The golden rules for effective Direct Response TV creative

Kevin Murphy shares his experiences and insights on DRTV

'That’s a good deal! I’ve been thinking that I need something like this. Right, I’m doing it, I’m calling now’ AKA “our golden rules for effective DRTV creative”

An eye for detail and expertise in granular spot time media planning and buying sits at the heart of any successful direct response TV campaign. But if the wrong style of creative is run in that media space, and by that I mean an approach that isn’t ruthlessly focused on generating an immediate viewer action, then the greatest planning in the world will not maximise a campaign’s ROI.

Running the wrong creative can easily reduce response rates by two thirds, if not more. In my career as a media planner a data approach to DR creative has sometimes caused challenges. I was once screamed at by creative agency for daring to be a “mere” media planner that gives a view on a creative proposal. A senior person at the creative agency called my then boss and said he “wanted my balls” for daring to offer my opinion (which was asked for by a client). I don’t think this was requested in a positive way. In the end we did some A/B testing and my suggestion generated higher response rates.

Sadly, this did not mean that I was a creative genius.

The truth is, when you analyse significant amounts of media response data that has been generated by carefully constructed test and learn programmes, it’s not a question of subjective opinions; it simply becomes a case of witnessing consistent outcomes from repeated creative tactics. I’d just seen this particular example tested many times before.

Therefore, getting the creative and media planning working together at optimum levels of effectiveness is crucial for campaign success. This is especially key when evaluation consists of short term, direct response metrics. It sounds obvious, but in the midst of factors such as time pressures, lack of integration, losing sight of the objectives or having too many objectives, death by amends or multiple opinions and more, sometimes the brilliant basics can fall away. What’s left can be a compromised solution that is not optimal for its core purpose.

A suboptimal creative could manifest itself as being too ‘vanilla’; blandly ticking some or even all of the boxes, but it still drives low responses because of a lack of engagement and cut though. Even worse is using an awareness objective designed ad and thinking that the addition of a phone number or URL will make it an effective DRTV ad.

The way that we approach response focused creative is to keep to a simple but proven rulebook. When adhered to, these rules can still make DRTV truly successful when combined with great creativity and media planning. The rules should be seen as an effectivity framework rather than shackles. If the media has been laid down properly and if the phone isn’t ringing and the web traffic isn’t flowing, the ad isn’t working.

So what are the main DRTV creative rules?

We start at the same place as any good piece of communication, with the target audience: “Who am I talking to?” However there is one modification; with a DR ad we are usually aiming to talk to those people within the target group who we’d describe as “interested waverers.” By that we mean a segment of the audience that have already been mulling over an issue that they need to solve, or a purchase they’ve been thinking of making. For example, with a distance learning brand a responder is likely to have been thinking about it as a possible solution to a problem for a while, rather than a single ad suddenly stimulating interest where there was absolutely none previously.

Strong DRTV ads are quick at making the viewer aware if they want to target you or not. If the ad is speaking to you, they want your attention ASAP. If it’s not relevant to you, it doesn’t want to waste your time any more. This is why questions are often asked early in traditional DR advertising; it’s to explicitly filter out irrelevant viewers: “Is your car insurance over £300?” If the answer is “no”, be on your way, we aren’t talking to you. But if your insurance is over £300? Well, now we have your curiosity.

This leads us into rule two: “What am I selling?” This is about turning curiosity into attention. We want our creative to be relentlessly compelling enough to tip our target audience out of their inertia and into action. Immediate action.

So make “What am I selling?” obvious from the start. Unlike some brand advertising storytelling, we are not looking to make any late, mysterious reveals of who we are and what we actually want you to buy. Airtime is selling time. We want to maximise the attention of the engaged target audience and spend more time explaining to them the features and benefits of our offer. And this blends into rule three: Why should I respond?”

Direct response creative contains what we call “multiple benefits” whereas a brand ad is traditionally focused on a “single idea, creatively executed.” This difference in approach can often be a bone of contention when a creative agency person doesn’t truly understand DR requirements. I’ve been told more than once that “if you throw someone four balls they will drop them all.” However we are not going for long term ad recall based upon a single point of differentiation, we want action now, so we have to sell more now.

The other reason for using multiple benefits in an “action now” context is that we want the ad to appeal to 100% of our target audience. However, they will have differing triggers for purchase, so we try and mention them all in one ad. Think of it as a game of Family Fortunes: “We asked 100 people why they would buy a cruise holiday?” The top answer might be 50 people with “price”. But if you ran a price-only ad, it would potentially be missing the other 50% of the available audience because price is not their main motivation for buying.

If top answer number two is “choice of destination” then featuring available locations would cover (in this example) another 25% of the audience. You’re now up to 75% of the total.

Now let’s say that “quality of cruise ship” might reach another 15%, and “monthly instalments” and “ATOL protected” cover 5% each. That becomes 100% of your audience spoken to in one ad. This is why in DRTV or print ads you will sometimes see a literal box with benefits with ticks against them, to quickly and visually demonstrate key features and benefits.

Clearly the more compelling the offer the better the response rate. This leads to other additional tactics such as setting a limited time for viewers to capitalise on special deals, designed to provide an added nudge.

So, lead with the most compelling and attractive reason for the target audience to purchase, but be clear and explicit with the other features and benefits too. This ensures that any barriers to purchase that the viewer might have are dealt with within the ad. “Is it free delivery?”, “Does it have good reviews?”, “Can I get my money back if I’m not happy?” Quality insight and barrier analysis is crucial here. A good research team can help you discover these. Ultimately, the more you can articulate your benefit as a way of solving their problem, the more success you will have.

The final important rule is “How do I respond?” We must make it obvious that they need to do something RIGHT NOW having seen the ad. This is done by showing a clear call to action. The cleaner we can make the end frame the better. This allows the viewer to easily see any closing message and our contact details.

In terms of response formats, we will maximise our response rates if we provide more options. Use a phone number and a web address if available. Definitely do not leave just a logo there. Don’t make your audience work too hard to get in touch with you as their interest will be fleeting and they will soon give up if it becomes a hassle for them. So, celebrate that call to action and give it enough time and space throughout the ad so the audience can write down your contact details or search for you on their PC or mobile.

UM has creative and media direct response specialists collaborating together under one roof developing highly effective integrative ROI campaigns. Our direct response teams operate completely differently to their brand counterparts. These experts can use their audit process to identify whether or not any client campaigns are working optimally from a creative or media perspective.


Who am I talking to?

What am I selling?

Why should I respond?

How do I respond?

If you would like an audit of your creative or your media DRTV strategy, please do not hesitate to contact me at or call me on 0121 713 3688.

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