The DM Essays: Jonathan Clark, the co-founder and chairman of Clark McKay & Walpole

What does DM offer to rising creative stars to prevent them migrating to an above-the-line agency? Jonathan Clark of Clark McKay & Walpole enquires.

How direct marketing agencies hold on to their staff is an interesting question. However, it is based on the assumption that creative talent will inevitably be drawn to the world of above-the-line advertising. It assumes we agree that the world of DM holds less allure and that creatives, motivated by the desire to solve big challenges with big ideas for big brands, will consider DM an unsatisfactory second best.

The question also assumes that the old concepts, labels and world order still hold sway. Many opinion formers in the ad agency world have been clinging to the illusion that we still live in our own little boxes and that client problems (or opportunities) come in neatly pre-packaged chunks of advertising, sales promotion, ambient or corporate identity.

In practice, more and more clients come to agencies these days to solve bigger marketing challenges rather than asking for half-a-pound of DM and an ounce of sales promotion.

It may be an unpalatable observation but the roles of above- and below-the-line agencies have become increasingly blurred and the allure of ad agencies as temples of TV, glitz and glamour is based on an incorrect set of beliefs.

It's not just a case of the falling away of the old boundaries, definitions and approaches. It's bound up with the business case too. Sir Martin Sorrell, for one, has often stated that he sees real growth in areas outside conventional advertising.

So the first myth I'd like to rein in is that young creatives see the world in just the same way as their forefathers. The industry landscape they see before them is very different.

It might be useful to look at how far DM has come. Until just a few years ago, I'd have agreed that the reputation and image of direct marketing was not one that would inspire people to gravitate to our industry. In that era, I'm sure creative defectors to other disciplines dogged us.

However, now the world of integrated communications is on the business study curriculum. Digital is as sexy as TV, to some. In fact, a real creative DM live-wire I was talking to the other day was somewhat dismissive of ad agency creative, seeing it as derivative and often formulaic. I do not subscribe to this observation but see the intensity of what DM agencies do for their clients as more empowering and enriching.

The term "integrated communications" has somewhat muddied the water but has fired many clients' imagination. DM agencies were quick to spot the opportunities and stepped up to the plate quicker than most in this regard.

Interestingly, DM agencies needed to up the ante on their creative product.

They also made heavy investments in planning. As a result, five years on there has been a real step-change with some truly excellent work being produced.

DM agencies have sharpened up their act. Whatever creative haemorrhaging there might have been is a thing of the past. Young creatives can see the output of DM in a more positive light and see that there is real scope for them. The opportunity to work with big brands to develop a client's brand strategy and adopt a multichannel approach to the communications programme, all of which DM offers, is a heady mix.

DM creatives can help (though in truth rarely lead) creatively reposition Microsoft, Mars or McDonald's. But even in the above-the-line world this is a tall order as pretty stringent rules apply which can straitjacket real creativity.

It is also interesting to note that it was received wisdom that the big creative idea was the province of the ad agency and all that other agencies in the food chain did was translate the big idea into workable solutions in their respective discipline.

Of course, this can still happen and, from an advertising perspective, there is some stunning advertising built around big ideas, which is having a massive impact on those brands.

However, the old ad agency guard has been challenged on a number of fronts with more and more management consultants chipping away in areas where ad agencies held court.

Also, I have witnessed the huge influence made by corporate identity/design agencies in establishing the client identity, language, personality and vision. Again, historically some of this was the province of ad agencies.

This further reinforces my belief that the young, raw talent outside of ad agencies is now being given more freedom of expression than ever before. Certainly, in DM, young creatives have a much bigger canvas to work on, with enormous opportunities.

I've just reviewed work for one of our clients, which included DRTV, advertising, online, direct mail and posters. This breadth of opportunity is mirrored in most leading DM shops and is a compelling creative reason to stick within direct.

Recognition should also go to trade bodies such as the IPA which has (if you'll excuse the pun) pushed the DM envelope, by making DM more of a feature within the IPA Effectiveness Awards, for instance. This can only help enhance the reputation of the direct marketing industry and reinforce creative people's views that DM is a respected, professional business.

DM agencies are now more professionally run. One of the benefits of the super groups is that they've brought greater commercial discipline and have, at the same time, recognised the need for a high-quality product.

This pressure has been as relentless on agencies' creativity as on their operating margins.

Independents, such as ourselves, are expected to perform creatively and it is our goal to produce work that keeps our clients and us one step ahead of the competition. I guess this is the real point. Creatives crave the opportunities and the environment to produce work that makes their book look a million dollars.

If you can achieve this without damaging your business, then the young talent you have will stick with you, no matter what discipline you work in.

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