Sermon on the Count

by T Taylor, November 1, 2010

(Part 1 of 3)

One of the most valuable skills in marketing is knowing what to do with measurement data.
I started my career at a seminar company called CareerTrack, which, in 1985 became the 10th fastest growing privately-held business in America. I believe the key to our success was President Jimmy Calano’s insistence to measure all marketing efforts. That’s right, ALL marketing efforts.

Jimmy was a student of direct marketing and preached it to everyone in the company. As a young creative director, I got immersed in it. This was before the Internet, when print material like direct mail and catalogs were the media of choice.

Early on, however, our marketing was focused more on the “creative” aspects—the writing and design of our material. I’ll never forget the time we designed a beautiful, colorful brochure that won the top award in the industry in 1982. My design team and
I were the toast of the direct marketing world.

Within six months, however, every one of our competitors were creating brochures like this, and as a result, our response rates were dropping steadily.

That’s when Jeff Salzman, CareerTrack’s co-owner and copywriter came up with an idea that would change the way we did business. He wanted to create a brochure that looked like “an executive secretary typed it.” No color, no photos, no frills. It would look more like an important briefing, and not direct mail.

My designers couldn’t believe it. Why would we stoop so low and produce an ugly brochure like this when our award-winning work was the best in the business? But Jeff persisted. After it was finished and printed, we all referred to it as the “Dull-o” because it was grey and white and, well—dull. We tested it head-to-head with our winner as and A/B split, and soon the numbers came in.

The Dull-o won by a landslide. Where our award-winning brochure garnered a respectable 8.5 RPM (Response Per Thousand), the Dull-o registered a 22 RPM. In financial speak, the Dull-o made us hundreds of thousands of dollars in its first rollout—and millions over the life of its reign.

The Dull-o stood out, cut through the clutter, got right to the executive—and they signed up in droves. It was an invaluable lesson. Good creative isn’t necessarily about good looks. It’s what works. For the next eight years, we tested practically everything, always studying the data and fine-tuning our marketing pieces. The testing and measurement information gave us tremendous confidence building CareerTrack into the world’s best seminar company.

Because of this testing culture, my in-house “agency” was voted among the Top 50 Marketing Agencies in America by Publish! magazine in 1990.

Then, a big change happened. Owners Jimmy and Jeff decided to interview a few of the big name agencies in the U.S. to see if they could take us even higher. As our creative leader, it was a bitter pill for me to swallow as these heralded names from Chicago and New York came in and presented incredible, jaw-dropping work. Our whole team felt like chopped liver.

But Jimmy made it a test. Each group would have their marketing material measured against ours, and the highest numbers would decide the winner. It was a smart move.

It took a few months to create, set up, and run the tests. But in the end, it was obvious who had the clear winning work, as the numbers never lie. We beat the big boys, and it wasn’t even close.

It was time for me to start my own marketing firm, The Creative Alliance.

“As a small businessperson, you have no greater leverage than the truth.”
—John Greenleaf Whittier

Next week: The guarantee that no one wanted. Sermon on the Count (Part 2 of 3).

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