We use cookies to help enhance your experience and improve the functionality of our website.
For more details and help to manage your cookie options read our Privacy & Cookies information.

How bad marketing killed a good man

How bad marketing killed a good man

by Drayton Bird | , |

Do you ever wonder if you are doing a "good" job? I mean, besides making a living, are you doing the right thing?

I ask you because last year I had to speak to Syracuse University students here in London doing a course called "Ethical Advertising".

Maybe you and I are too busy trying to make a living to worry about that, but I found something rather good from Abraham Lincoln: "My religion is simple. When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad".

So I was honest. I told the students a bit about what I’ve done. I didn’t feel as good about working for tobacco brands even if it was perfectly legal as I did about working for charities like Save the Children.

Then I told the students a true story – and a very sad one. But this story has an important business lesson for you … it may even tell you if you are wasting your life, or doing something worthwhile.

Forty-odd years ago I was creative director of an 80-man London advertising agency. By happy chance many of our clients were not ordinary advertisers – who base their advertising on what they like or what their wife likes or what their friends at the golf club like.

They had businesses that depended on results: measurable results.

That is when I got the direct marketing bug. I studied everything I could and encouraged my clients to test and measure, even the clients who had never thought of doing so before.

For one client I managed to get more replies from a small advertisement in The Observer than his entire year’s advertising achieved in the previous year. I had got the bug!

A massive challenge

Our biggest challenge was a company that sold washing machines door to door. It was a mom and pop business, you could say, but on a rather grand scale, the husband and wife who founded it being one of the nicest couples I have ever met – and the most intelligent.

At that time one man was making a fortune in that business. But for you to understand what happened, I should explain something you young people may not know. In the UK - unlike anywhere else in the world as far as I know - people were buying a peculiar contraption called a twin-tub. Instead of doing the whole job in one chamber, like all sensible washing machines, there were two separate “tubs”. One washed. The other did the spin drying. After the washing cycle was finished, you just put the washing in the spinning tub.

My client thought there was a market for a machine that did the whole lot, i.e. the kind of the machine we’re all used to nowadays. We set to work on the advertising with a will - and in no time at all we were doing pretty well for him.

What gave me a certain childish satisfaction is that in the process we managed to completely destroy the main competitor – the man who had dominated the market until then. It wasn’t just the delight you take in winning. I was pleased because this man was not ethical. He relied on switch selling. He would advertise at one price and then send his salesman in to sell at a higher price.

My client did not do that. The price you saw in the ads was the price you paid.

A breakthrough – that didn’t happen

My greatest triumph on that account came from some advertising archaeology. I had read Maxwell Sackheim’s book, My First 60 Years in Advertising.

If you were to read this book today you would learn from it, I promise you. I certainly did. One of the most stupid things in business is the way everybody imagines the world started yesterday, or at the very latest 5 days after they started work. People do not study enough; and they think those people who wore funny clothes 100 years ago were idiots. In fact they had far more to compete with and to overcome than we do now and they did a pretty damn good job.

Sackheim was one of the great direct marketing pioneers. In his book he told about some tests he did at the turn of the 20th century. Through testing, he turned round the fortunes of a washing machine company, though now you would hardly call what he was selling a “machine”. It was pretty primitive. But although machines change, people and their motivations don’t.

He did the trick by changing a negative approach into a positive one and by making an offer - that you could try the washing machine at home free.

This got me thinking. I knew my client’s sales force converted 40-45% of the leads we got into sales. I asked if anybody ever complained and asked for the machine to be returned. Apparently this hardly ever happened.

So I sat down and wrote an ad which said “Try this fully automatic washing machine in your home free for 7 days – no obligation”. Like most of the stuff I have written I never kept a copy. I guessed that once people had the damn machine in their home they were very unlikely to send it back.

And so it proved. This was far more profitable – and should have transformed my client’s marketing. But it didn’t for a very good and sufficient reason, called the sales-force commission. It made them almost redundant. So this experiment, despite being successful, was discontinued.

What happened next? Not good news

Around this time I was approached to see if I would like to sell a thing called the Bullworker. This was an exercise device which makes you big and strong. I left the agency to work on that and one or two other projects. Funnily enough I did so well at it that people all over the world bought it.

But that’s another story, because I want to tell you what happened after I left the agency. Before leaving I did something you should always do. I wrote down the factors I considered made the advertising work.

Based on a series of tests there were 5 things that I found made the difference between success and failure. I told my successor that if he omitted any one of them the advertising would not work as well. If he omitted 2 it would work really badly and if he omitted 3 he might just as well throw himself in the canal.

Well, the minute I left everybody decided to get creative and tried all sorts of wacky ideas. The cost of the response went up and up and up to double what it was … to quadruple what it was - and so on. Eventually it was ten times what it was.

Instead of going back to what had worked they insisted on trying new ideas every week. Within a year the company was in trouble. In 18 months it was broke - and my client, the one who was so intelligent and likeable and far-sighted, killed himself.

This may seem a very extreme example but it is a true one. Marketing can literally be a matter of life and death. And although few people give it much thought, a whole category comes to mind immediately. It is the field of charity. Here how well you are able to raise funds really is often a matter of life and death.

Every time I see some clever advertising done by a charity – advertising created to make a copywriter and art director pat themselves on the back and tell themselves how clever they are I want to throw up. Their ego is costing lives.
There is a constant flow of people who promise to tell you how to make more money, especially online – and rightly so. As an old vaudeville legend, Sophie Tucker, used to say “Honey, I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor – and believe me, rich is better.”

But it’s nice to know, isn’t it, that when you do something right it’s not only profitable - but you’re doing the right thing?
And if you have something that’s working:

  1. Try to find out why
  2. Write it down
  3. Don’t change till you get something better

Simple, right?

Most people neglect either one, two or all three of those essentials. It is rarely fatal, but invariably disastrous.

How about a free offer? If you’d like my 101 helpful marketing ideas - all free - go and register at You get one every three days – and one man said if he’d been getting them he wouldn’t have wasted his time on an MBA.

Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.
Great practical one day course that can easily be incorporated back into the 'real world'

Natalie Griffiths,
Director, Natalie Griffiths Associates

Train Your Teams

Upskill your teams marketing capabilities with a tailored IDM training plan that suits your business

Enhance your career with the IDM

Your training partner in filling digital and direct marketing skills gaps, setting you apart as a doer

share on