Creativity is often overrated as a cornerstone of good direct marketing. Yeah, you read that correctly.

An article by global trainer/speaker Michael Leander frames the discussion perfectly. Leander notes, “The late direct marketing dean Ed Mayer first thought of the 40-40- 20 rule. He originally said that the success of your (direct) marketing effort is…40% target audience…40% offer/message and…20% creativity. That’s right; 20% creativity…Often too much emphasis is on the creative components of a marketing activity or campaign. Sure concepts, big ideas, creative innovation and all that Jazz can have significant impact on some campaigns. But never if those campaigns do not reach the right audience with the right message.”

Renowned management consultant Peter Drucker reinforces the point: “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”

Some might challenge this notion, notably pointing out the immense emphasis on creative elements of Super Bowl commercials. For those select few companies that can afford those advertising rates, the formula is skewed. The odds of reaching the desired target audience (among others) is extremely high—so one could argue that the emphasis is split between offer/message and creativity.

But for the rest of us, targeting the right audience with the right message typically outweighs the importance of its creativity. In many ways, creativity is a differentiator. Armed with correct targeting and messaging, an entertaining, humorous or compelling approach can help beat out competitors lacking memorable creative appeal.

Leander wonders why marketers eschew this formula routinely, noting, “Many experienced marketers [know] about the 40-40- 20 rule. Yet most are a far cry away from applying this knowledge consistently. Why is it difficult to understand that everything begins and ends with people?”

He adds, “Nowadays each individual member of your target audience [expects] the Royal Treatment. In other words, you are expected to know a lot about each individual prospect or customer. And then use that information in order to personalize and customize relevant and timely messages.”

Part of the challenge resides with marketer reluctance to deal with a data-driven approach to identifying the right audience and message. After all, for most of us it’s more fun to create than dive deeply into a bunch of analytical data.

Leander suggests building an extensive data repository. Make it contain as much customer (and prospect) information as possible, to begin identifying who’s buying (or interested in buying) what, when and why. He also recommends reviewing your current website, “…and ask yourself if you think that one-size-fits-all is still a good approach. Ask yourself; can we get much better results by enabling a greater degree of differentiation treating different personas differently?”

In all likelihood, this makes a lot of sense as you read it. Getting from making sense to “making cents” can feel daunting, confusing and frustrating. It doesn’t have to be.