Is direct marketing's golden age over?

The answer depends on your interpretation of what DM really entails.

Mike Welsh...industry 'slow to respond'
Mike Welsh...industry 'slow to respond'

Despite the competitive nature of the direct marketing industry, there was heartfelt sadness expressed when it was announced recently that Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel would be folded into Proximity.

The merger meant the loss of another of the industry's "flagship" agencies that made the UK DM market the envy of the world in the 80s and 90s, and was another sign that the golden age of direct marketing may be over.

Lately, there has been a series of adjustments in the DM marketplace. Clearly there's some soul-searching going on. Just last week, WWAV Rapp Collins, another DM mainstay, announced it was to simply become "Rapp", not because of the agency's love of 50 Cent, but so it could better integrate itself within the larger Omnicom group.

Mike Welsh was the chief executive of Craik Jones when the news of its merger broke, and he says there is a very clear reason why the agency, like many others that thrived in DM's perceived golden age, was no longer able to recreate the highlights of its past.

"The problem is that the DM industry has been very slow to respond to the world becoming more digital. DM people as a breed are very conservative; they hate change. The industry is very risk-averse, so embracing new technology has been very slow," he says.

For Welsh, this attitude is epitomised by the industry's trade body, the Direct Marketing Association. "If you look at the DMA, it still perceives the industry as being mostly offline," he says. "It likes to be nostalgic; in fact, it's one of the most change-averse organisations that you'll come across."

This is an attitude that Chris Whitson, the new chairman of the IPA's Direct Marketing Futures Group, is striving to change. "In my role as chairman, I want to open people's eyes to the potential of what direct marketing can provide. It'll be a real shame if we have this opportunity to progress, and don't take advantage of it," he says.

Whitson's belief, that DM agencies must progress away from simply being "direct mail" shops and broaden their horizons to embrace the whole ideal of direct marketing, seems to be the only way that they'll ever be able to succeed.

But it's not just enough to embrace the digital ideal: the work must be good, too. And Steve Stretton, the creative partner at Archibald Ingall Stretton, pinpoints the lack of good creative work as the reason he feels that the golden age of DM may have past.

"I think at the moment, as an industry, our work is boring. We're very mature, very corporate and we do what's right. But that means we've lost our maverick nature. There's also a lack of dynamism. No-one wants to make changes. If that's the case, then why not be like everyone else? We may as well all just join conglomerates," he says.

Whether the golden era is over or not ultimately seems to depend on your interpretation of "DM". By taking it as "direct mail", then maybe there is a case that the better times are quickly disappearing out of sight. But if agencies effectively embrace the overall direct marketing concept, then there could be an argument that the real golden era of DM is yet to come.

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com

AGENCY HEAD - Rory Sutherland, executive creative director and vice-chairman, OgilvyOne

"Taking a nostalgic view, everything in life was done better 20 years ago. I understand people when they say that they feel sorry for Craik Jones, as it was known for doing fantastic work. But the development of new fields inevitably leads to the deterioration of fields that the industry does best.

"It would now be very dangerous to be a DM agency famous for only doing tangible DM. That would never be a healthy state to be in."

AGENCY HEAD - John Townshend, creative partner, Rapier

"I think the golden age has only just begun. Direct marketing is now at the absolute heart of British brands, and I think that brands must embrace the fact that DM is now at its core, rather than just adding it on as an afterthought.

"But as the focus of direct marketing changes, the whole agency model must be reinvented. It's not just enough, though, for a predominantly direct mail agency to simply add a bit of digital expertise. Agencies need to completely reinvent themselves, starting with the way that people in the business work together."

SUIT - David Watson, founding partner, Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel; now a partner in The Brooklyn Brothers

"At the time, we were probably one of the best agencies of our kind. But now I don't see anyone taking that mantle. One wonders where the next great creative work is going to come from. I just don't see the big agencies at the moment that have lots of accounts producing great work.

"The problem is that there are many agencies investing hard in digital, but we've yet to see any great creative digital work. We really need an agency to focus as much on creative investment as the investment put into developing the digital technology."

AGENCY HEAD - Steve Aldridge, creative partner and chairman, Partners Andrews Aldridge

"I'm not convinced there was a golden age. For us, everything gets better every day. We certainly haven't peaked yet. The changing nature of consumers means we can target them in new and more exciting ways.

"DM is thriving, and is stronger than ever. But it's about agencies understanding the changing nature of consumers, and only the ones that recognise this will thrive.

"It used to be that agencies had a particular blueprint for success, which was successful for a while, so why would they change? But now the industry has developed even further, which has stopped some agencies being relevant in the same way that they were."