By James Sullivan, Project Director of Optic Nerve Direct Marketing
Emulating best practices is one approach to achieving marketing success. But, often the true learning comes from mistakes. The following horror stories–shared by clients–illustrates that your best laid marketing plans may be doomed without fierce attention to detail. You can’t make this stuff up.
Just Because the Vendor Says It’s OK…
XYZ Bank had been acquired by Bank 123. Every XYZ account was being changed to a 123 account. I was new at direct mail, but was assigned the role of coordinating the various mailings about the merger. The vendor had been selected by Bank 123.
When it came time to mail to the business customers, the vendor screwed up the business names. For example, if the company name was BUSINESS, the letter was addressed to Mr. Bus I. Ness. As I said, I was new and had not yet learned to go onsite for quality control checks. The vendor assured me that they did it properly. 
Once the letters dropped, the phones rang at every branch and throughout headquarters on almost a non-stop basis. Can you imagine getting a letter addressed as Dear Mr. Bus I. Ness? Oh. My. Gosh….
One Typo Is Worth a Thousand–No 80 Thousand–Dollars 
A client incorrectly spec’d the wrong grade and finish on a fairly major pair of catalogs. It was for 140,000 pieces on a #3 matte sheet. We follow their directive, quote the work, receive the PO, honor the specs, order the paper, and print the first of the two catalogs. Luckily, it’s the smaller of the two–30,000 pieces. The creative staff member that is sent to press has never seen a Web press or OKed color on a job. Everyone on my staff sees the project, says it looks “rough,” but the gal OKs the project. “Looks good; run it.” 
We deliver the catalogs the next week and her boss freaks out. Their client rejects the job…$40,000 later, at their expense, we reprint on #2 grade dull finish, and everyone loves the piece. 
The remaining 110,000 pieces to be printed on #3 matte is now a “red-flagged white elephant.” They don’t want to run the other job on this grade and finish. The paper mill doesn’t want the paper back; it was a “making order.” So we are asked to sell this stock for our client; on the open market we get 50 cents on the dollar. We then replace it with #2 dull…another $40,000 at their expense. Needless to say, the young creative staff member got canned. All over a typo five months earlier. 
Efficiency Isn’t Always Effective
One production manager had the same printer print all the components of his mail package at the same time: the outer envelope, the reply envelope, the generic letter, the lift note, and the 4-color brochures. He also decided to have all those materials shipped to the mail shop all at once. Seemed like a good idea. The mail shop would get all the required materials at the same time and then the job would be ready to mail after the sample package was approved. What could be more efficient? 
Well, this was the hinterlands of Pennsylvania in the dead of winter, so getting from point A to point B wasn’t something to take for granted. The semi truck transporting all of those beautiful envelopes, letters, lift notes, and 4-color brochures slid on the ice-covered roadway, turned over, rolled down an embankment, and then burst into flames. The fire burned for four hours. Guess why? Yep, all that volatile fresh ink. Luckily, the truck driver was OK. But, given that every single mailer was inside that truck, the whole campaign was sunk. All that money spent and nothing to show for it. Obviously, the mailing didn’t go out the day it was promised. 
The State Troopers called the resulting firestorm “The Perfect Barbecue.” 

Fear–Not the Best Sales Strategy
A major telecommunications company wanted to promote its prestigious data recovery capabilities. Its direct mail agency came up with the following concept: The package would be a large, shrink-wrapped plastic pill bottle with a brochure/letter inside, with the theme “First Aid for Your Data Network.” The local Post Office™ approved the design for mailing, but the client decided it wanted to mail from a different Post Office, and the actual mailing Post Office was not contacted to look at and approve the design of the mailer. 
This was just after the 9/11 attacks, and the “anthrax-through-the-mail” scare was a major concern. So, when all 50,000 of the bottles showed up at the client’s chosen Post Office, all 50,000 bottles were promptly rejected. They needed to be shipped to and mailed from the Post Office that had approved the mailing in the first place. But, that wasn’t the worst thing that happened. 
The worst came after all the bottles reached their recipients. The client received more than 70 phone calls from prospects and customers expressing outrage over receiving such a “scary” package. 
Measure Twice, Cut Once
Even the best of direct mail talents sometimes overlook details that can ruin their marketing plan. Checklists, process oversight, and advice from an experienced professional or agency can go a long way toward averting these types of disasters.
—Source: James Sullivan is Project Director of Optic Nerve Direct Marketing, a Direct Marketing/PR/New Media consultancy headquartered in San Francisco, Ca. He can be reached at