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How Database Knowledge Helps Copywriters Write Creative

Updated on July 16, 2014
Hindustan Lever Direct Mailer Response Device
Hindustan Lever Direct Mailer Response Device | Source

What is a Database?

It’s not so much the brilliance of the creative, but its relevance to the recipient that determines its success. This relevance depends largely on the information contained in the database. According to Drayton Bird, it’s the agency’s job to enrich the knowledge held on a database on every available opportunity.

As Bird explains, a database is a list of names and addresses with details about the people or companies on that list. The details incorporated should be those – and only those – which help the direct marketer to speak to people in a relevant and timely way. This means that the questions asked in the response device should be devised with care. Database cannot be divorced from creative.

Says Bird in his Commonsense Creative notes: "The imaginative use of these details enables you to say the right thing to the right person in the right way at the right time – in other words, eliminate junk. You could say that the database is the commercial equivalent of your brain, which in everyday life allows you to recognise different people and react to them according to what you know about them.

Thus, you obviously speak in a different way to a young person than an old person; to someone important rather than someone unimportant; to somebody who is a close friend as opposed to someone who is a mere stranger; and you only speak about things you believe will interest them.”

He adds that the same holds true for advertising: people tend to buy more as a result of advertising they like; and that advertising they like means not advertising that’s clever or ingenious but advertising they think is relevant.

Hindustan Lever Direct Mail - Follow Up Letter
Hindustan Lever Direct Mail - Follow Up Letter | Source

How Database Knowledge Helps Creative

The writer should begin with the individual he’s writing to. Is he a customer or not? It is well known that a customer is more likely to reply than a non customer, and the writer can refer to the past relationship in a mailing, using details of past purchases. ,On the other hand, if the prospect has not replied to the previous mailings, there’s little point sending out the same message to them again.

In Bird’s words: “The idea of gaining information from the response was developed by Reader’s Digest many years ago when they came up with the yes/no option. The first thing I would like to say to you is that I have never seen a yes/no option in a mailing pack fail to work. Although a great many noes tend to be received, you will get more yeses simply by encouraging people to choose.

My first recommendation to you is that any mailing you send out should at the very least incorporate this simple form of information gathering. Apart from anything else, it will give you a list of people who don’t want to receive mail, therefore saving you money and lifting response the next time you mail that particular selection of names. My second recommendation to you is that you should always consider the use of questionnaires.”

Response Device For IBM Direct Mailer
Response Device For IBM Direct Mailer | Source

More Options for the Response Device in Direct Mail

In between the simple yes/no and the questionnaire, there is a myriad of possibilities the writer should also consider, suggests Bird.

  1. Yes/No/Maybe – first devised by a well known freelance copywriter, John Francis Tighe.
  2. Yes/No/Not now, but later – people want to buy when it suits them, not when it suits the direct marketer.
  3. Yes/No/Not this but something else. Here the writer gives a list of alternative products they may be interested in, and thus have an opportunity to cross sell.

According to Bird, “You can use your imagination to think of alternatives such as finding out from people that they are not interested because it is too expensive. If you’re going to go to all the effort of getting a response, then get one that is useful and helps you plan ahead and communicate accurately."

If agencies make a point of consistently working to enrich the database at all levels, they don’t have to fight to get people reading – because they are always interested in hearing from them at the right time about the things they have told them they are interested in. That is what direct marketing is all about.

Copywriters Can Write Relevant Creative Using the Database

An enriched database enables direct mail writers to write creative that is relevant to their prospects. For instance, they will address customers and non customers in different ways. They can offer various options that will make it easy for the prospect to reply, such as the Yes/No option. Another element Bird recommends is the questionnaire. All these methods serve to help direct marketers offer the right products at the right time to their prospects, thus building their business.


Drayton Bird’s Commonsense Creative notes previously only accessible to employees of Ogilvy & Mather.

Drayton Bird: How To Get The Results You Need From Your Copy... And Your Career An Exclusive


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