Interviews With Brilliant People: Direct Marketing Pioneer Drayton Bird

Interviews With Brilliant People: Direct Marketing Pioneer Drayton Bird

At Rocket Clicks we conduct an interview series that features a  Q & A with entrepreneurs, innovators, thinkers and leaders (I.e. really smart people). For this interview, we  interviewed Drayton Bird, an industry leader, pioneer and innovator in direct marketing.

In a nutshell, Drayton is a direct marketer, copywriter, speaker, author and “a man who knows more about direct advertising than anyone else in the world”as declared by the Godfather of AdvertisingDavid Ogilvy.  Drayton  has been in direct marketing for over 50 years, and wrote the critically acclaimed book on the subject – Commonsense Direct & Interactive Marketing, which is now in its 5th edition and out in “goodness knows” how many languages.

Q : What drew you to direct marketing and how did you get involved with David Ogilvy?

Drayton Bird : I’ve been in this game for 50 years. I started out originally as a journalist, and was making no money whatsoever. Then a friend said, “well, you’d do well in advertising.” He obviously recognized a shallow mind when he met one. Of course I didn’t know what advertising was really; I mean, I knew what it was because it was there, but I didn’t know anything about it. So, I whizzed off to the public library and read all the books I could find on the subject—and since there were only two, it didn’t take me very long. Next, I tried to see if I could get a job—couldn’t.

So it took me quite a while (and when I did finally get a job) I noticed something very interesting, which encouraged me to no end: And that was that hardly anybody studied. Instead,  a  great many people in the advertising and marketing industries imagined they could get by with good looks, charm, bullshit, a bit of luck, and knowing the right people. Realizing that this was rubbish, I started studying like mad, and in my first job, I soon noticed that I had two types of clients: Those that measured everything because they had to (because they relied upon direct sales), and those who just sort of relied on what their wives thought.

Right from the start, I was intrigued by these people who wanted to know what results they got because I wanted to know what my work actually produced. When I became a Creative Director, I persuaded my clients, who were people like the British Travel Association, Greek National Tourist Office, and a few others (particularly a firm selling washing machines door-to-door, to test everything). Around this time, which would be about 1964, I wrote a book that was published and was very well reviewed, but not very well read (chuckle).

That’s how I fell in love with it—direct marketing. I could see results. I could see the possibility of making money; however, I soon discovered that I wasn’t going to make any money because I, in fact, discovered something else, which was:  If you can’t count, you won’t do very well. So, I then spent seven years in the wilderness, though I was at that time aware of David Ogilvy. In around 1967 (I think it would’ve been), I wrote a letter to him to get a job, and I wish I’d kept it because I got an immediate reply. In short, I could have gone to go and work in New York, which had been my dream, but I didn’t because I had a young family here and I was separated from my first wife and didn’t want to lose contact with my children.

Anyway, that was my first contact with David, and I didn’t know him again until much later after I had started my own direct marketing agency, at which point I then later sold it to Ogilvy & Mather as a result of David Ogilvy ringing me up. This is when I got to know him really well.

After I sold my agency, what had happened was we had started with no money at all (my partners and I) and I discovered that there was no clear easy definition of direct marketing; I couldn’t see one anywhere. I thought if you can define something, you own it to a degree. So I wrote a book back in 1982, which has been a bestseller ever since, and it’s out in around 19 languages around the world. So at this point—I became an expert. I seriously recommend the book (chuckle). Try and become an expert in something nobody knows anything about, and cares less (chuckle).

…So that is the long winded answer to that question (laughs)—sorry for that.

Q :   American Express, Visa, Microsoft and Nestle are just a handful of internationally recognized brands you’ve worked with over your years in direct marketing and copywriting. How has direct marketing changed over the years, especially with the advent of the internet?

Drayton Bird : Funny enough, I’ve never talked to anyone about this before; I wrote down those clients who were most likely to be interested in what was the emerging thing called direct marketing, and clearly  they were the people who were already involved in direct marketing, mail order companies and so on. Right at the end of the list were those companies where direct marketing would’ve seemed to be completely illogical; the big packaged goods companies like you mentioned—Nestle. It’s interesting that that’s how we began, but within a very short period of time I changed my priorities, realizing that I should be going for the second category and then the third category because though these companies may not have known much about direct marketing, they had a hell of a lot of money.

The things that happen in business revolve around money, human behavior, and technology. Technology in particular made it possible for people to build large databases and manipulate them, extract information from them, and direct messages in a more accurate fashion. Money was important; not merely because it made that cheaper, but because old fashioned mass advertising operated on the premise that it was cheap to talk to a lot of people and that you could afford to advertise to the masses. For this reason, products were aimed at masses. Consumers, however, got pickier and marketers had to adapt to what they were doing to make the consumer happy. Communications had to adapt accordingly. The advent of the computerized database made it possible to do that.

This was linked to a number of other things, also technological; the lowering of the cost of telephone services, free telephone calls, and so on. Ultimately, this all of a sudden made for a  combination of circumstances: Manufacturers and marketers had to do something to satisfy customers and technology obligingly, provided a number of tools. Another example would be computerized printing, which made it possible to do these things.

So, those who have prepared minds, those who had been studying and thinking, and those who were watching what was going on with technology—were able to capitalize off this, which largely gave rise to direct marketing and what’s happened with the Internet.

Everybody who comes into marketing (or any other business for that matter) seems to think that everything began three days before they arrived, so they don’t study. There are a great many lessons to be learned from studying. With the exception of the effect of spam filters on emails, which prevent the sort of headlines that used to work in ordinary direct marketing for subject lines, pretty much everything else follows the same principles. It’s very interesting to me, that in fact, nearly everything I do is on the Internet now.

Q : I’ve seen that you’ve discussed before that direct marketing is probably the best form of marketing for a recession. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Drayton Bird : What happens during periods of prosperity is that people stop trying. I have two sayings:  First, nothing fails like success. Second, the road to success is paved with failure. What I mean by that is the minute people become successful; however, they make the fatal mistake of thinking it’s because they’re clever. Though they got something right, generally speaking, it’s only because they just happened to be a bit lucky and so they subsequently fall back into slack habits, thus perpetuating the cycle.

One of the things I love about the Internet (in regard to ensuring measurable work) is that I can think of something in the morning (in fact I did think of something this morning), which I can then have  out in the afternoon, and I will know by the end of the day whether it’s any good or not. That’s what I mean by accelerated direct marketing— it speeds everything up!

Circumstances force you into good habits, and that’s the number one thing. Apart from the fact that it forces people into good habits, what happens in a recession is that those people who aren’t doing these things go to the wall. They fail, and this is a good thing. The people who are bloody useless fail and go broke. The people who are doing the right thing, however,  are rewarded for doing the right thing. It encourages good habits and it encourages concentration.

You have to behave yourself. You have to start thinking. You have to look for new solutions. You have to try harder. You’ve got to work harder, and so on, and so forth. All the people who aren’t measuring, but realize they ought to be measuring, start to turn to measurable forms of marketing—and that’s what direct marketing is, whether it be online, offline, or on the phone (which of course is going to be the next big thing).

So that’s what happens. In a recession, business moves into measurable mediums and people are encouraged to do the right thing.  They turn to direct marketing. They always do and they always will.

Q : Drayton, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Drayton Bird : I’ll tell you what, if anybody’s interested;  if anybody found this at all interesting, I’ve got something free for them. If you go to,  you’ll see at the top right-hand side that there’s a little box where you can register and get two things.

1. You will get a lot of powerful marketing ideas from me, one about every three days. They’re all very simple things, and they all read the way I talk, so if you didn’t like this, well actually if you didn’t like this you’re not listening anyhow.

2. You will also get the best book every written on advertising or marketing (which happens to be the shortest book–a nice combination),  Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins, written in 1926–I think. This is an extraordinary book. In fact,  David Ogilvy once told that “nobody should work in advertising until they’ve read this book at least seven times.” I don’t think anybody should work in marketing until they’ve read it several times, because it’s a staggeringly brilliant book.

So if you go to (and you agree with me that it helps out a lot) you can download it.

Jake McCormick

Content Strategist

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