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.

Agencies good at one type of advertising usually aren't good at the other (though they would indignantly protest at this characterization). The strategic thinking and skill set behind an awareness campaign are entirely different from those behind a response campaign. Awareness advertising needs to break through clutter, command attention and implant itself in as many memories as possible. Direct response advertising must also break through clutter, but its goal is not so much to be remembered as to be acted upon without delay.

Thus, differing tactics emerge. Awareness TV spots air when the greatest number of targeted viewers are likely to be watching, whereas DM spots air when viewers are fewer in number but are more likely to leave the tube to make a phone call.

Awareness print ads tend to keep it short and punchy, whereas DM ads tend to be longer and give readers enough information to make a buying decision. Awareness approaches can afford to tease and entertain, whereas DM approaches must get quickly to the point.

The disparate approaches taken by the two kinds of agencies can sometimes lead to bickering over who is and isn't "truly creative." It's not unusual for awareness agencies to dismiss DM agencies as champions of the straightforward and boring, or for DM agencies to accuse awareness agencies of sacrificing effectiveness on the altar of artistic fulfillment.

Direct marketers will blurt out, "If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative." To which awareness advertisers hurl back, "If it isn't creative, it won't sell."

In their zeal to decry one another as the antichrists of advertising, both camps could benefit from—and possibly get along with one another better with—a little perspective:

  • Not all highly creative ads are intrinsically irresponsible. 
  • Not all response-oriented ads are fated to bore. 
  • If an ad campaign fails to meet its objectives, its level of creative quality—or lack of it—is moot. 
  • Not all ad campaigns have hard sales objectives. Sometimes the objective is to change an advertiser's image, as IBM does with upbeat ads to shed its stodgy image. (Not that it always works. Witness Oldsmobile.) Sometimes the objective is to effect behavior change, as with antismoking campaigns. Sometimes the objective is merely to make people like a company to decrease the likelihood of waking up one day to find headquarters surrounded by protesters, as Shell does with ads showing how it buries pipelines and leaves pristine land behind.
  • On the other hand, sometimes the sole advertising objective really is to make cash registers ring, without regard for the impression that the ad leaves behind. But, more often, objectives call for some balance, which is why an increasing number of direct marketing campaigns are as attractive and charming as they are productive and accountable.
  • Certain creative approaches work well for some objectives, and poorly for others. If you want to convince people that your wrench is more reliable than others, you're going to need some straightforward sales talk about what it's made from, how many pounds of torque it can take, how easy it is to grip and so on. Some might call the resultant ad long and boring. But a mechanic in need of a serious wrench will drink up every word. On the other hand, if you want to convince people that you have the hottest nightclub in town, chances are that a glitzy, fast-paced TV spot with hard-driving music will serve you better than a detailed description of the materials that went into the dance floor.

You may have noticed something that these points have in common: they center around the importance of considering the objectives behind your advertising. Indeed, objectives are a good thing to establish long before you mull creative approaches. Objectives are also the standard by which you should evaluate proposed concepts and measure a campaign's success.

If you think that the importance of establishing objectives should be obvious, I'd have to agree: it should be. But you'd be surprised how often advertisers overlook establishing objectives to guide their work and, later, overlook returning to objectives to evaluate it.

More than one company has restricted its ad agency to image-enhancing campaigns and, when sales didn't promptly rise as a result, threatened to stop advertising altogether. You don't paint your house to beautify it only to declare house paint a waste of money because you still have termites.

If you're wondering whether your company should go with traditional or direct response advertising, review your objectives. If awareness, recognition and public favor are essential parts of your marketing plan, consider awareness advertising. If your goals include quantifiable leads, inquiries, sales or dialog with customers and prospects, you should take a look at direct response.

If your objectives fall in both areas, you may need a little of each.

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Steve Cuno is chairman and founder of RESPONSE Agency (www.ResponseAgency.com), a direct-response marketing firm in the Salt Lake City area. He is author of Prove It Before You Promote It: How to Take the Guesswork Out of Marketing, due in bookstores December 2008 (John Wiley & Sons). Contact him via Steve@ResponseAgency.com.