Always outnumbered. Generally overdresssed.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

DM - The Medium's medium

It's become kitsch to refer to advertising to a "black art". Occasionally people still say "web optimisation is a dark art", but I assume they do this because it feels good saying it, like saying the phrase "black ops" almost makes you feel like you yourself are capable of abseiling through someone's window and silently garroting them in the night.

So it's reassuring to know that Professor Alhaje Nasr here, despite being highly skilled in the actual black arts, still prefers a regular old maildrop of the W12 postcode to guarantee credulous footfall.

I myself have some experience with the medium (DM not the Professor) having spent an unhappy year, early in my illustrious career, working for one of the country's largest distributors of direct marketing. I didn't mind the work so much, it mainly involved assuming the voice of an over-friendly middle-aged man and writing to customers of a large telecommunications company, begging them not to leave to leaner, cheaper telecommunications companies - which I can tell you did wonders for my self-esteem. The main problem was that the people working there, with exactly two exceptions, were all some combination of old, alcoholic, embittered and clinically depressed. Let's face it, if you have the necessary verbal and analytical skills to construct a reasonable piece of direct mail, you won't be able to conceal from your secret heart the demeaning nature of the task at hand or gainsay the, no doubt compensatory, scorn of the rest of the industry; an industry regarded by most of society of something of a pariah anyway.

Objectively there is no difference between posting someone a letter in the hope it will cause them to buy something, and pasting the same message in a shorter form on billboard on their way to work. But, when it comes to the creative hierarchy, there's something really basic going on with the size of the message you get to write. The fact that in DM you actually have to write too, which implies you learnt to write and hence some degree of application, belies the money-for-old-rope feeling that makes ATL so thrilling for people with shit A-levels.

During my time there I developed several alarming habits of mind. Sometimes I would be writing a letter on the new range of low, low call rates and look down and see that a sentence that began with the words "what's more" ended with the words "life is a sublime torture, and you will die in the easing of the pain." I discovered that an obsession with suicide is called "autophonomania". The agency had toilets with stalls arranged in endless rows and sometimes, in contemplative moments at certain regular times of the day, I would wonder if this was not the real reason for our being there, that the agency had some special purpose designed for the corporate copreffluvia, and whether the whole letter-writing business was just a ruse to keep us there for the course of a day's digestion. I was once asked to write a "movers pack", consisting of a thick brochure of "helpful hints" and several interleaved coupons, for customers who'd just moved house. The insight we'd been given was that people who've just moved are really busy, that it was the most stressful thing next to death and divorce. I suggested to the creative director that if we really wanted to help, we could perhaps do them a favour by not sending them a bulky "movers pack". Not long after that I was asked to leave the building.

Freelancing in DM is fine, but every time you take a brief, even if they don't say it immediately, you know they're going to ask you for the Innocent tone of voice. "It's so natural," they say, "it's just like someone is talking to you." Yes, just like a paedophile is talking to you. And you are eight.

I have had at least one good experience with DM. I met my girlfriend whilst stranded in South East Asia having exhausted all my funds on opiates, gambling and ladyboys. She was a tender nineteen and on her way to university. Over the next three years I conducted a determined campaign, gradually wearing down her resistance with demoralising propaganda, in the form of letters and mixtapes. I believe the American military call this "psyops".


Anonymous said...

That is a lovely story. The end part I mean.

PH said...

I too developed something of an obsession with the latrines at my previous agency, producing firstly 'A Guide to Trap Etiquette' and then a novella, 'Blood Legacy,' which I serialised each month a la Dickens. It was a fictional account of our Chairman's childhood, dealing first with fratricide and subsequently, torture and sodomy. The chaps at work loved it and I like to think it helped morale, being infinitely preferable to the corporate double-speak that was normally posted on the back of the trap doors. Funnily enough, I too was asked to leave the building shortly after.
Great post btw.

adamlarge said...

Interesting postscript is that Professor Alhaje Nasr has recently rebranded. I got that same flyer not too long ago, only last year he was trading as ‘Professor Bassa’.

I’d love to know which agency did his tone of voice guidelines; it’s sublime writing.

Integral said...

Reading your blog is my new favourite passtime. Pastime, I mean.

Hang on. Where did the second 's' go from passtime? When did that happen?


Oh there you are, you little fucker.

P.S. Sorry for wasting space on your otherwise most excellent blog.

real men write long copy said...

I liked this post so much I wrote my own post about it (yes this is a desperate attempt to get someone, anyone, to read my blog)

Anonymous said...

You’re so right about the Innocent TOV.

Every half-witted, Reiki-loving DM account handler is desperate for their clients to jump on Innocent’s condescending bandwagon, however inappropriate.

I assumed I was alone in finding it infantile and insulting. Until I saw the recent Harry and Paul show, where the Notting Hill shop-owner had opened an ‘Organic Food Boutique’.

He’s showing one of his customers around:

Shopkeeper: “I’ve also got patronizing smoothies.
[Reading from the carton] I’ve squished and squashed five yummy pieces of fruit and two yummy carrots into this scummy box. Yum Yum. Save the planet.”

Customer: “Gosh, that IS patronizing. I can see I’m going to be spending a lot of money in here. ”