Back to the future: advertising strategies that always work.

What media makes up your prospecting efforts? If you’re like most seasoned cross-channel retailers, mail is “king,” with the highest return on investment of all your channels. You may also prospect effectively online by beefing up your search engine optimization, but search customers are typically among your least loyal.

The customer acquisition avenue that’s been around the longest of all — space advertising — is often the one marketers have the lowest expectations of. Yet it’s pricey, and to treat it as a brand effort, untested and unmeasured, is clearly a waste of budget. If not creatively designed, placed strategically and the results tracked, space advertising can become a black hole into which you pour a hefty dose of your marketing dollars with no accountability.

Deceptively Simple
Space advertising seems so easy — it’s just a single page! Don’t be deceived by its simplicity, however. Effective space advertising is harder than it looks. Space ads are often treated as more of a design problem rather than an exercise in salesmanship. “We know our product or service … so how much do we need to explain?” The answer is a lot. Prospects are being dropped into a pool of ads, including those of your competitors. To get their attention you need both a hook that defines your unique selling proposition and clear communication to pay it off. A prospect’s time with your ad will be a millisecond.

I learned the key elements to creating successful ads that pay off in quality customers from a wise mentor I had in my early years, a man named Andy Byrne. Andy was for many years a major player in the direct marketing world. He had an awesome breadth of experience using space advertising and direct mail in the U.S. and internationally, and he enjoyed friendships with David Ogilvy, Denny Hatch, Bob Hemmings and a host of other revered direct marketers. Andy spoke eloquently about direct response, and fortunately for so many of us he generously shared his experiences.

Make it or Break it With the Headline
“The problem with many advertisers, and even with advertising writers, is that they don’t appreciate how much the headline can affect the response of the advertisement.” — Andy Byrne, from “Methods to Increase Advertising Results”

Andy’s revelation: those clever, snappy headlines that creative types often present and clients love are confusing to most prospects. Studies prove that confusion deadens sales.

The advertising we see most often today is brand advertising. A brand ad will hook you, tell you of a product or service, and the assumption is that you’ll be driven to either visit the brand’s website or retail store. Direct marketers, however, don’t assume that simply the knowledge of their product will drive consumers to their store or website. They’ve developed and tested hooks they know will drive consumers to respond — e.g., deadlines, minimum orders and more.

That’s why it’s essential to treat an ad like a major assignment, with a creative brief that identifies your target market and what problem your product or service will solve for them. This will be the core of your strongest headlines. (Note: Headline development can also make or break your website’s homepage.)


One of my favorite space ad campaigns is one TravelSmith ran for many years. This campaign was successful in growing the retailer’s catalog housefile. TravelSmith launched the campaign with small space ads for its black travel dress. To ensure that women knew this was something they couldn’t travel comfortably without, TravelSmith used the following headline in the ad: “The Indispensable Black Travel Dress.”

After running this ad regularly and selling countless dresses, the retailer moved into the men’s apparel market with another product, “TravelSmith’s Featherweight Packable Trenchcoat.” The women’s version of the coat had a similar but slightly different name: “TravelSmith’s Packable Microfiber Raincoat.”

Notice how information-packed those headlines are? TravelSmith knows its market well. Women often wish they could take along a dress when they travel, but it takes up too much space, won’t match other items being packed and gets wrinkled. TravelSmith’s dress answered that challenge in the headline. Likewise, the retailer’s raincoat ads assured consumers that its coat was truly a convenient choice.

Note also how the language changes depending on the target audience. The coats are both made from microfiber, which women are familiar with. Men, on the other hand, might not have recognized microfiber as a benefit, so it would have been unwise to take the same headline approach.

The raincoat ad might not have been so specific in a branded ad. One raincoat marketer’s brand ad I found read, “The coat you’ll live in.” Who wants to wear a raincoat all the time? You can see why the promise of featherweight and packable has far more appeal.

Hardworking Body Copy Delivers
You might think the TravelSmith ads have “too many words,” but in fact these ads were enormously successful — and still would be today. Why? Because they’re easy to read with quick, easy-to-scan sentences, and they cover the gamut of descriptive language that’s music to the ears of any traveler: wrinkle-free, versatile, easy to pack, lightweight, etc. The ad tells readers about the small pouch it will fit into to “tuck it” into your carry-on. Seam-sealed and waterproof are also essential words.

The rest of the body copy confirms to the reader that they’ll see over 350 items like this one in TravelSmith’s catalog. Most important of all, they learn that they’ll be rewarded when they call for the catalog with a FREE outfitting guide that includes suggested packing lists and travel advice, an offer most travelers would appreciate.

Understanding how to sell rather than how to be creative is essential to developing effective space ads. Know your customers and speak to them with headlines, copy and offers that really excite them. Then give them a deadline to respond. So simple, yet most ads you see won’t have these elements.

Size Matters … But Not Like You Think
Andy Byrne also proved through testing that smaller is better for prospecting space advertising. That’s not what most ad agencies would say because they’re not as much fun to do and the commission is much lower, but it’s the truth.

Andy would start running the smallest ads he could — a quarter page at the most — in multiple publications. After a few rounds he would measure the results and pare out the ads that weren’t pulling enough response. Then he’d try the next size up for the publications that yielded the strongest results. This method kept the cost down so that the ads could be tested more frequently and in more media. Cahners Publishing tested this theory and found that quarter-page ads were far more cost effective than full-page ads, delivering almost as many inquiries as a full-page ad at a third of the cost per inquiry.

This tiny space ad ran every other month in New Yorker, and sold out the inventory of necklaces my client had acquired, in only 6 months.

This tiny space ad ran every other month in New Yorker, and sold out the inventory of necklaces my client had acquired, in only 6 months.

A few years ago I developed small space ads to run in The New Yorker for the Chakra Necklace, which had little polished natural stones on a black cord and was priced around $75. I developed a headline — “Rare, delicate beauty and elegance” — to generate curiosity. The copy suggested readers get one for themselves or for someone special. Even though the retailer had a website and landing page, 80 percent of the necklace’s sales came via the phone because the space ad was so compelling.

The bottom line is unless you have enormous retail presence, a full-page space ad will be wasted. If you’re like most cross-channel retailers out there, it’s far more effective to run 10 black-and-white quarter-page ads than it is to run one full-page color ad.

Review the space ads you’re placing now. What’s the single thought you want consumers to have when they see your ad? Is there an offer? A deadline for the offer? If the ad is going to be in a magazine that typically stays with the reader for more than a couple of months (e.g., The New Yorker), this may not be possible. Is it clear what you want readers to do after looking at the ad? If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to reach out for a quick critique. With a stronger campaign in place, make every ad dollar you spend work its hardest!


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Filed under Copywriting, Creative Strategy, Design

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