How often does direct-marketing work? For that matter, how often does advertising work? If you think of it as a strategic process rather than an autonomous tactic, it should work every time—if you understand it and know how.

I had suggested to a not-for-profit some years ago to embark on a direct marketing effort. They had a good list, a reasonable offer and great pro bono creative. Wasn’t a client. Couple of months later I came back around and asked how the mailing process was fairing.

Turns out they abandoned the effort when the initial mailing didn’t generate the 23% response needed to justify the cost. Beyond unreasonable expectations, the greater error was not gleaning critical information from the mailing response they did get.

More recently, had another not-for-profit that was assembling a mailing. They had a good list, really good creative, a compelling message and a pretty arresting format. Then the marketing director informed the team that the finance group had cut the budget, resulting in a smaller drop, compromised creative and loss of a really cool format. “It was a finance /CFO decision.” I can absolutely understand if an organization doesn’t have the resources to launch a particular marketing communications effort. This stuff costs money and if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it.

But here’s the rub. The Marketing Communications Risk Paradox. The simple truth about being successful at Direct Response, Print, TV, Radio, Tradeshows, Marketing Communications or whatever, is that you need to be skilled at it—skill that comes from experience, mistakes made and lessons learned.

I’ve said that if I happen to do something particularly well, or even competently, it’s because somewhere along the line, I did it badly and have seen the consequences. If I happen to be really good at something, it’s because at some point I really screwed something up and now fully understand how bad things can get. Point is that when strategies or tactics took a bad turn, we were able to adjust and take a different path. If we had just stopped when we didn’t meet the initial expectation, we would not have learned from the experience. We would not have grown the business. In most categories you either grow or you eventually go away.

You can’t get really good at this stuff without learning from the mistakes that come from taking the risks. If you’re not willing, or not allowed to take the risks, you’ll never get smart enough to overrun the competition. It’s a paradox—the business has to grow, has to take share from competitors, but can’t afford to make any wrong decisions or make mistakes. So you approach the market and competitors timidly and learn little in the process. And every tactic is funded with the smallest amount thought reasonable. As my brother Scott, a telecommunications contractor says “Nobody built in room for: oh-shit.” This is how you wind up walking into a gunfight carrying only a knife. This is how you wind up losing market share.

Another point. A marketing director can only spend what he or she has been allocated by the CEO or CFO. That’s Okay. It’s their job to figure out how the cash has to get spread through the organization. Sometimes an advertising schedule has to compete with a busted roof. But then the CFO has to be considered a member of the marketing team and take some responsibility for not meeting objectives. Too often it’s the marketing director that has to take the heat alone when a CFO’s budget constraints took half the weapons away.

Last point. This may all get down to just managing expectations. But I’ve seen it so often where the marketing budget is cast and then subsequently chipped away at because someone felt that a smaller trade show booth or a smaller mail drop, or no research would save money and still meet objectives. Marketing is about competing. Being timid doesn’t win the race.