The Direct Approach: Morality tale

Direct marketing is inherently intrusive so we must remember that we are targeting real people, who deserve to be treated with care and respect.

I want to talk about morality in direct marketing. When I say morality, I don't mean issues such as prejudice or sexism. I'm simply talking about how people should be treated with respect in their day-to-day lives.

As direct marketers, we have a duty to serve our clients' businesses as well as we can - but what of our duty to the public? Do we even have one?

Direct marketing is, in essence, extremely intrusive - far more so than brand advertising. Take the television commercial, for example. People seem to have accepted the role television ads play in their lives. If they do get annoyed by them, people tend to downplay their irritation, claiming either that commercial breaks provide them with an opportunity to make a cup of tea, or that they believe the ads to be better than some of the programmes they interrupt.

No such cliches abound for direct marketing - people have a far less forgiving attitude to mailings and door- drops. Much has already been said about people's attitudes to unwanted direct mail (not least by my local council, which recently sent me an unsolicited mailer advising me how to get rid of junk mail).

Of course, there are many other forms of direct communication: there's press, television, online, ambient, events, sales promotion ... the list goes on. But to some degree, they all need to be in your face. They all seek - even demand - to talk to consumers and, consequently, sell to them.

If we are to make direct communications moral, we need to remember that we are targeting real people, not just markets. Thankfully, direct marketers no longer talk in terms of ABC1s, C2s and so forth because we have realised it is far better to visualise a real person, to think of an actual friend or relation or, in the case of business-to-business marketing, someone we know in the private sector.

So how can we communicate with them in a way that isn't annoying, patronising or offensive, but is actually worthwhile?

Well, let's look at what happens when people go shopping. The shop window may display clothes and have messages such as "new season" or "sale" - this is the brand advertising.

If it is done well, it will catch our eye and get us interested.

When we enter the shop, we may talk to the assistants working there - this is the direct marketing (let's not argue about whether or not the shop assistant is as important as the shop window - they both need each other, OK?). If handled well, the assistant's conversation with the customer will lead to a sale.

How do we want the shop assistants to treat us? Ideally, we want them to be friendly, but not over-familiar. We want them to be knowledgeable about their products and we will respect their honesty. Basically, we want to be treated well.

Many shop assistants in New York have got this off to a fine art (sure, some of them are on commission, but so what? Do comedians always feel funny when we pay them to make us laugh? What's the difference? We are all on commission in one way or another). The fact is that New York shop assistants are usually friendly, knowledgeable and helpful and they get sales. Surely that is how we all should be doing it.

We need to remember that direct marketing has to work harder than above-the-line marketing to keep its image healthy. When people see a whole bunch of television commercials or 48-sheet posters, they edit out those that are crass and remember the gems. But when the communication is coming through their letterboxes or popping up on their computer screens, then it is much more intrusive and, potentially, much more annoying. First, there is the sheer weight of it. Then there is the fact that it often lacks relevance. And then there is the way it actually attempts to sell.

Let's remember those shop assistants. If they came up to us without a word of greeting, proceeded to harangue us about buying an irrelevant product, while shouting "Do it now, get to the till and buy today!", we would feel a little put out. We would probably leave the shop, never to return, and we might even tell our friends to do the same.

It is surprising how some direct marketers behave. They send irrelevant mailings and e-mails. They create pop-ups with close buttons that are hidden or hard to find. They deploy bullying charity representatives.

They litter the carriages of Tube trains with inserts. They write direct-response TV ads that talk down to people.

As a consequence, consumers will walk away from the brand, they will not go back and they may even tell their friends to do the same.

Now, this may seem like a subject matter that is more relevant to those working on strategy or targeting. You may think that, as I'm a creative, this subject is out of my jurisdiction.

But anything that involves the application of the big idea comes under my jurisdiction. Talking to the consumer is my concern. Finding the right way to do it is my responsibility.

I can use what I understand about consumers and their circumstances to have meaningful conversations with them. And I need to understand how they might feel to open a letter I have written, watch a direct-response television ad I have devised, read an e-mail I have sent or witness an ambient stunt I have organised.

Leaving to one side any skill I may have as copywriter or art director, it is my skill as an empathiser that is vital in creating and building a relationship with the consumer.

This is not about me being touchy-feely or hippy-dippy. It's about me understanding the rules of engagement when I communicate with hundreds of thousands of people I will never meet face to face.

And you know what the really good bit is? When we get it right and actually enhance the quality of people's lives, these people may just want to buy what we are selling.

It is simple. If we serve the public well, we serve our clients well.

- Gary Sharpen is a creative partner at Red Cell Response.

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