Whenever I'm asked to sum up the differences between traditional and direct response advertising, I oversimplify it: Traditional advertising seeks to create positive awareness of a product in enough minds so that your target market will eventually reach for your brand. Direct response advertising improves on that.
Traditional campaigns have had their share of overnight successes—Volkswagen's "Think Small," Avis's "We Try Harder," Benson & Hedges's "Oh the Disadvantages." But, more often, it takes years for an awareness campaign to take hold. Viewers weren't too sure about Dave Thomas of Wendy's at first. But they embraced him over time.
In other words, traditional advertising is the kind of advertising you may have to run for a few years before you know whether you want to fire your ad agency.
Then there's direct response. A direct response agency knows how to get fired in about 60 days.
The distinguishing characteristic of direct response advertising is that it asks the target market to respond directly back to the advertiser. Usually, this means asking the market to call, visit a Web site, mail a card or walk into a place of business.
Direct response advertising is, therefore, perfectly measurable. DR is not interested in how many people remember an ad and say they feel more inclined to buy a client's product after seeing it. Either they respond, or they don't. Awareness is a byproduct.
Which is both good and bad. It's good for clients, because they know what they're getting in return for their advertising dollar. It's only good for a direct response agency when the work performs. When it doesn't, there's no place to hide.
There is room—in fact, need—in the world for both kinds of advertising. McDonald's would be foolish to abandon image-building ads. So would Coke. On the other hand, Geico Insurance would be equally foolish to give up their charming "call now for a free quote" spots for ones that merely increase awareness of geckos.