Data vs. Gut

Data vs. Gut is an odd title for a blog post, perhaps, but it is one that summarises a common tension for anyone who works in marketing and fundraising.gut

I work at the creative end of the marketing process. Many of my clients like me to be involved in creating the concept for their fundraising letter, publication, website copy or whatever piece of work they want doing.  I find this very stimulating, and I enjoy coordinating with other professionals (such as designers) on making the words and visual elements fit together perfectly.

This process works best when we – the creative team – are fully aware of the target audience. This is especially true in fundraising. We need to know who they are, what they’re used to receiving and what they give in response. Once we have this data we can focus our creative energies and professional experience of ‘what works’ and come up with something really powerful. Over time, the experience of what works solidifies into our gut feeling; our conventional wisdom; our common sense.

However, there are times when the data and our experience do not agree. And when that happens, we need the courage to abandon our what our guts tell us is correct and go with what the data says.

For example: I recently wrote an direct mail appeal for a charity. Normally (and I use the word very carefully), a charity waits a minimum of six weeks from the date the appeal lands on the doormats before looking at response rates. The response time can be longer – One of my clients recently received a donation from an appeal they sent in 1988 – but six weeks is a reasonably time to get a good indication of whether or not the appeal is a success.

I was surprised, therefore, to see that a ‘follow-up letter’ was due to be sent to the same people only two weeks after the main appeal. The purpose was simple – to chase the donors and remind them that the charity needs their support.

My gut told me that this was a bad idea. It would upset the donors and put them off giving rather than encourage them to give. It would annoy donors who had just given but not had their gifts processed. It would look like the charity was wasting money on paper and postage. It would result in feelings of guilt creeping into the charity-donor relationship.

Nobody likes a begging letter, so I queried the wisdom of the follow-up letter with the client. I was greatly surprised by what I heard.

Follow-up letters work. This particular charity found that sending a two-week chaser after the main appeal typically brings in an extra £30,000 (minus costs of the second letter). For this particular charity, that was between 30% and 50% extra income per appeal letter.

The gut is built of hard-earned experience across different projects and different clients, but it can be wrong. Data, on the other hand, is there in black and white and is hard to ignore. If multiple appeals show a 30% increase in income, it is safe to say follow-up letters really do work, despite what the gut may tell you.

As somebody said to me recently: “the difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional never stops learning.” How true.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

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“Best mailing ever!”

In the close of 2012 I worked on a warm appeal for Scripture Union, asking their existing supporters for donations to fund their summer beach missions. The appeal ‘hit mats’ in early January and the response was terrific.

For almost all ofSUlogo360 its 140 year history, Scripture Union has organised fun summer beach missions for children across England and Wales. Hundreds of thousands of children have grown up with memories of halcyon days of fun in the sun on SU missions and many have sent their own children back to the same locations year after year.

The object of the appeal was to find a ‘classic SU story’ and tap in to the supporters’ own sense of nostalgia about childhood and summer fun.

Though I came into the job as a copywriter, I was SU screenshot1given the task of telephoning SU supporters to find this perfect summer story. After following a number of leads, I found Ems Hancock and her family’s amazing story which began way back in 1921 and went on to include four generations. Ems was entirely helpful and together we crafted this lift letter which went in the pack to support the main appeal letter from SU National Director Tim Hastie-Smith.

As a freelance copywriter, feedback on work is surprisingly hard to get. The only reliable way to tell if you’ve done a good job is whether or not you get repeat business. Clients don’t tend to throw good money after bad.

It was therefore especially pleasing to receive an email from Sam Hall at Scripture Union describing the response to the appeal. The initial level of donations was very encouraging and many SU supporters had been moved by Ems’ story to write in to share their own memories.

The best comment of all made my day; it said, ‘Summer missions appeal’ = best SU mailing ever!!!

As feedback goes, that’s pretty good.

NOTE: I was directly employed in a freelance capacity by Scripture Union but I worked in conjunction with Emma Ives of BigSmallCharity and the good folk of Yeomans Marketing.

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Drink your way through 2013

At the moment, a lot of my work seems to be in the area of writing fund-raising letters and collateral copy. This is stimulating work because you have to encapsulate the entire ‘ask’ in your opening line and then build an irresistible rhetorical crescendo to produce the desired result of a donation.

It may surprise you to learn that the opening line comes before the letter itself is opened; it comes in the form of a handful of carefully-chosen words on the envelope. I enjoy the challenge of refining a complex or otherwise verbose proposition into 12 or 16 finely-tuned words.

This helps me appreciate the work of advertising copywriters who face similar challenges. So when I look at printed adverts in the press and magazines, I enjoy thinking through what the ad executive’s thought-process might have been in coming up with the advert copy.

Adverts often reflect the cultural Zeitgeist and provide a window into the joys, anxieties and aspirations of the time. I was therefore highly amused to see adverts from the 1950s and ’60s in a stack of old newspapers I found. I had an endless array to show you, so I limited myself to three, all within the theme of drinking for health and pleasure (however irresponsibly!).

I’d love to see advertising executives try to pitch these concepts now… enjoy!

Drink and Drive... responsibly?

Imagine the pitch: “We can sell your gin by pointing out the cost savings to be had by switching from a car to a motorbike when driving to and from the pub. People can drink more and still drive home!”

(And, yes, 1607 glasses of gin in a year averages out at 4.4 units of alcohol per day. This would put you over the UK drink-drive limit and then some.)

Drink yourself healthy

Don’t go to the gym – drink yourself healthy!

Kids need it!

Lucozade is really a health drink. Buy it for your children today.


By sheer coincidence I just saw this advert (below) which reveals a remarkably different Zeitgeist from above:Obesity AdvertRead more about this advert on the BBC.

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Book Cover

At the end of last week I was delighted to discover that Building Bridges, the North Korea book co-authored with David Alton, is available for pre-ordering on Amazon. The news was doubly good because I was able to see the front cover for the first time and I think it is fantastic: eye-catching, memorable and unambiguous.

Book CoverUnambiguous, perhaps, with the exception interest-piquing dancing North Korean women at the bottom of the cover. Their presence is explained once you realise what the overall picture behind the cover text is showing, but, until then, the women inspire a tiny amount of amused bewilderment and curiosity in the prospective reader.

I like it very much. Please tell me what you think in the comments below.

Posted in Author, Publishing, Writing | 1 Comment

After the American Political Storm

America went to the polls yesterday and re-elected President Obama for his second term. There is much that we can learn from the Obama:Biden 2012 campaign because, much like the 2008 campaign, it was a masterclass in the use of crowdsourcing to drive its messages home.

Obama and his team showed they knew what to say, how to say it and where & when to say it.

In the last few weeks of the campaigns, with the notable exception of the botched first debate, Obama pounded Romney until it was almost too painful to watch. As Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks brilliantly illustrated, Obama employed what we could now call the ‘Massachusetts 48’ trick.

By inaccurately stating that Massachusetts was ranked no.48 of 50 for job creation under the ‘businessman’ Mitt Romney, Obama forced the news networks to check the facts and state for clarity that Romney was in fact no.47 out of the 50 states. It led to restatement after restatement by different parties and drove the message home. Obama didn’t need to repeat his message because everybody else was: whether Massachusetts was ranked 47 or 48, Mitt Romney’s record on job creation was a disaster.

This is viral newscasting across the corporate news media, across all networks and the internet. Brilliantly effective.

Others joined in on Obama’s behalf and said things that he could not say without appearing craven and politicising a tragic event. Whilst New York was under water and without power, Forecast the Facts delivered what has been called the ‘most brutal ad’ of the campaign.

The advert featured Mitt Romney’s distasteful joke about Obama’s pledge to tackle climate change.

Taking the candidate’s own words and putting them against real images of your fellow countrymen suffering under a tropical storm creates an astonishingly powerful message.

Whether it was right or wrong to use the reality of suffering Americans to drive a political point home, it cannot be denied that the advert was truly powerful and accomplished what it set out to do beyond all doubt.

Finally – horses and bayonets. What could these have to do with presidential elections?

I only mention them because Obama did – and what followed was a storm of jokes, images and websites scoring points off Mitt Romney – but for me it was the first time I consciously realised that I’d heard actual political news not through a network but through the phenomenon of the internet meme.

When Romney pledged to increase the size of the US Navy to pre-1916 levels, he opened himself up to a devastating attack by the reinvigorated Obama:

“You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Within seconds, Twitter exploded with jokes about ‘horses and bayonets’. Within 30 minutes, people had already registered websites such as and the first spoof images were appearing and being passed around.

What surprised me was that I encountered the memes before the news from official channels like the BBC.

Here are some examples. They make the point very well.

Make your statement; make it powerful, emotive and memorable; and let others do the rest.

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The Return to Westminster

Yesterday I returned to London and took the same journey as that which prompted my post about JP Morgan’s advert. Happily, I experienced no such outrage this time. I kept my eye out for any follow-up adverts from the JP Morgan campaign, but saw none.

I went to Westminster to see Lord David Alton of Liverpool at ‘the House.’ Lord Alton is a world-renowned activist for human rights in all sorts of contexts and nations; he has become involved in places like Burma, North Korea, Congo, Sudan and Darfur, as well as engaging in long-running debates on issues like reproductive rights. I went to meet him to discuss writing the final chapters of our book, Building Bridges, which is about North Korea.

I say ‘our book’ because we are co-authors. He is the one with the expertise; I am the one with the time to sit down and write. Learning and writing about North Korea has been a terrifying and exhilarating process. Now, just two weeks away from our contractual deadline, I shall be sorry to finish.

I was recruited to the project by a contact who works for the publisher Lion Hudson. Prior to the book, I could only claim a tenuous connection to Lord Alton through mutual association with the charity HART, which is run by Caroline (Baroness) Cox. Lady Cox and Lord Alton champion many causes together, including North Korea. My previous work for HART provided, I suppose, a useful ‘ah yes’ moment when the publisher suggested to Lord Alton that I be the one to co-author the book.

I’m pleased to say our meeting went very well. I am also pleased to share the draft blurb for the book, which will be available in early 2013.

How much do you know about North Korea? Depending on whom you ask, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is an international laughing-stock, a terrifying nuclear-powered war machine or a humanitarian crisis of nightmarish proportion.

For David Alton, the DPRK is Asia’s tragic and prodigal son, long overdue ‘coming in from the cold’ and returning to the embrace of the international community. The obstacles are gigantic and the record of human suffering is almost beyond description, yet there is still hope for a better future – if only the political and military powers have the courage to seize it.

In this book, David Alton and Rob Chidley paint a practical and compassionate picture of North Korea, from its earliest history, to the tragic division and right up to the present day. In doing so, they present a North Korea that we can understand, approach and reach out to with a glimmer of hope.

Do let me know if you like it. I hope to be able to post more news soon. If the publisher is willing, I will upload a copy of the book cover when it is designed.

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Dubious marketing by JP Morgan?

This is my first emotionally-charged blog.

Earlier this year I was in London visiting a client. I had to travel from my home into London, traverse the Underground between Marylebone and Westminster, conduct the long meeting and return home. It added up to a long day and a late night. On the Tube, I sat opposite an advert for JP Morgan Asset Management’s ISA bank account for busy people. The headline plunged me into a swirl of indignation on behalf of people who have to make such journeys every day.

“You invest in missed bedtimes. Choose an ISA provider that could make the long hours count.”

What struck me as outrageous about this marketing campaign is that it targets people who are locked in to working long hours within the unforgiving City Machine. The pace of London life is so frenetic that ordinary office hours are simply a small part of the longer working day; and most City Professionals feel the heat of the juniors racing to catch them. If they slacken off, leave early or take time for family, they fall behind the pace of their peers and are deemed to be coasting.

Getting home before bedtime just isn’t possible.

And I bet it breaks their hearts.

This particular advert was one of four which JP Morgan outsourced to creative production agency Loveurope. The agency said, “the campaign conveys [JP Morgan’s] understanding of how people work hard now and make sacrifices, for a long-term investment in the future.”

No. I do not usually like to be provocative in this blog, but no. I severely doubt that JP Morgan is trying to solve the problems of working parents. Instead, the advert suggests JP Morgan is willing to hit people in the heart with a message that hurts and then present a solution which is as unconvincing as it is callous: ‘don’t worry about missing out on your child growing up – we’ll help you buy back your child’s lost affection with money in years to come.’

As a father of a young son, I am proud that I can count on my fingers the number of his bedtimes that I’ve missed. I am insulted on behalf of working fathers and mothers that this ad, from a multi-national banking corporation who should know better, would aim directly to strike at a parent’s most delicate nerve.

Am I over-reacting to an advert not meant for me? Please leave a comment in the section below:

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