Very early in my marketing career, I learned a simple, but very important lesson: what I prefer and what customers prefer are often very different things — and it’s the results, not my opinions, that truly matter. 

I had just been tasked with managing a segment of the Sears direct marketing business. To give you an idea of how long ago this was: Business-to-Consumer telemarketing and direct mail were not only still relevant, they were our two most successful channels.

One of the direct mail pieces that I was managing was this bland and unimaginative piece that hurt my sensibilities just to look at. It had been the control mail piece for over 10 years, and resembled something that you’d find in a museum of marketing. I quickly reached for a report showing its results from the last several campaigns: not bad. Not spectacular, but solid, and clearly profitable.

But it was so uncreative, so boring… I was determined to design a slicker piece that would beat it. It became my white whale and I was hell-bent to kill it.

The first thing I did was contract with an outside creative agency to help design and produce two kits to test against the stuffy control kit. The agency was just what I wanted: young, smart, brash (though in retrospect, their brashness was disproportionate to their talent). Their designs were exactly what I was looking for: fresh, modern, and cool.

Because I was still at the point in my professional development when I thought that the loudest voices were the most astute, and the flashiest colors were the ones most worth looking at it, I loved the new pieces. I thought they looked great. I was sure both of them would beat the control and that the only decision that I would need to make would be to choose the winner between the two test pieces.

Then the results starting coming in.

I walked into my boss’ office, forlorn.

“My test kits were annihilated by that ugly piece of mail that I would never open,” I said to my boss.

He smiled and said: “that’s the thing, Tom. It doesn’t matter what you like; it’s what your prospective customers like that matters. And they like the control kit better than yours.”

Far too often, marketing agencies get caught up in impressing themselves with how clever they can be — how unique, how creative – when their preferences aren’t what generate new business.

Customers will tell you what they like and what they don’t like — if you listen to them. The results are what matters.

A simple lesson, learned.