simple, straightforward pages.
Hal Malchow, the man behind the Bennet mailer, tells Issenberg that early in his career he believed success in direct response required “the eyes of an artist, the words of a poet, and the elegant equations of a mathematician.” A decade later, he’s portrayed as a trial-and-error obsessive.
This same temperament also manifests itself well in digital – whereas direct mail testing can be expensive and time intensive, online direct response is essentially free and very fast. For some campaigns, winners can become clear within hours.
Instead of relying on any one individual’s ideas and convictions, digital allows for the data to decide. Harry Crane would be proud.