When I got into the mail-order business years ago, it wasn’t something you boasted about. You would be a bit inscrutable when people asked you what your job was. You would mutter something that included the word advertising — so much sexier!

I recalled this coyness when an old colleague asked me to talk to some to Syracuse University students here in London who are enrolled in a course called Ethical Advertising.

Most marketers are too busy trying to make a living to worry about whether or not they’re being ethical. But then I came across this quote from Abraham Lincoln that summed up the way I feel about my chosen career: When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad.

So I told those students a bit about what I’d done. And I was honest. I told them, for example, that I didn’t feel as good about working for tobacco brands (though it was perfectly legal) as I did about working for charities like Save the Children (the organization for which I wrote maybe the best sales letter of my life).

Then I told the students a true story — and a very sad one. But it has an important lesson for you.

Forty-odd years ago, I was creative director of an 80-man London advertising agency. By happy chance, many of our clients were not ordinary advertisers. They were not likely to base their marketing decisions on what they liked or what their wives liked or what their friends at the golf club liked or whether a particular ad might win an award.

They had businesses that depended on results. They had to make their ads pay — or they’d go broke.

That’s when I became obsessed with testing… and with results that could be measured.

A Massive Challenge

Our biggest challenge was a company that sold washing machines door to door. You could say it was a mom-and-pop business, but on a rather grand scale. The husband and wife who founded it were one of the most intelligent and nicest couples I have ever met.

For you to understand what follows, I should explain something. In the UK — unlike anywhere else in the world, as far as I know — people were buying a peculiar contraption called a twin-tub. Instead of having all the functions done in one chamber, there were two separate tubs. The washing was done in one, the spin-drying in the other. After the washing cycle was finished, you put the sopping wet clothes into the spinning tub.

My client believed that there was a market for the kind of machine he was selling — a sensible machine that did the whole lot (i.e., the kind of the machine we all use nowadays). So we set to work on the advertising for it, and in no time at all we were doing pretty well for him.

Testing Led to Success

In a series of tests for my client’s machine, I discovered all sorts of things:

1. We had to make a price claim in every headline. (Costs less than a twin-tub.)

2. We had to explain what the product was and what it did. (This fully automatic washing machine washes, rinses, and spin-dries at the press of a button.)

3. If we put people in the ad, response went up. First I tried a baby. That did well. But then someone said, Maybe people worry about the baby being unattended. So I put the proud parents in. That worked better. And when I tested a photograph instead of an illustration, it improved response by about 50 percent.

I also tried tests that proved nothing. I tested At last! against This against New against Now against Look! None of those changes made a blind bit of difference.

But through it all, we managed to completely destroy my client’s main competitor — the man who had dominated the washing machine market until then. And I was delighted. Not just because we won, but because we did it with integrity. Unlike my client’s competitor — who would advertise at one price and then send his salesman in to sell at a higher price — the price you saw in our ads was the price you paid.

A Breakthrough

My greatest triumph for this client came from doing some advertising archaeology: reading Maxwell Sackheim’s classic book My First 60 Years in Advertising.

If you were to read this book today, you would learn from it, I promise you. I certainly did. Don’t make the mistake (as many new marketers do) of thinking that the advertising business started yesterday or that the old-timers were idiots. In fact, they had far more to compete with and to overcome than we do now — and they did an amazing job.

Sackheim was one of the great direct-marketing pioneers. In his book, he told about tests he did at the turn of the 20th century — more than 100 years ago. One of the companies he turned around through testing sold washing machines (though now you could hardly call them machines; they were pretty primitive).

But although technology changes, people and their motivations don’t. Never forget that.

He did the trick by making an unprecedented offer — that you could try the washing machine at home free.

This got me thinking. I knew my client’s sales force converted 40-45 percent of the leads we got into sales. I asked if any customers had ever complained about the machine and asked for a refund. Apparently this hardly ever happened.

So I sat down and wrote an ad that said: Try this fully automatic washing machine in your home free for 7 days — no obligation.

Needless to say, the ad proved to be extremely successful.

What Happened Next? Not Good News

Around this time, I left the agency. But before leaving, I did something you should always do. I wrote down what I considered to be the factors that made our advertising work.

The washing machine company had been my biggest client. So, based on all the testing I had done, I came up with a specific list of the things that had made the difference between success and failure in our ads for them. I told my successor that if he omitted any one of them, the advertising would not work as well. If he omitted two of them, it would work really badly. And if he omitted three, he might just as well start looking for another job.

Well, the minute I left, everybody decided to get creative with that account. Instead of going back to what had worked, they tried wacky new ideas every week. Within a year, the company was in trouble. In 18 months, it was broke. And the owner of the company — my intelligent, likeable client — killed himself.

This is may seem a very extreme example of what can happen as a result of bad marketing, but it is a true one.

People’s Lives May Depend on You

If you think I’m exaggerating when I suggest that marketing can be a matter of life and death, consider fundraising.

Every time I see some clever advertising done by a charity — advertising created to make the copywriter and art director pat themselves on the back instead of to raise money — I want to throw up. Their egos are costing lives.

Remember… marketing is a tool — a tool that you can choose to use the right way or the wrong way.

And isn’t it nice to know that when you do it right, it’s not only ethical… it’s profitable?

[Ed. Note: Veteran copywriter and direct-marketing strategist Drayton Bird has worked with American Express, Ford, Microsoft, Visa, Procter Gamble, and scores of other clients during his five-decade career, which included a stint as international vice-chairman and creative director with Ogilvy Mather. In 2003, he was named by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 living individuals who have shaped today’s marketing.

Ready for more marketing insights from Drayton Bird? For 101 ideas, free case studies, and articles on topics like the one you just read, and a 28-day free trial of Drayton’s Commonsense Marketing Series, go here.]

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