INSTITUTE OF FUNDRAISING: Member Viewpoint - The creative is simply one element of a good direct mail campaign

Alastair Irons, chief executive of TW Cat

I've been filling in entries for awards. Despite the demand for results and strategy, it is just a beauty contest because I've judged so many.

Yet why does the creative aspect of direct mail receive so much attention compared to fundamentally more influential factors?

When people receive their mail they sort it into four piles. Top of the list is personal mail, the kind you slip into your handbag or inside jacket pocket to savour later. It arrives in a welcome rush on your birthday.

Second most important is functional mail - typically household bills and bank statements.

Thirdly, the stuff that could be interesting. If you're lucky, it's where your direct mail may be found. Yet this is the pile that so many direct mail agencies are actually aiming at, competing only with other direct mail, trying to outdo their competitors by fighting their battle for hearts and minds on a low-level playing field. And if they don't make it to the "could be interesting" pile, the only alternative is number four - the bin.

Of all the influencing factors in a direct mail pack, the creative is the least powerful. Yet it receives a disproportionate amount of attention compared to the other factors. The most influential is the audience.

How often does anybody spend as much time on their audience segmentation as they do re-writing copy? Are the donation prompts honed and refined with the same attention to detail as the opening paragraph of the letter?

Is the timing argument over mailsort three or mailsort two circulated with the final artwork to the communications director? Maybe the nub of the problem is that creative is all you can actually see of direct mail. The rest, the audience, the offer, the timing, are all virtually invisible. But are they to the awards judges?

The Institute welcomes Viewpoint articles from its members. Please email the membership manager (

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