CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - Does size really matter when producing direct executions?

Royal Mail's proposal for a pricing structure rejig may have a huge impact on DM.

Royal Mail is proposing to change fundamentally its pricing structure, charging by size rather than weight. It wants to incentivise the use of "standard" formats that are machine processable - and thus cheaper to handle - and penalise anyone who uses non-standard formats. Here, two industry creatives discuss the potential impact, and Royal Mail puts forward its side of the story.

RORY SUTHERLAND, executive creative director, OgilvyOne

Sonnets. Horrible things. Every one 14 lines long, and pentameters the bleeding lot of them. Plus you've got to make the buggers rhyme. You'd get more creative freedom in a haiku, frankly.

Generally I'm a bit sceptical when people claim that their creativity is damaged by working in a set format. Most press ads are the same size. The cinema screen is stubbornly rectangular. TV commercials are more and more the same length.

Necessity being the mother of invention, limitations can provide exactly the spur you need. Even the advertising regulators have an occasional creative success to their name: they removed the knife from the Silk Cut "shower curtain" poster and added the word "probably" to Carlsberg's claim to be "the best lager in the world". In both cases they unwittingly made the advertising better.

So I am not against restrictions unthinkingly. I do think, however, that they should be well argued, based on sound business reasons, and made explicitly clear up front. And I also think Royal Mail, being a monopoly, has an obligation to allow non-standard formats to be sent if the extra cost of carriage is borne by the sender.

We must remember that Royal Mail is not immune to commercial pressures of its own. If the formats are unduly restrictive or are causing consumers to blank commercial mail, we should act concertedly to change this. The same goes when they impose aesthetically challenged postal indicia on us, as they have recently.

But this is not the biggest creative challenge we face as an industry.

The gradual disappearance of creative testing, once the staple of the business, is a far worse brake on the imagination.

IAN HAWORTH, creative director, WWAV Rapp Collins

One of the beauties of direct mail is the flexibility it gives us creatives - and our client partners - when it comes to providing leading-edge creative solutions. Consequently, direct mail comes in all shapes and sizes, an imperative given the need to create stand-out as receipt continues to grow and consumer choice increases.

All that could soon change.

Enter our self-styled guardians of the medium, Royal Mail. Royal Mail has invested significantly in promoting DM - and creativity within that medium, not least because DM is its cash cow. It's bewildering, then, that Royal Mail has asked Postcomm to approve plans that threaten the medium.

What's the likely monetary impact? Well, the relationship marketing work for the malt whisky brand Macallan, through WWAV Scotland, has won awards globally. Taking one mailing as an example, the "sock" pack was small and light: 72 grammes, 40x180x105mm. Comparing the cost of postage and under size-based pricing illustrates the point - it increases by nearly 300 per cent.

Since DM is founded on cost effectiveness, any client would undoubtedly reconsider given such a scenario - and an agency may not even put it forward as a possible solution. It is also often the new entrants to the DM scene, the FMCG companies, for example, that go for the less traditional approach. Take this opportunity away and you turn them off the medium.

So, we have proposals that amount to a tax on creativity, will make the medium less attractive to clients and will undoubtedly affect mailing volumes. All makes perfect sense! So keep an eye out on the Postcomm website - postcomm.gov.uk - and when the consultation document appears, respond to it and tell the regulator exactly why they shouldn't approve Royal Mail's proposals. It's time for creatives to stand up and be counted.

ROYAL MAIL RESPONDS:

Size matters when it comes to handling mail. Large items take longer to sort, take up more space in vans and mail-sacks and so are more costly to distribute. As a commercial company, Royal Mail needs its prices to reflect its costs.

Size-based pricing is not a new idea. Postal prices in many countries already take account of size - including Germany, Ireland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Japan and the US.

Under Royal Mail's proposals, there wouldn't be any change in the price of sending three-quarters of the 82 million items posted daily in the UK. There also wouldn't be any overall change in postal prices, so UK plcs' mail bill wouldn't go up. And Royal Mail aims to give around 12 months notice before introducing the new system, probably in April 2005, to give companies ample time to prepare.

However, Royal Mail recognises that size-based pricing would be a major change for some companies. We have amended our original proposals, following a year talking to customers, to take on board concerns where possible so that more than 80 per cent of companies shouldn't pay any more.

We believe that there is plenty of scope for creativity within the generous sizes we propose, and lifting the present weight constraints would open up new and exciting possibilities for marketers.

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