Searching for creativity in financial services direct mail is a challenge. It is easier than looking for a needle in a haystack - mainly because rare examples of original and thought-provoking work tend to stand out rather better. But the consensus is that most of it lacks inspiration.
'Creativity and innovation is rarely seen in financial services because many companies are still mass-mailing commodity products to indifferent consumers,' says Jeremy Ridgway, associate director at ACNielsen MMS.
'Despite the best efforts of agencies, most financial direct mail contains information that isn't relevant, about subjects consumers are not interested in, and is sent to people who don't care.
'The best recent examples of genuinely creative financial mailings are short, snappy, colourful creatives communicating a simple message, often using an off-the-wall or humorous approach,' he adds.
ACNielsen MMS monitors direct mail across a range of sectors, tracking about 1000 financial and 2000 non-financial creatives every month.
'Financial mail has grown faster than most other areas over the past couple of years, due mainly to a surge in credit-card mailing volumes driven by US-based companies such as MBNA, Capital One and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter,' explains Ridgway. He claims that financial mail as a proportion of all consumer direct mail has risen from 31% in 1998 to 36% so far in 2000.
Lack of stand-out
But this rise in volume does not signal an improvement in quality. 'A lot of people say creativity in financial direct mail is a contradiction in terms,' says Simon Kershaw, creative director at Craik Jones.
'You could carpet a room with credit card mailings and not see any difference between them. Part of their make-up is that they are risk-averse - they just look at what everyone else is doing and copy the format.'
But in this commodity market, the credit card companies say they get results, which, they claim, is all that counts. Kershaw disagrees. 'To congratulate yourself on getting a 2% response is a nonsense,' he says.
'There is no loyalty. They have created surfers who are going from one card to another. These are not true brands.'
It is purely a numbers game, agrees Julian Reiter, managing director of Positive Thinking. 'I still find it amazing that some financial firms spend pounds 500,000 and get a response of 0.5% and consider that positive.
In the financial arena, it is totally about payback analysis. If the response pays for the campaign, anything above it is seen as positive.'
But Reiter urges financial services firms to consider the damage they are doing to their brands. Not surprisingly, the uniform approach to financial services mailings leaves many agencies cold. Ian Taylor, managing partner at Lowe Direct, says: 'We regularly turn down approaches from credit card companies that ask us to come up with a pack that beats the response to their control pack. They don't care about brand values, they just want a tiny bit more response.'
Financial services companies and agencies have to break the mould, says Richard Marshall, director at Tullo Marshall Warren. 'You could describe financial services direct mail as the granddaddy of DM and, as a consequence, it has grown up in a very technique-driven environment and much of it has slavishly followed prescriptive formats and offer-led approaches.'
Marshall believes consumer perceptions have been blurred by the carpet-bombing of the US credit card companies, which use high volume mailings to repetitively hit the consumer - with the assumption that if they throw enough, some of it will stick. But as the market becomes saturated, Marshall says they will see diminishing returns.
In 1999, 53 million credit card mailings were sent in the UK. But, reveals Ridgway: 'Data from the Direct Mail Information Service shows that the percentage of direct mail opened by recipients has fallen from 83% in 1993 to 75% in 2000.'
He adds that financial mailers such as RBS Advanta have announced a reduction of direct marketing efforts in favour of other media due to falling response rates.
Meanwhile, credit card brands with distinct identities are enjoying good responses to their more innovative mailings.
Marbles, a credit card for the internet, was launched by HFC Bank in October 1999. HFC, which has over 100 affinity cards as well as brands such as Goldfish and the GM card, saw a gap in the market for a credit card that could be used online with confidence. Research from BMRB showed that 67% of internet users aged between 25 and 50 were reluctant to shop online because of credit card fraud.
The launch was backed by a pounds 10m integrated campaign, with the DM brief going to Clark McKay & Walpole. Business development director Chris Ward says: 'HFC gave us a fabulously clear idea of what it wanted - something to inject some personality into personal finance.'
The agency came up with eight creative treatments, which were tested with different offers, before sending a mailing to six million prospects.
This and two further mailings have all attracted responses that exceeded their targets.
Clark McKay & Walpole board account director Pippa Easton says: 'The language was very important. We kept it simple, but with a sense of humour.
We wanted the copy to strike a familiar chord, to make it something tangible and friendly in the scary world of the internet. The mailing was not the usual envelope full of small print and heavy jargon, but had lots of white space and clear statements.'
One of the earliest mailings carried a CD-ROM and featured the copy: 'Here's a CD for your computer. Use it to see how Marbles works. If you haven't got a CD-ROM, pretend we've sent you a free drinks mat.'
The CD contained a dry-run of the online registering process, along with a stylish screensaver. Of course, the marketers behind this and any of the new financial brands do have the luxury of starting with a clean sheet.
Lowe Plus has had the Egg account since the brand's inception and Taylor says: 'It is an inspirational client to work for. It pushes us to look for new angles.' But he adds: 'Egg has had to work very hard at being different - most of its staff previously worked for traditional financial institutions.'
Craik Jones works with both the Royal Bank of Scotland and First Direct.
'Both companies are very receptive and are exceptional in that regard,' says creative director Simon Kershaw. 'What they have in common is that they are concerned about long-term value. They are trying to keep ahead of the market, rather than follow it. And they are not expecting creative work that looks and feels like everyone else's.'
So does creativity simply depend upon the calibre of the client? Not necessarily, says Kershaw: 'Financial services haven't been well-served by agencies either.'
Lucian Camp, creative dir-ector at CCHM, agrees. 'There is a conspiracy of mediocrity between clients and agencies,' he says. 'But it takes a more progressive client to break that conspiracy. They have to recognise that the brand really does matter and that it is a source of competitive advantage. They also have to appreciate that direct mail has a crucial role in building that brand.'
One of the prevailing and most damaging attitudes, says Kershaw, is the idea that those responsible for direct marketing do not have the responsibility for building or protecting the brand.
As long as mailings attract sufficient response, the impression they make on the recipients as a whole is considered irrelevant.
But things have begun to change, he says. 'The whole world of financial services is breaking into two clusters, with the new direct services such as Egg, Smile and First Direct on one side and hundreds of old brands on the other. The new start-ups have tons more attitude and they have shown that when it comes to building a brand, you can move much more quickly than we thought you could. The others never saw the need to entertain or reward their customers with their mailings.'
The most progressive companies take a '360 degree, root and branch approach', says Kershaw. But there are many others that are simply offering what Camp calls a 'veneer of creativity'.
Alternatively, they use stock shots to illustrate well-worn ideas. 'One cliche that I am incredibly tired of is the notion of a tailor-made service with a visual showing a badly fitting suit or a child in an adult's suit,' says Camp.
The trend in copywriting, meanwhile, is to cut out the jargon and keep it simple. While that is certainly a welcome relief from financial copywriting of old, it too can have its drawbacks, says Camp. 'There is more emphasis on being easier to understand but unfortunately, that has not always been combined with an emphasis on being interesting. So the copy reads like an instruction manual,' he says.
So what can creatives do to help their work stand out from the crowd?
Rod Clausen and Christian Clark, joint creative directors at Team LGM, advise ditching the old combination of envelope, letter and leaflet in favour of something new. They came up with a game of life for one mailing on behalf of a mortgage provider. It aimed to show the recipients how they could have fun and pay off their mortgage at the same time.
But Camp points out that really innovative copy can be 'nibbled to death' by the compliance department as they ensure that everything is above board legally. To avoid that scenario, Shaun Crawford, head of design at DMS, says it is best to involve the legal department at an early stage of the concept and find common ground.
He also advocates making a feature of the terms and conditions, rather than hiding them away. 'For a creative person, the terms and conditions are the least interesting thing, but if you make use of them, it looks open and honest.'
Crawford suggests highlighting them in a special leaflet or breaking them up and featuring them in relevant sections throughout the pack.
Financial services companies need to do much more sophisticated targeting, says Marshall. 'We can be creatively cleverer in how we talk to consumers. It is not just about the pack, it is about knowing more about the people we are targeting.'
Marshall also calls for less bumpf. 'We still overload the packs with too much information,' he says. 'The last thing we want to do is put up lots of barriers. We try to humanise the packs and take away as much of the turgid copy as possible.'
But he admits it is difficult to strip away much of the information.
'Creatives would love to do that, but the lawyers won't let them,' he says. 'But you should never use that as an excuse not to push the boundaries.'
CONSUMER DIRECT MAIL 1999
Mail order 14.0%
Retailer/store cards 10.3%
Book clubs 3.4%
Readers Digest 1.7%
Building societies 1.5%
Source: Direct Mail Information Service
FINANCIAL DIRECT MAIL IN 2000
Credit cards 43%
Motor and home insurance 10%
Life & pensions 8%
Source: ACNielsen MMS 2000 to date.
EGG'S DIRECT APPEAL
When Egg launched its credit card in autumn 1999, it asked its agency, Lowe Plus, to come up with a creative that would encapsulate the brand and stand out on the doormat.
The result was a mouse-shaped case that opened to reveal a small folded leaflet extolling the attributes of the brand. 'As a piece of creativity, it had to cut through the other direct mail and be opened by the recipients,' says Tony Williams, brand and communications director at Egg.
'All our evidence shows that it succeeded. Egg is the fastest-growing credit card in the UK, with 600,000 customers already.'
New prospects were sent a more conventional mailing, which also carried the mouse theme. 'We had a good response to both mailings - as you would expect, there was a higher response from existing customers,' says Williams.
Ian Taylor, managing partner at Lowe Direct, sister company of Lowe Plus, says: 'The mouse pack was completely different. It was true to the product and that was very positive. And because it was sent to customers who had already bought into the brand, we could talk to them in a different way and didn't have to introduce Egg.' Lowe Plus was also unencumbered by small print. The point of application was on the internet, and that was where the terms and conditions appeared.
For mailings to receive his seal of approval, Williams says they must clearly come from Egg.
His test is that you must be able to take the logo off and still know it comes from the company. 'It also needs to be relevant to who you are sending it to,' he says.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO FINANCIAL DIRECT MAIL
Find out about financial cards via direct mail 68%
Direct mail about financial cards influences decision-making 38%
Companies offering financial cards don''t provide enough
Direct mail received about financial cards is interesting and
Direct mail received about financial cards is well designed 66%
Source: Direct Mail Information Service (DMIS).