Direct Marketing: Brits lose their creative crown

With the rest of the world hot on its heels, the UK needs to up its direct game.

What's the connection between a bra with one cup and Josh Short's sexual proclivities? Answer: both were at the heart of direct campaigns which scooped gold Lions at Cannes this year.

Oh, and neither of these eye-catching ideas came out of UK agencies.

The one-cup bra was created by DDB Belgium to hang alongside normal bras in lingerie departments and to remind women to regularly check their breasts.

And a "worst boyfriend" campaign by DDB New Zealand for the website NZ Girl had humiliation as its theme, culminating in the message "Josh Short likes it with a strap-on" being exposed to 45,000 people at the country's Big Day Out event. Revenge is clearly a dish best served publicly.

Many of the Lion winners this year were multimedia campaigns with a strong interactive element, including the Grand Prix. The German agency Norpol's work for the launch of the Renault Modus was ground-breaking in using channel-hopping as a medium. And like many of the winning campaigns, not a single envelope was in sight.

From the UK agencies, only OgilvyOne picked up a gold Lion, for its "still here" campaign for Cancer Research UK, which celebrated cancer survivors in ways that normally commemorate the dead, such as park benches.

Cheethambell JWT's "hardcore" campaign for Scruffs was awarded a bronze, alongside "ice tray" for Volks- wagen by Proximity and Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy's "bullet hole through magazine" work for the Metropolitan Police.

Meanwhile, Microsoft picked up two silvers via MRM Partners and Harrison Troughton Wunderman. HTW also won a bronze for "a stranger's been through your mail" for Court Security Systems and was named the Runner-up Direct Agency of the Year.

Compare this with 2004 when the UK won more than a third of all the Lions awarded, and the UK's 2005 performance seems a bit paltry.

So should UK direct agencies have cause for concern that their work wasn't recognised as extensively this year? Is it a worry that above-the-line agencies keep winning at DM awards shows - as MCBD did with "bullet hole" for the Met at this year's Campaign Direct Awards? Is the UK's reputation as a trail-blazer for engaging direct work in any danger of being usurped by Germany, or other markets that are demonstrating a real skill in this area?

Steve Harrison, the creative director of HTW, doesn't think so. He insists that the UK didn't perform badly at Cannes and cites work such as Rapier's South Eastern Trains campaign and Tullo Marshall Warren's work for Guinness as proof that the UK's direct scene is alive and kicking.

Harrison believes that a more accurate analysis of the situation would point to the growing sophistication of other markets rather than the decline of the UK. "Worldwide, I think the Australians and New Zealanders are punching above their weight, and that's probably because they've never fallen into the above-the-line/below-the-line trap. The entire creative industry seems capable of producing good, integrated campaigns."

He adds that newer ad markets are also showing signs of rapid maturation in direct. "I gave a seminar at Cannes and 580 people turned up on a blistering hot day. About 540 delegates seemed to be from the Baltic states, while the rest were from China."

Colin Nimick, the creative director at OgilvyOne and a juror on the Direct Lions panel, agrees: "I don't think that we're doing badly, it's just that the Germans had a very good year."

According to Nimick, the panel entered into heated debate about what constitutes a direct campaign. "Different markets had their own ideas about what was pure response," Nimick reveals. "The Renault campaign that won the Grand Prix directed people to a website where they could access Renault dealerships. It wasn't traditional direct response, but interactive has become such an integral part that you can't separate it out."

Another common factor when it comes to international award festivals is our old friend cultural sensitivities. Many UK judges think that Cheethambell JWT's "hardcore" campaign for Scruffs workwear, which used porn to appeal to builders, was a little too direct for their palates.

"The connection between porn and builders seems perfectly natural to us but it's not such a clear fit to someone from Thailand," Nimick says.

The chairman of the Direct Lions jury, Fred Koblinger, the chief executive of BBDO Group in Austria and the managing director of Palla Koblinger Proximity, says "hardcore" caused quite a stir among the judging panel.

"We must have spent about three hours discussing it. Some women said they didn't like it, but, as professionals, they thought it was brilliant. And Americans have a different way of looking at these things."

Nimick also makes the point that, when overseas agencies submit direct work that isn't English, they go to huge lengths to put the campaign into context for an English-speaking audience. For instance, they will often supply extra material to help the judges understand how a campaign works in a specific cultural context. Yet the ubiquity of the English language means that UK agencies haven't traditionally felt compelled to provide extra information. "That will definitely change next year," he says. "People need to provide more information."

Speaking of change, there's been a distinct shift towards what the Cannes jurors this year christened "indirect direct". Koblinger describes this as "not directly targeting the brain but targeting the brain through the heart". A typical example of this new-look direct work is the Seattle-based Wongdoody's campaign for Alaska Airlines. It invites web users to engage with a spoof low-quality carrier, Sky High Airlines, so they can see the sense in booking with a reputable one.

Mitch Levy, the executive creative director at Joshua and a juror, describes the campaign as "screamingly funny" and reflects: "I could see some hardened direct marketers kicking against this new kind of work."

The crux of the matter is that, with so many media available, there's no pigeon-holing direct marketing anymore. The web, in particular, is the ultimate direct response medium and is destined to claim increasingly bigger slices of clients' budget. Traditionally loyal direct marketing sectors, such as financial services and automotive, are now investing extensively in internet-based campaigns, and that's pushed up the web's popularity: ZenithOptimedia's latest figures predict a rise in UK internet adspend of 30 per cent this year.

For smart agencies, this doesn't present a problem. Mark Buckingham, the head of creative at Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel, says: "We are embracing digital and other forms of direct media but what doesn't change is the strength of the creative idea, which is what makes the connection."

Lu Dixon, the joint executive creative director at EHS Brann, reflects: "We don't treat the internet differently; it's just another direct channel and, if the idea is strong enough, you can make it work in any media." She adds: "When we merged with EHS Realtime four years ago, we worked hard to merge our creative departments. Today, all of our creatives can take a print-based brief or an online brief. But a lot of agencies still treat direct and digital as separate things."

Miami's Crispin Porter & Bogusky is one agency people never tire of mentioning as somewhere that "gets integration". Its "counterfeit" campaign for Mini is an example of how agencies can think across disciplines.

Levy thinks that the UK's problem is more chronic. He is distressed by what he terms "a real conservatism" running through the lion's share of UK direct marketing agencies, resulting in "boring work".

He comments: "It feels like we need a 'punk' movement. We've allowed account people to hijack the system and run the businesses, so we need a new breed of planners who can offer consumer insight, and business-minded creatives who can bring blindingly good solutions to clients." He adds: "The judging at Cannes was as fair as you could possibly get, and the work just wasn't there."

Some don't share Levy's opinion that the judging at Cannes was fair.

One shortlisted campaign that was widely tipped to do well but which returned home empty-handed was Draft's Lost Souls Web Ring work for Stella Artois. Arthur Parshotom, the creative director at Draft, says: "I'd say from shortlist to actual award is a bit of a lottery."

Considering that UK work accounted for around 25 per cent of all shortlisted entries, there have been rumblings that more Lions should have been awarded to UK campaigns. One rumour even suggested that the chairman of the jury did not want UK agencies to steal the show.

Koblinger vehemently denies this. "This would be very negative behaviour as a jury president," he says.

Koblinger and many of the UK's direct creative directors do agree that there is a refreshingly new creative approach towards direct marketing in some of the world's smaller ad markets. Poland won its first Lion this year with a business-to-business mailout through OgilvyOne for Mysap software, which generated response rates of 26 per cent. Koblinger says: "There's no slip in UK standards, but the rest of the world has caught up."

Yet there's one important exception. "I don't know how long it'll take the US to understand emotional direct marketing," he says. Certainly, considering the might of the US market, it's surprising to see it pick up just three Lions for its direct work.

So maturity and size of market do not necessarily count for anything in direct marketing; having adaptable ideas that don't get lost in translation appears to be the way forward.

And many still believe in flying the flag for British direct marketing.

Buckingham says: "The UK still leads the way, although other countries are raising their game to match it."

But there's no denying that this year's performance at Cannes has given UK agencies a wake-up call.

Paul Tullo, the executive creative director at Tullo Marshall Warren, comments: "DM is going the same way as above the line. The UK's creative lead has been eroded. Rather than ignore the rising creativity of our counter-parts abroad, we should be embracing their new thinking."

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