A love letter to direct mail and its breakable rules

I don’t mean to brag, but I have won a few awards in my time.

Most were for TV – the irony being that when I started up my own business, I discovered my skill-set was useless.

The only advertising medium I could afford was one I knew nothing about: direct mail.

It was in the run-up to Christmas that I was, um… ‘released’ from my job as a creative director (thanks, guys). I needed to start trying to earn money – I had little squeakers to feed and all that.

I thought that maybe I could teach people to do things better.

I put a list together of 50 marketing directors, managing directors and creative directors I knew, and I sent them a Christmas card. On the outside it said: “I hope you don’t have a Happy Christmas.” Inside, it said: “I hope you have a mind-blowingly, amazing, ecstatic and life-changing Christmas.”

Facing this, I stuck a lottery ticket for 24 December. Under the ticket was some copy saying something like, “success in business doesn’t come from luck. It comes from investing in people. Training them.” There was an email address, a web address and a phone number.

Over the next year, that £50 investment helped me earn about £30k. And I’ve loved mail ever since.

I love it because there are so many rules and every one of them is there to be broken.

For instance...

Letters are written on paper. Unless you write one on chocolate.

Envelopes are made of paper. Unless they’re made of concrete.

You write the address on the front of the envelope. Unless you put it on the back. (The address on the front was non-existent so the postal service delivered it to the address on the back, supposedly from the sender. Inside, the message was: we know how to reach hard-to-reach CEOs. Like you.)

Letters are short. Unless you write one 101 pages long. (New Zealand’s Herald Tribune newspaper mailed advertising planners and media buyers a letter that would take an hour to read. Which is about as long as it takes to read the newspaper.)

Creative people solve problems. And sometimes, the solution might be a letter.

That’s why I get massively over-excited when I see big agencies not doing a press ad or a telly commercial – like J Walter Thompson London.

When the Glasgow School of Art burned down, it mailed famous artists a piece of the debris. They were asked to use it to create an artwork, which would be auctioned at Christie’s. Grayson Perry, Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor, Sir Peter Blake, The Chapman Bothers, Cornelia Parker and Douglas Gordon et al responded.

They raised a million quid and – of even more value – awareness of the catastrophe.

Now restoration work is underway.

If they were to enter it into The Caples Awards, I’m sure it’d pick up.

What’s different about The Caples is it’s a show run by creative people for creative people. It celebrates work that actually sells stuff. As well as digital, integrated and experiential categories, there’s a section for direct mail – hurrah!

There have been some amazing winners recently.

Want to know how much you could be saving on your mortgage? BNZ bank mailed customers $1,000 in cash to show them.

(“Shed” from Colenso BBDO helped BNZ add $600 million to their loan-book.)

Gold all the way.

So, this is a plea.

If you’ve produced any mail you think is at all interesting, enter it to The Caples. Or, if you know someone who’s done any half-decent direct mail, tell them to enter it.

You’ll be making one old creative luvvie very happy.

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