In my August Field Report (“The Commoditization of DRTV”), I argued that only two things truly differentiate DRTV companies these days: superior strategy and expert execution. Since then, several conversations in the field have caused me to think more specifically about what I meant. Someday, I’ll think of a way to write about what’s happening with strategy, but until then let’s focus on execution.
What does expert execution look like? As I see it, it involves a high degree of competence in the five key areas.
There’s a misconception that the top DRTV companies have identified special sources of products to which lesser companies do not have access. The truth is everyone has access to the same sources of products. Unique sources are rare and fleeting. What differentiates the top companies is not so much their skill at product identification but their skill at product selection. If you put in the work, you can literally find hundreds of good products.
The expertise is in finding the needle in that haystack, quickly eliminating all of the items that have low odds of DRTV success and cultivating the ones that have good odds. This requires an organized process that takes time and discipline to develop. In the field, I have helped several companies develop their own versions of this process. On the flip side, I am constantly surprised at how many companies still have no real process for picking products. It’s the difference between watching a professional gambler play and watching a tourist play. The pro sits at the Poker table, plays a tight game for hours and walks away a winner. The tourist goes to the Roulette table, plunks his money down on lucky No. 7 – and then heads to the slot machines.
It’s easy to get caught up when it comes to this nebulous thing we call “creative.” Indeed, if I were your standard industry columnist, I would use this space to talk about all kinds of great-sounding nonsense. But in DR, we should know better. Great commercials ultimately have nothing to do with production values, celebrity spokespeople or any of the 550 things “branding” gurus think are important. No, it’s all about nailing the pitch. That’s it. As David Ogilvy said, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” (He was quoting a sign he had seen at Benton & Bowles.)
Commercials are about selling, and the experts of execution know this. In the field, I’ve seen both extreme competence and extreme incompetence in this area. Here’s what extreme incompetence looks like:
- Changing a commercial five times before it has tested;
- Then finding out it has a terrible CPO and dropping it.
Here’s what extreme competence looks like:
- Testing an imperfect commercial
- Finding out it has a workable CPO
- Then changing it five times to make the CPO even better
One thing that still amazes me is how many people refer to their media agency as their “media buyer” – as if buying media is the key skill here. I don’t know about you, but if I were going to invest millions of dollars in the stock market, I wouldn’t do it with a “stock buyer.” I’d want the highest-rated analyst I could afford. Running media is incredibly complex these days – at least if you’re interested in scaling campaigns and maximizing their potential. The top analysts run dozens of campaigns simultaneously, study CPMs and ratings for hundreds of stations down to the 15-minute increment and in general eat, sleep and breathe media.
The experts of execution know this and hire the agencies with this level of talent. And it’s not just about TV these days. That’s the second thing that amazes me when I have conversations about media: So few people are paying attention to online media. Meanwhile, it’s eating the world. For those reading this who still believe running a DRTV campaign entails hiring a “media buyer” and throwing up a website, I have important news: You’re in for a rude awakening.
Some readers will be surprised to see this area make my list. That’s because they believe finding a good supplier is as simple as going on Alibaba or perhaps attending the Canton Fair. Those are perfectly acceptable options for many people – just not people who are looking for a larger reach. The reasons boil down to this: Do you really want to trust the supply of your multimillion-dollar campaign – the one with products that will appear on the shelves of giant retailers such as Wal-Mart – to a guy running an assembly line out of a garage? It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. When my business partner’s Hong Kong team audits factories, this is routinely what they find. It’s not just about quality assurance. It’s also about capacity and delivery times. “You can’t sell from an empty shelf,” as the saying goes. Unless you are planning to have every garage in Northern China working for you, there’s no way to supply a real, high-volume hit using the Alibaba methodology. That’s why the experts of execution have a professional team of production managers on the ground in China, plus engineers and QA experts running their supply chain. That said, in the field I have often been surprised at the lack of execution from some of the top players’ operations. They’ll need to catch up, or they’ll keep losing to competitors who are strong in this key area of differentiation.
In contrast to the last area, this one’s inclusion will surprise no one. We all shop the major retail chains and see what is happening on the ground at retail. A shrinking handful of execution experts are taking up all the shelf space. In the field, I’ve heard many conspiracy theories about this, but the real reason is a hard truth: These guys are just better than everyone else at doing whatever it takes to win accounts and maximize sales. A lot of the specifics here touch on the other key differentiator from my August post, strategy. But as I mentioned earlier, that’s a topic for another day.
Jordan Pine is a consultant specializing in short-form DRTV and the author of The SciMark Report (scimark.blogspot.com), a popular industry blog. His field reports are based on actual conversations with top executives from our industry, many of whom are his clients, partners or vendors.