You Can Ignore Most of It

This week marks the fifth year anniversary of my starting this blog at Datamann.  I’m going to use the occasion to share a brief personal observation that relates directly to catalogs.

I received several emails last week from readers who agreed with my comments that their catalog could get along just fine with “less perfect” photographs and design. These comments were from the marketing and circulation people who are trying to stretch their budgets, and actually have some money left over to mail the catalog after the creative department has spent a big chunk of the budget on up-front fixed costs like photography and design.

Here was one comment: “Could not agree more that we could get by with ‘good enough’ photography. However, when this is suggested to our creative team, they lose their minds. Any suggestions on how to overcome that?”

Well, let’s try this.  Let’s say you were acquired by new owners, and they mandated that the budget for new photography be cut by 70%? What would you do? Some people would simply throw up their arms and say “You’ll kill the catalog. You don’t understand! We can’t just photograph this new light fixture in any old setting; it has to be done in just the right location, with at least three models, and a dog.” Others, who realize that they have to live within the confines of this new reality, would take some action.

The question becomes, what is important, and what is just noise?

Most of the readers of this blog are unaware of the fact that I am almost deaf.  Most of you have never met me, and if you have, unless you notice my hearing aid, you are probably unaware of the fact that I can’t hear a word you are saying if we are in a crowd.

Ten years ago, I contracted an illness which left me completely deaf in one ear, and with only 40% hearing in the other, which gets increased to 70% with my hearing aid. So, I have about 20% of the normal hearing range that most people have.

What does this have to do with catalogs? Everything.   You see, I have learned to get through the day by ignoring much of what is going on around me, because I can’t hear it anyway. Your customer does the same with your catalog.

In one-on-one situations, I’m OK. Even with three or four people in a room, I can carry on a conversation without too much difficulty. The worst situation is a large crowd – like the coffee break at a crowded conference. You can be standing right next me and practically yell into my good ear, and I can’t tell what you are saying.

I know I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but I’ve learned that 90% of what most people are saying in situations like that can be ignored, and no one can tell that I’m not listening to them. I can tell when someone is asking me a question, because the tone of their voice changes. I can hear a change in frequency and tone, although I don’t know what is being said. So when I detect that someone is asking a question, I lean in and ask them to repeat it. Otherwise, I just stand there and smile and nod. Most people just think I’ve become more agreeable in the past ten years.

Your customer does the same thing with your catalog. They are browsing it. They are flipping through looking at products. They want to see that you have the product knowledge and authority to sell this product. But they are ignoring most of it.

I used this spread (below) from the Cabela’s catalog last fall in a posting on hunting catalogs. They used one lifestyle photo on the spread to show they had “authority” when it came to selling cold weather gear, but the rest of the product photos are all lay-flat studio shots. I know some catalogs where every item would have to be a lifestyle shot. Is that necessary?

The problem is that many catalog creative directors, and merchants, insist on a specific and consistent “look, feel, and theme” to the catalog, to convey a lifestyle, or as Kevin Hillstrom calls it, your “Unique Point of View”.  And there is something to be said for having a “unified” creative look to a catalog.  But everything does not have to be perfect. In my opinion, sometimes when everything looks “too perfect”, your catalog has the same appeal as a mailer from Verizon trying to get me to switch phone plans.

Stop thinking that your customer is curling up in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine to read your catalog – and only your catalog – cover to cover. If that ever did happen, it hasn’t happened in the last 10 years. Your customer has a thousand things going on in their life. Media is on all the time. Some will argue that this exactly the reason that you should, YOU MUST spend a ton of money and time on truly exquisite creative, that will standout and catch the reader’s attention.

But here is where my deafness comes in. “I have learned to get through the day by ignoring much of what is going on around me, because I can’t hear it anyway. Your customer does the same with your catalog.” Your customer is motivated by your merchandise. Your merchandise is your brand. The depth, variety and diversity of your product assortment are what will drive a response. Truly creative people can develop effective and affordable creative, that provides a “unique point of view”, but which puts focus on the merchandise, and how that merchandise meets the customer’s needs.

This is separating the noise from what is important. To answer that reader’s question from last week mentioned at the beginning of this posting, my suggestion is to pose a challenge to the creative folks and the merchants. What can they do to create a truly unique looking catalog, that drives response, and can they do it spending 50% less than what is budgeted? Anyone with some basic talent can spend a fortune on designing a catalog that is “perfectly” photographed, and properly executed. That’s no challenge. That’s just doing their job. Moreover, it is creating a catalog that is similar to thousands of other catalogs that have come before it.

The challenge to everyone – including the marketing and circulation team – is to ALL work together at developing a merchandise and creative direction for the catalog.  Creative, merchandise and marketing cannot work independently of each other. Their over-riding goal – what is important, and not noise – is to develop something that drives response. Unique creative does not have to be expensive and perfect. It has to be unique. That’s why it is called “creative”. Everything else you can ignore, and you’ll still manage to get through the day just fine.

By the way, if you have not visited the Datamann website lately, it was recently redesigned, with a new format for the blog that allows you to search on my last five years of musings. (Click here to visit Bill’s new blog site). Awesome stuff!

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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The Magnum PI Look Is The Giveaway

Why do you always aim for perfection instead of change?

At last year’s Datamann catalog and ecommerce seminar, which Datamann hosts and sponsors for the VT/NH Marketing Group, the local chamber of commerce in Concord, NH had a pile of the magazine pictured below in the conference center lobby.

Do you notice anything wrong?

Look at the guy’s sweater and his mustache. Look at her hair cut. This photo is from the late 1980s!

Because I worked next door to the Eastern Mountain Sports headquarters in Peterborough, NH for more than 20 years, I recognized the photo immediately as being from an EMS catalog from that time frame, 25+ years ago!

This is not an isolated occurrence or problem. Almost every catalog is guilty of it. I see many of you using the same photos in your catalogs year after year. Usually, you don’t have models that have a “dated” look, but some of you do. (Do most women wear eye shadow and earrings when they go camping?)

If your response is lagging on some products that used to do well, take a count of how many consecutive times that product has had the same photo in your catalog. I’ve seen instances where the same photo appeared more than 100 times consecutively, with no changes! Of course, not only does the photo not change, but the headline and copy block often remain unaltered for years as well.

I’m going to refrain from showing examples of this, as it would become a game of “gotcha”. There would be little value to readers to embarrass those you that fall into this trap. But, you know who you are, and if is response is lagging – change it up a little.

The reason that most of you do not do more photography is that you want perfection. As an industry, we spend a fortune on new photography. Only a few of you do what I call “make do with good enough” photography.  Sure, you can’t rely on your cell phone to take product pictures, but do you really need to bring in an outside photographer, a lighting technician, a stylist, and a model to shoot a sweatshirt? Or a lawn sprinkler?

You still look upon your catalog as being something for which the Library of Congress is waiting. Even though you know that Catalog Age magazine is not around anymore to give you an award for “Catalog of the Year”, just in case someone else is, you don’t want to be marked down for any photography that is less than perfect. And of course, perfection is expensive. So, you stick with the same photo that has been used 100 times (literally) before because you can’t afford to shoot a new one.

But here is what is so puzzling to me. You won’t shoot your own stills for the catalog or website, but you are willing to shoot your own video, of your latest “behind the scenes at our company”, and post it to YouTube, with minimal editing, minimal changes, and certainly, no “professional look”.  You agonize over catalog photography and models, but will throw anything on YouTube.  I actually agree with getting videos on your website and YouTube frequently and cheaply.  I’m puzzled over the continued striving for perfection on static photography.  What’s wrong with “make do with good enough”?

Let’s try a test. Instead of doing yet another useless cover test, let’s do a photography test. Unless you are a high-end fashion catalog with a $500 average order, try having someone in the creative department use their own camera (not a phone) to shoot a few products in the next catalog. See if sales fall off dramatically for those products if you don’t go for “perfection” but instead go for “change”.   Change is good.

Your customer may not have the historical memory that I do, but they recognize when they have seen something repeatedly. That’s when they stop opening your catalog at all.

This year’s seminar – which is now only three weeks away – is not about catalog creative per se. But it is about the need to change, the need to evolve. If you have not already registered for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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I Get It, They Don’t

Who in your company “gets it” and who doesn’t? More important, who in your company is never going to “get it” with regards to how their work must evolve to keep pace with the changes our industry is facing?

Years ago, I sat through a day-long meeting for a client that wanted to make a major creative overhaul to their catalog. It was a hard goods catalog (home furnishings and products for around the home), that had a fairly basic design.

The meeting was tedious for me. The “creative” staff, who were overly polite to one another and democratic, listened to everyone’s idea, and did not offer judgment (traits I have been slow to master). They discussed every little nuance of the existing catalog design.

The head of the Creative Department was doing a good job getting everyone to understand that they had become too comfortable in their work, and that change was needed. They came up with a long list of changes they were going to make, some of which the customer would never notice, some of which were a major departure from the way the book presently looked. All of these creative changes were intended to drive response.

Then it happened.

At the very end of the meeting, the Art Director, the person who would actually be making the changes in the catalog, said “Well, what about the gutter line? Is that staying?”

This catalog had an ultra-thin line that ran up either side of the gutter (the center of the spread where the two pages meet), about a 1/8th inch from the edge of the gutter. It was a design element that someone had inserted years before, for no apparent reason. It was not important.

But the fact that the Art Director still thought she needed to ask permission to do away with this trivial design element showed how little she understood of what had happened that day. It showed either how untalented she was, or how insecure she was in actually making changes.

I bring this up because last week a subscriber to this blog told me that he would not be coming to our seminar in March because he “gets it”. But, he was encouraging his boss and several other members of upper management to attend because “they need your medicine”. “I get it, they don’t”.

The medicine that I have been dispensing in this blog, and that my co-presenters – Kevin Hillstrom and Frank Oliver – will be dispensing on March 30 at Datamann’s seminar is that the catalog industry has fundamentally changed, and you have to change too.

I had another email recently from a company CEO commenting that one of his key staff people – a person that could significantly help bring some much needed change to their company – was not working out as well as they had originally hoped, and that he was a “work in progress”.

Numerous times I’ve had members of upper management at companies tell me that they plan to do some new initiative – launch a new catalog, introduce a new product category – and they tell me that their existing staff is just not up to it. “They can’t think creatively” or “they are not very strategic”. So, upper management brings in someone new, who knows nothing about the company, but who holds the promise of “thinking outside the box”.

In my 30 years of experience, I have found that the existing staff at most companies had the talent, had the initiative and had the strategic view, but those talents were hidden from upper management because management had slapped down those staff members in the past every time the staff had dared raised that hand to propose a change. We are, at times, our own worst enemies.

I will confess that earlier in my career, I was not good at “brainstorming” sessions, as I tended to be the one who would say “That’s a stupid idea”. I like to think I’ve gotten better in that area, although as a consultant, I walk a thin line between not wanting to insult a client vs. not wanting the client to go off on some wild scheme that you know will lead to disappointment and disaster.

But, if that type of “slap down” environment exists within your company – no matter how subtle and nuanced it might be – then your staff probably is NOT going to rise to the occasion and help you evolve. It isn’t that they don’t want to – they just aren’t sure that you really mean it. They suspect that deep down inside, YOU are the one that doesn’t want to change.

Going back to the Art Director with the question on the gutter line, I don’t fault her for asking that question. I knew the players in that meeting. I knew that the Creative Director that was trying so hard to appear magnanimous and open-minded in that meeting would just as quickly tell the Art Director, when everyone else was gone, to design the book the way he instructed.

Here’s an exercise for you: how many established catalog companies, ones that have been around for more than 25 years, can you think of that have re-invented themselves, and turned their business around? It’s probably a pretty short list. It’s tough for any company – regardless of industry – to reinvent themselves.

There really is something to be said for new companies simply because they have less baggage, and new ideas flow more freely. That is just the way of it. That’s why we are not still driving Packards, Ramblers and Pontiacs. Some companies just don’t evolve.

But we can’t all work for new companies, can we? We have to make the changes needed where we are. We need to go beyond discussions about “gutter lines” and focus on the catalog growth strategies that really matter, and that will move the needle. Those are the things we will be discussing on March 30th.

So, if you “get it”, but your boss or your staff don’t, send them to our seminar on March 30.

2017-seminar-brochure-cover

Our seminar last year sold out a full month before the event, so please plan on registering early. Seating will again be limited.

To register for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

The Marriott Courtyard/Grappone Conference Center, Concord, NH is located at 70 Constitution Ave in Concord, NH – just north of the intersection of I-89 and I-93. Special room rates of $119 are available for attendees of the seminar for the night of March 29, if you book your room with the Marriott by March 1, 2017. You must mention your attendance at the seminar to receive the special rates, or reserve your room directly at this special link: http://cwp.marriott.com/mhtcn/vtnhmarketinggroup/

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

 

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B2B Medical Catalogs

I write too often in this space about consumer catalogs, and don’t devote enough attention to B2B catalogs. So, if you are a consumer cataloger, you can take this week off. I’m going to take a look at the sterile world of medical catalogs.

Many B2B catalogs seem to be 15 years behind their consumer counterparts. They do little to drive a response. They simply present a product – actually a ton of products – with little to differentiate these products and help the buyer determine which is best for them. Maybe they have not yet felt the sting of online competition.

I suspect B2B catalogs are the way they are for another reason. We all know the problem inherent with B2B catalogs of not always knowing who at the company should receive or did receive our catalog, and that person is often not the one who actually places the order. I believe that B2B catalog designers picture a procurement clerk or manager of supplies sitting at a darkened desk, ordering products from a catalog for someone else in the company that will eventually use the product. Thus, they make the catalog easy to order from for the bureaucratic clerks, but do little to design the catalog to generate a response from the ultimate end user.

Medical catalogs are the worst at this, because they seem to compound the problem of product presentation with the assumption that all medical staff can immediately tell what every product is for, and which of the 17 versions of leg braces is ideal for their needs.

Look at these four pages from the MediChoice catalog. Whether the page is selling surgical scrubs, portable tables, or stethoscopes, the pages all look alike – which is incredibly boring to browse. Further, there is nothing to indicate that a specific product is “Our best seller” or “Our Most Popular Style”. There is no effort here to sell – just SKU barfing page after page.

 

These pages are designed for ease of ordering by the supply officer. It is not intended for the doctor or medical professional trying to determine the best option.

Contrast that design approach to these pages below from MarketLab catalog, where each page is visually different in design. There are color blocks, angled photographs, and large copy callouts of “new” and “play the video”, all catalog design elements missing from the MediChoice catalog.

 

Plus, the headlines for most products contain a product benefit. All these design elements – which are pretty basic catalog creative stuff – all catch your attention, and help drive response. They drive response because they are “selling”.

Do this if you are a B2B cataloger: take you catalog and rip out 10 pages. Shuffle them up so that they are in random page sequence. Lay them out on the floor, and then stand up and look down at them. Unless you have incredible eye site, this forces you to look at the pages from the proverbial 30,000 foot view, rather than looking at the individual product detail. Do the pages look significantly different, or do you they all look like the MediChoice pages?

B2B catalogs still need to focus on selling. You can no longer simply throw some products on the page and expect they will sell by themselves because someone needs them. You can do better than that. Go sell!

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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Play Like You Have Nothing To Lose

Athleta is playing to win, playing like they have nothing to lose. They are taking risks, not playing it safe. See if you agree.

athleta-jan-2017-cover-edit

Since the NFL playoffs begin this weekend, I’m going to give you a football analogy with application to catalogs, and specifically to this Athleta cover.  (My apologies to my many UK subscribers who will have little appreciation for the American football terminology.).

I read an article last week in the Wall Street Journal on Why NFL Coaches Take No Chances. It cited Buffalo Bill’s coach Rex Ryan’s decision in a game on Christmas Eve, to punt on a fourth and 2 on their own 41 with 4 minutes left in overtime. Buffalo never got the ball back, lost the game, and lost their chance at the playoffs. Ryan was fired two days later. Most Buffalo fans, and apparently team management, thought he should not have punted (play it safe) and should have gone for a first down (take a chance). It was, after all, overtime in the game that would decide their season.

The article cited a detailed analysis of NFL coaches that found that the most aggressive coaches in the NFL this year were still in playoff contention, while the most risk-adverse coaches will be watching the playoffs from home. This analysis was based largely on what teams did when faced with scoring options such as kick a safe field goal, or go for a touchdown on 4th down, when the team was inside the 5 yard line. Or, is the coach willing to go for a two-point conversion or will he go for a more conservative one-point kick after a touchdown.

The article cited a number of statistics that supported its conclusion that riskier choices resulted in more wins, and hence, made the team a playoff contender.

In my opinion, the same is true in cataloging today.  You are getting hammered from every direction. If you keep doing business as usual, and play it safe, you will soon disappear. It is that simple. The forces of ecommerce and mobile competition will simply push you aside. You have choices, and you have to start taking some risks to change and survive.

Most of you will not take those risks. When I ask you the question “What have you got to lose?”, you think in terms of making a risky move that turns out poorly, resulting in the immediate collapse of your company. You think in terms of “all or nothing”. But risky does not have to mean stupid.

Malcom Butler is a hero in New England. In case you don’t remember, he was the New England Patriot that intercepted the pass on the goal line in Super Bowl XIX (2015), giving the Patriots the win over Seattle. (Click here if you enjoy watching it again as much as I do). Pat Carroll, coach of Seattle in that game, made a risky – and most would say stupid – decision to throw for a touchdown on that pivotal play, with just 25 seconds left in the game.

Cataloging is not football. The success of your “season” does not hinge on one play. But, your continued survival does depend on taking your game up about ten notches, and recognizing that you must take a series of risks, to become overall more aggressive, in order to survive.

We are in overtime, and the clock is ticking down.

Which brings me back to Athleta’s cover at the beginning of this posting. Their cover features a photo of 98 year-old yoga instructor Tao Porchon-Lynch. Their target customer is probably a 35 to 45 year old woman, who works out/exercises. If that was your target customer, how many of you would be willing to feature a 98 year-old woman on the cover of your catalog?

I love it. To me, their cover is bold, and risky. The fact that it is black and white adds to its power to get you inside the book. I said in a posting last week that having a great cover is not going to solve all your problems. But this is an example of taking a series of risks, to move the needle. I hope this cover generates a ton of social buzz and accolades for them. This is what happens when you play to win, when you play like you have nothing to lose.

Over the next few weeks, as we lead up to the Datamann catalog seminar (click here for more information and to register) I’m going to provide you a series of alternate looks at cataloging today. Some postings will illustrate the current state of catalogs, which in my opinion is not healthy. I know some of you are tired of me beating this drum – but sadly, most of you still do not see the handwriting on the wall. Other postings will provide you insight into your salvation – examples of aggressive marketing and merchandising that are helping some companies grow.

One final thought – for 16 years, the combination of Tom Brady, Bill Belicheck, Robert Craft, and a revolving door of talented players that spend a few years in Foxborough, Massachusetts, have made the New England Patriots the dominant team in the NFL. It is all too easy for New England fans to forget the pre-Brady era, which never produced a Super Bowl championship and actually produced some pretty dismal teams along the lines of the 2016 Cleveland Browns.

Patriots fans know the meaning of “What Have You Got To Lose?” because Tom Brady has lost two Super Bowls, while winning four. There is risk in trying to win. Sometimes it does not turn out the way you want. But don’t stop trying.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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The Non-Creative Creative Director

I’m going to wind down 2016 with some comments from a reader that responded to my various postings over the past few weeks about boring creative, and catalogs not being remarkable anymore. The reader asked to remain anonymous, which I will respect.

She commented that throughout her catalog career, she had noticed that “Art directors tend to be extroverts, and so over time, are often promoted to leadership positions in Creative departments. Meanwhile, copywriters tend toward introversion, and introverts are less common among the ranks of management. Thus art directors have more say in overall design decisions. Today, ‘Creative Department’ is widely used to define solely the art team; there is a creative department and a copy department. The mantra of many an art director is ‘nobody reads’, to which the only proper reply is ‘Send a catalog with no words at all, and report back on how it does’.”

Her comments confirmed a lot of what I have also encountered in my catalog career. I’ve known some very strong, outgoing creative directors who convinced everyone that they knew how to create the catalog equivalent of the Holy Grail. Even when they failed to do this, their strong personalities allowed them to keep glossing over their failures, and promoting their “artistic cause”, often with unusual success.  Conversely, most of the copywriters I’ve encountered have been more reserved.  I would not classify them as being like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, grudgingly toiling away in the background, meeting their deadlines, yet they tend not to want to rock the boat.

It was what this reader offered next that I found most insightful and wanted to share. She wrote “Here’s the irony: art directors (or the ‘creative’ department), generally begin new projects with what they call ‘swipe’, which is imagery pulled from other catalogs and magazines. It’s a comfort zone, because someone else already created it. Meanwhile, most copywriters tend to start with a blank page. Their ideas are more conceptual.”

Wow! I’m not sure that this reader realized it, but she had confirmed for me a belief that I long held which is that most art directors are “copycats”.  They all think they are being original, but they are playing it safe by copying others. Moreover, the reason that most catalogs have slipped into the realm of the boring and unremarkable is that art directors don’t want to break out of their own comfort zone. They believe they have created a “look” for their catalogs, whatever that “look” is. Any deviation from that “look” is, in their mind, an invitation to disaster.

In my opinion, the customer just doesn’t care. It’s like saying you can’t change the location of the milk in the supermarket because the customer will get lost. It’s just milk – eventually they’ll find it. As for the catalog, the customer is not sitting by their mail box waiting for your catalog. Your customer is being hit with hundreds of promotional images all day long. They don’t care that you alter the look of your book to make it more “remarkable”.   What have you got to lose?

Over this past year, I’ve had several readers contact me saying that upper management at their catalog company were dragging their feet when it came to making changes that would push the catalog into a more response driven direction, or attempt new methods of customer acquisition. I can understand someone saying a CFO was being conservative with regard to making changes – that’s what CFOs get paid to do.

But the creative director should be one of those leading the charge to make changes – rational, response driven changes. (This is always my caveat to creative changes – don’t do something stupid just because you were looking for something different).

With regards to the comment that copywriters start with a clean slate, I recall when I first began visiting Lands’ End in the mid-1990s, there was a parking space near the visitor parking area, which was reserved for one specific employee. I figured the person must have been some big mucky-mucky, maybe the CEO. I asked one time whose space it was, and in very hushed, reverent tones, I was told he was the chief copywriter. The magic of Lands’ End ability to sell millions of turtlenecks and polo shirts was not photography, nor catalog design, though both were good. Instead, the magic resided with their ability to use copy to create a story around their products that the competition could not touch.

It was the clean slate. The blank page. That Lands’ End copywriter with the reserved parking place was Al Shackelford, who went onto Duluth Trading, and created the stories around ballroom pants, along with many other products. I’m sure they sold millions of them too. It was taking a unique conceptual design and making it work, rather than starting with a “swipe” of everyone else’s ideas.

Let’s not get caught up in definitions of titles and the differences between who does what in the “creative department”.  I’m sure there are many copywriters who also serve as art directors, and vice versa. I’m sure there are many copywriters who want to work in the limelight, and many art directors that are shy, and vice versa. The point is, you are the ones charged with “creating”. The guys over in marketing (like me) don’t have a clue how to be creative – they will simply tell you what they don’t like (“Oh no, you can’t do that, it will kill response”). The merchants will only try to dictate how every product must be shown (This dress has to be on a brunette, with tan open-toe shoes, standing on a staircase. Maybe outdoors. In the summer. Can you do that, and stay on budget?)

If you are going to use the words “creative director” or “catalog creative” in your title, please actually be creative. And challenge the status quo at you company. What have you got to lose?

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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