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The Awful Truth About Innovation

January 18th, 2007 by Bob Bly

Branding and online marketing types, as a rule, get enthused by creativity, innovation, originality, and new ideas.

We direct marketers don’t.

What excites us is making the cash register ring … not being original or “creative.”

If we can knock off a winning promo and make it work for our product — we’re as happy as a clam.

Being a pioneer — in a new media, a new market, a new technology — can sometimes be profitable.

But more often, it can be the most costly mistake you ever make.

According to an article in MarketSmart (11/06, p. 12.), innovation fails to pay back its cost of capital more than 90% of the time.

So beware of gurus and creative types with new ideas.

Embrace what’s been tested and proven to work.

You won’t win advertising awards.

But you will get a greater ROMD (return on marketing dollars).


This entry was posted on Thursday, January 18th, 2007 at 3:13 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

75 responses about “The Awful Truth About Innovation”

  1. Kevin Hillstrom said:

    That should excite the marketing blogosphere!

  2. Damian Petrini said:

    We see a lot of that in the manufacturing industry when it comes to technology upgrades. So many tech companies are out there trying to market the latest and greatest technologies, which usually is not the best approach.

    Most manufacturing companies that are 15 years behind the technology curve, just want to improve to being only 5 years behind the curve. So you have to market to them significantly different than most of the competition.

    At the end of the day, I’d rather have our company’s bank giving us an award for most deposits made in a month, than to get a fancy ad agency award for flashy marketing campaigns.

  3. Craig Hysell said:

    Aren’t you a guru Bob? What’s life without swinging for the fences some of the time? Is a creative campaign that works based on pure luck? Isn’t hard work and homework involved in any steady success we have in life?

    I find it hard to believe that a man who has written so many books doesn’t believe in a little creativity now and then… in all aspects of life. Don’t tell me you write just to hear a cash register ring. None of us do that. And if we only relied on what is tested and proven how would we ever advance the craft?

    Is this theory absolute or something you only believe in 90% of the time? If your writing isn’t boring, it’s creative, no? Nobody pays attention to boring writing.

    So many questions. So many different points of view. Life is as fun as it is a pain in the ass.

  4. Bob Bly said:

    Craig: On every promotion I write for a client, I have only one goal: generate more revenues. Whether I do it with a whacky creative idea or by making incremental improvements to their existing mailing makes absolutely no difference to me. I am in it, like they are, for results — not to satisfy my creative or artistic impulses. Any copywriter who does not focus on results is doing the client a disservice.

  5. Jim Logan said:

    And especially in the corporate world, marketers are not compensated on the business they create or the sales they increase. If marketing people were paid on revenue growth, we’d have more direct response campaigns and less branding.

  6. Sheri Cyprus said:

    Results are ultimately what it’s all about in direct mail. Results mean profit. Even as a junior copywriter in sweepstakes and promotions, my work has pulled amazing results because I’ve at least understood how important thinking about the results is — thanks to you Bob, and to David Ogilvy.

  7. Anon Coward said:

    I only half agree. If everyone followed Bob’s advice there would never be any advances in marketing techniques.

    I don’t mind letting other people test and try to innovate and then reap the rewards afterwards (especially in the marketing side of the business) – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying a totally new thing every once in awhile (especially when your current marketing has hit a steady-state).

  8. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Question for Anon Coward —

    What do you mean by “advances in marketing techniques?”

    And what specifically about Bob’s advice would keep people from discovering/using them?

  9. Craig Hysell said:

    Bob: If revenue (i.e. results) is the only goal of a direct marketer doesn’t it matter how much more revenue is, or can be, gained?

    Maybe I misunderstand the definition of “creative” being used here. Being “wacky” and finding how best to effectively get a desired message across are both instances of creative thinking in my opinion. Anybody who is “wacky” all the time, or doesn’t research prior marketing results is an unprofessional putz. I’m not denying that. I’ve worked with knuckleheads like that.

    But immediately ruling an idea out because it’s “original” or “creative” limits one’s effectiveness at delivering the best possible message for the best possible cash register ring. Which also does the client a disservice. Innovation comes in all shapes and forms- from pet rocks to walks on the moon.

    I understand the point you are making, it just rings of a disheartening day spent with some bozo, creative, innovation is the only answer-type “wack-jobs” at the office. All I’m saying is, there are a lot of buttons on a cash register one can hit before opening the till.

  10. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller said:

    Amen, Bob!
    “Creatives” create work to impress their friends. Direct marketers work creativity to make money for their clients!

  11. Sheri Cyprus said:

    I agree with you, Mordechai. I think direct marketers need to be creative in doing what it takes to create a profitable mailing for their clients. I think you can add creativity and new ideas as long as you are not completely forgetting proven methods and you are still focused on creating good results.

    Anon and Craig: I agree that fresh creative thinking is a good thing, but you can’t lose sight of what works. You can’t just use creative new ideas just because they are creative new ideas. You can’t gamble with the client’s money.

  12. Robert Rosenthal said:

    Bob: I have enormous respect for your work (been reading your columns for years and consider you one of the most important direct marketing copywriters), but this time I’ve gotta disagree. If we only “embrace what’s been tested and proven to work,” aren’t we guilty of living off other people’s innovations? And won’t a lot of that stuff eventually lose its potency through overuse?

    I know a lot of direct marketers are in your camp on this one. If any of your readers want to debate me on this topic, I’ll publish the transcript in Freaking Marketing. If interested please email me (

  13. Chris Lake said:

    Good topic, Bob. Hard to disagree with either side of the debate.

    I think there is a happy medium between unbridled creativity and formulaic writing. Let the other guy send out his “Come golf with us!” message printed on Titleists. We can watch and see what response rate he achieves while we continue with our tried-and-true packages. We can pick up new ideas that worked without the development costs. (Now how am I gonna get a four-page letter on that little white dimpled ball…?)

    This question ties directly with the previous topic, “The More Things Change.” For all the hype and excitement around the Super Bowl ads, for example, there are thousands and thousands of mundane, cost-effective spots that will never win awards, but sell products and services.

    A final thought: most of what the branding and online marketing folk try to sell is the same concepts under a sexy new name. There’s nothing wrong with teaching old ideas in a fresh way, but caveat emptor.

  14. s. zeilenga said:

    Bob, I will admit that I have only been reading your blog for about a week, so I might be judging wrong by first impressions. But all around the site and in your blog posts you seem very pessimistic. Do you enjoy writing? Or do you do all this for the money?

    I mean, “What excites us is making the cash register ring … not being original or creative.” doesn’t sound like someone who has a passion for writing.

    Sorry, just an observation.


  15. SpongeBob Fan said:

    “A final thought: most of what the branding and online marketing folk try to sell is the same concepts under a sexy new name. There’s nothing wrong with teaching old ideas in a fresh way, but caveat emptor.”

    This is the main point, it seems to me, and not ignored by Bob in his original post. What’s podcasting but radio? What’s youtube but TV? What’s email but mail? There aren’t many … or any! … completely new & viable ideas under the marketing sun.

    (Bob does seem a little less exuberant lately. I’ve wondered about this. Maybe it’s something he’ll blog about one day. Maybe it’ll even lead to a breakout best-seller, when he’s writing books again.)

  16. Bob Bly said:

    Zeilenga: I LOVE writing. When a client hires me to write a direct mail package, the ONLY thing he wants is for his mailing to make him as much money as possible … and I love helping him do that. If I didn’t care about what I wrote, and just wanted money, I’d write Nigerian e-mail spam schemes.

  17. Suzanne Ryan said:

    I have a question that is an offshoot of this topic:

    Does dry corporate writing (i.e. high tech, financial) work in selling a product/service?

    There is a rigid standard in certain industries and I am wondering if they have actually measured the results against producing the same information in a more conversational, benefits-focused style.

  18. Suzanne Ryan said:

    I think I understand where Bob is coming from here. I had dinner last night with a friend who has done marketing work and has a strict mindset of looking for cutting edge, zany new ways to grab attention.

    I paraphrased a brochure cover headline for him that I had written for a client and his response was that, while not clever and fun, it was direct and to the point–and created interest to learn more.

    He’s conditioned to think zany, fun, brilliant, entertaining copy is the primary goal–but despite that….he unconsciously realized that my more “sober” headline did the job.

    How about the “Pee Like A Firehouse” debate though? Creative imagery and pushing the envelope won the day there.

  19. Bob Bly said:

    Suzanne: you have nailed it. I have no dislike of, or objection to, creativity. I think some of my best promotions are actually quite creative: saying something in a fresh, compelling way. But so many Madison Avenue types have “a strict mindset of LOOKING” for the zany and creative, that to them, being creative is the end, where it should be a means to an end, that end being increased sales for the product. And, as the BMA article I quoted in my post points out, the creative innovation LOSES money more than 90% of the time. Is that hit rate acceptable? Not to me!

  20. Jodi Kaplan said:

    What’s worse than being zany just to be zany is pretending that *any* change is exciting. I just got my electric bill, and the envelope has a teaser that says, “New size!”. I don’t care, and I doubt anyone else does either; how about telling me about a new way to save energy? Or, at the very least, say it’s easier to read.

  21. Craig Hysell said:

    Look at all the passion here. This is awesome. Pure genius. I freakin’ love it! How can you not love this stuff? Why didn’t we shake each other up on Monday morning instead of Friday afternoon? Ha!

    Think of me what you will, but I don’t believe there is a better job on the planet and it seems like everyone commenting here can at least agree on that. Thanks Bob.

  22. Bob Bly said:

    Craig: I would amend your comment to say there is no better job on the planet for me, you, and the others commenting here … but there are plenty of people on the planet who would HATE what we do. For instance, my mail carrier said to me the other day, “It’s a beautiful day … how can you stand to be chained to a desk all day!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that when I am at my PC clicking away, I am in a nirvana I doubt he will ever know.

  23. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Hey, the exuberant Bob Bly is back!

  24. Craig Hysell said:

    In reference to comments 22 and 23: Indeed. 🙂

  25. Joshua Boswell said:


    Bingo… who cares about all the fluff and non-sense or if someone knows my brand, logo or slogan. The point of all of our writing – the only reason we do anything is to get people to take action. Like you said earlier, your only purpose in writing is to make your clients more revenues. To do that someone has to cut the check and buy what we are selling.

    And to get folks to take action we’ve got to know what makes them tick… which is why you are a master of persuasion – you know people inside and out. You understand (though may not agree) why the friendly postman loves walking around all day – it satisfies an emotional need, just like sitting and ticking away all day satisfies our emotional needs. How did you put that? Oh, ya nirvana… even from Nigerian spam schemes (:

  26. Michael A. Stelzner said:


    Seems like I am late to this party.

    You said, “So beware of gurus and creative types with new ideas. Embrace what’s been tested and proven to work.”


    Ok, on one point you are right. BEWARE. However, without new ideas we would all be speaking Chinese in about 5 years.

    I like to think that it makes sense to EXTEND old, proven ideas into NEW concepts.

    Start with a platform that works and branch into a new area. Then collect the dollars.


  27. Bob Bly said:

    Mike: YOurs is the approach all successful direct marketers take. We do not jump into the lake of whacky and wild with both feet, because it is unproven. We take what has been proven to work, and extend it by testing new copy, messaging, design, offers, lists, etc.

  28. Derrick Daye said:

    C’mon Bob, you and all direct marketers are more progressive than that. Innovation moves us forward. Would we want Edison to discover a brighter candle to keep candle profits up? If you stay with what’s tried and true you get left behind. Because what’s tried and true must also evolve. Want higher profits? Evolve with the needs of your customer. After all, products and services are created to meet human needs. One more thought, towards the end of his life, Benjamin Franklin witnessed the first manned balloon flight over France. An observer with him said “what good is this?” to which Dr. Franklin replied “What good is a new baby?” C’mon Bob retract your post. 🙂 Derrick

  29. Sean Woodruff said:

    I’ve never been able to get a creative advertising agency to invest their own money in a campaign.

    I call it the wallet test.

    If you will open your wallet, for your idea, I might open mine. Otherwise I’ll stick with what I know has worked in the past.

  30. Bob Bly said:

    Derrick: Perhaps I have been unclear. I am all for creativity as a means to the ends of increasing sales. I am against the school of advertising that views the advertising ITSELF as the ends, and gains satisfaction primarily from creative advertising, not better results. And before you get too experimental, I agree with Sean’s litmus test: if you think it’s so creative, spend your money on it, not someone else’s. “Creative” marketers NEVER do that.

  31. Robert Rosenthal said:

    Sean: So glad you brought up the old “wallet test.” I’ve run a direct marketing agency for years and know all about it. I think every client who ever asked us to “put skin in the game” initially offered less than our going rate.

    You’re probably thinking, “But what about the upside potential?” Let’s talk about that. Generally it’s been a win/lose proposition: If the client made a fortune we’d maybe earn our regular fee.

    A lot of clients don’t understand that agencies only work with some of the variables that impact the outcome. Asking us to go along with the “wallet test” is like asking a heart surgeon to only be paid in full if the patient does well. Agencies represent some businesses that are never going to fly. We deserve to be paid for our work.

    I’ve repeatedly asked clients about giving us a significant bonus for transforming the bottom line — and in some cases even offered to cut our fee a bit in exchange. I’ve never had a single taker.

  32. Sean Woodruff said:

    Robert, as you might guess, that is exactly how I believe a heart surgeon should be paid. Otherwise, he shouldn’t be operating on hearts. Maybe health care wouldn’t be so ridiculously over priced if doctors that operated on results were the only doctors available. Malpractice wouldn’t be an issue.

    Along those lines, agencies shouldn’t be representing (i.e.- taking money) from businesses that are never going to fly. Taking the money from such a client is a lack of professional integrity in my book. How about just telling them, “Look, I don’t believe you have a vialble business here and I can’t do anything for you?”

  33. Robert Rosenthal said:

    Sean: Good direct marketing agencies turn down clients when they know in advance that something is never going to fly. They also insist on certain stuff as a condition of doing business. I’ve told clients we’d only work with them if we had a chance to run certain tests we considered essential. But very often we have no way of knowing the outcome until test results come back.

    With all due respect, your bias against agencies is showing. I suspect you’ve been burned by at least one agency. Consider the love analogy: If you had a girlfriend who treated you poorly, does that mean you should forget about women?

  34. SpongeBob Fan said:

    I found myself thinking about this thread off and on last night, and came on this morning to put in a word in in defense of advertising agencies (yes, I am in advertising) and found that Robert Rosenthal has made all my points … and then some.

    Gee, Sean – how can a heart surgeon guarantee that a patient will do well? Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal had a cover story about a kid who gave half his liver to his father … against his family’s wishes because t-h-e-y didn’t think the father would be responsible about follow-up self-care. But the kid loved his dad.

    I love my clients … but not that much! It’s a business relationship. And I’ve totally turned away business with people I thought were headed in the wrong direction. I actually had such a meeting just last Thursday. It happens all the time. And it stinks, ’cause you wanted the business but wanted to do the right thing more.

    (If a patient should have a 5-year life expectancy after a surgery and lives 40 more years, should they pay the surgeon more?!)

    Regarding results, I have worked with companies who wouldn’t tell me their results at all. You end up figuring they either don’t want you to get a swelled head or are afraid you’d charge more if you knew. I just figure with those ones that if they stick around, things must be pretty much okay.

    Most advertising agencies — including me! — spend tons of time and energy and hope and money doing creative outreach to targted prospects. (I just got a bite from a terrific prospect for me who I had been contacting creatively every other week for 7 months!) Newspaper/television advertising doesn’t work for advertising agencies. Which brings us right back to Bob’s original point — innovation for the sake of innovation is worthless. Advertising agency people do put their money where their proven interests lie. Far from being hypocrites (and excepting the charlatans who exist in e-v-e-r-y profession), agencies are actually providing a very clear example of commercial integrity, even tho’ it’s not “cool” or “hip” to reach out the way they do!

  35. Sean Woodruff said:

    It’s funny my bias is showing because I have never paid an agency a dime. They never want to back their own ideas that they present as being so grand.

    I really only have a bias for integrity. No matter what the profession. I know there must be many agencies with a lot of integrity. I’ve just never personally had a meeting with one.

    That being said, I also have limited exposure to them because I’ve never had an urge to respond to any of their marketing. I don’t even see much marketing by agencies. How do they get clients?

    What is that about shoes and cobblers?

  36. Jonathan Kantor said:

    So if I understand the bottom line, we should embrace what’s been proven and avoid innovation new ideas because they can be costly…like blogs and podcasting, right?

    I guess I’ll have to wait for the research findings to come in before I jump in.

  37. Bob Bly said:

    Jonathan: “research findings” sounds like we’re concerned with academic studies. We’re not. We want to know that a marketing concept has proven its ability to work — and actually made money for others — before we spend our hard-earned money and valuable time and energy on it. Make sense?

  38. Mary’s Blog » Don’t Confuse Innovation with Lousy Creativity said:

    […] I usually run like a girl from “innovation” marketing speak (but, hey – I am a girl…) Then, I happened upon Bob Bly’s post, The Awful Truth About Innovation. […]

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