Let’s Play a Little Calvinball

Have you seen the movie Moneyball?  It is one of my favourite movies. Analytics was used to disrupt the business of baseball and create a brand-new way of running a very traditional organization. Moneyball is a data-driven approach to creating and managing a baseball team – where ‘gut’ decisions are not encouraged and there are a lot of rules.

So different from the game Calvin and Hobbs play in their comic strip. That’s called Calvinball and there are only two rules: 1. the rules must be different than the day before, and 2. the players must wear masks.

I was inspired to write this article after reading Brian Klass and his blog post The Perils of Moneyballing Everything.

Klass writes “…modern attempts to control our world have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the complex systems that govern our lives… In short, this is the story of how and why we misunderstand modern society in the age of Big Data—and how we can learn to be smarter.” 

I have been thinking about Klass’ theory in the context of my world of direct marketing and asked myself the following questions:

  1. Have we as an industry tried to Moneyball direct response fundraising too much and in so doing, have we become less risk averse, more homogeneous, and less creative in our approach?
  2. Are we underestimating the impact of our rapidly changing world and relying too much on what has worked in the past?

My answer is yes. We have put too much weight on Moneyballing and it’s time to mix in a little Calvinball.

I started my career in direct response marketing in the early 90s. We thought we were so much better than those “mass” guys who had a very hard time quantitatively proving that a specific mass tactic effectively and efficiently helped drive sales and revenue. They focused instead on long-term perception and awareness and emotions and, because there was no good way to measure it, they poo-pooed direct marketers’ focus on financial reporting. They argued instead that the way to long-term success was through influencing hearts and minds – and they were always considering the marketplace, trends and the zeitgeist. Based on Brian Klass’ thesis, the mass marketers were playing Calvinball and the direct marketers were playing Moneyball.

Mass marketers evolved as our world evolved. They started developing quantifiable metrics with the rise of the internet, Google and social media.  They can now track how many people visit an organization’s website before, during and after a mass campaign; how many searches were conducted on Google; how many posts on social media went from negative or neutral to positive; and much more. Technology changed so they could add a few Moneyball rules to their Calvinball game. Mass campaigns still try to change hearts and minds but there are more ways to quantify that impact now.

Direct response marketing on the other hand has not evolved from pure Moneyball. In fact, we have doubled down.

We still measure only with financial metrics. And this presents a problem. Financially, it makes it hard to make a case for taking a risk, for trying something new. How do you make a case against the rules of Moneyball to test Calvinball ideas if you are expected to show how the idea will impact the bottom line and be held to that projection?

Direct response marketing is in a doom loop of our own making.

Have a look at direct response marketing fundraising campaigns in your inbox, mailbox, online, YouTube and TV. There is a sameness to them. We even have a formula for creating a direct response TV ad that dictates how long a call to action should be on the screen and when it should appear, and how it should be written. We have boiled everything down to a formula.

We can’t capture the imagination of board members and executives if we’re boring them. And AI could very likely make this worse if we are not careful.  Copy, art, offers, all of it built not on new ideas but on an amalgam of other people’s ideas and designed purely to drive financial metrics.

I challenge us as direct response fundraisers, when we are developing a plan, a campaign, a tactic, ask yourself, am I playing Calvinball or Moneyball?  Am I trying something different? Am I taking a calculated risk? Am I investing in innovation or am I playing it safe?

The team at ST is putting our money where our mouth is. JAM Collective is one way we are playing Calvinball AND Moneyball. And there are other ideas already cooking! If you want to find out more or want to learn how you can join our Calvinball team, give us a call. We’re ready to play ball.

Lisette Gelinas

Lisette Gelinas

In her role at Stephen Thomas, Lisette delivers marketing and communications solutions that drive measurable results, across traditional, digital and social channels. She brings to the table a fierce combination of CRM and brand building expertise, leadership qualities that can pull together any team to produce outstanding results, and marketing plans that work within very small or very large budgets.