If you work in direct marketing and happened to sit through the last episode of the BBC series Brassed Off Britain this summer, it is unlikely you'll have bounded proudly into work the next day. In fact, you'll probably have felt the same sinking feeling of disillusionment as a McDonald's burger-flipper after watching Super Size Me.
The BBC asked the British public to name the customer service that irritates them the most. Topping the league of shame - ahead of banks, call centres, mobile phone companies and estate agents - was "junk mail".
The programme revealed some unsettling figures. Every year, 235,000 tons of junk mail lands on people's doormats, 90 per cent of which goes straight in the rubbish bin. People are targeted because companies and organisations buy and sell our personal details - including the Government, which sells information from the census on to direct marketers.
We were also told that credit card companies, the sector's biggest spenders, get just one customer from every thousand bits of mail that they send out - partly because direct mail is so often based on inaccurate information. Mail gets sent to former residents, dead residents and to those who have no earthly need for mail at all. A few years ago, the programme pointed out, an application form for a credit card was sent to a cat.
Back to basics
Such dire publicity is out of kilter with direct's image within the communications sector, where it is recognised as a fast-improving channel through which a growing queue of clients want to put their money. Be that as it may, the public dislike of direct mail is a growing problem. But is it a new one?
Sadly not, Richard Marshall, the business development director at Tullo Marshall Warren, says: "This negative perception has been building for a while now. Even allowing for British consumers' tendency to have a moan about things like TV ads, for example, there are real issues here.
"The problem is that direct mail is tangibly intrusive. You have to sift through your post and decide what is and what isn't of interest or relevant to you. The pile of 'wasted' paper you're left with is a visible reminder of how annoying it can be. To the environmentally minded, it's even worse.
While there are ways for consumers to opt out, we still send large volumes of unwanted mail to consumers.
"Mass mailings are a particular concern. Yes, sometimes there's a need to hit high volumes of consumers, but they can often do more harm than good. We need to get back to the basic principles of DM - timely, relevantly targeted communications."
Of course, not all direct mail sees the inside of a wastepaper basket after it hits our doormats. Jo Howard-Brown is the managing director of the Direct Mail Information Service, which researches the volume, spend and effectiveness of direct mail as well as what consumers think of it.
What consumers want
"If you were to believe certain sections of the British media, all direct mail is loathed and binned," Howard-Brown says. "The reality is quite different and the growing use of direct mail bears witness to its effectiveness.
"Over the past 13 years, overall direct mail volume has grown by 139 per cent. Your average British household receives more than 14 items of direct mail a month, of which 60 per cent is opened, 40 per cent is read, and 13 per cent is kept to be read later. Nearly 40 per cent of consumers have responded to direct mail in the last year and nearly £27 billion worth of goods a year are purchased as a result of direct mail."
But even Howard-Brown, whose company flies the flag for DM, admits that the industry needs to change: "Consumers are irritated when their personal data is incorrect - 11 per cent say their name and address is less often correct, up from 7 per cent in 1993. And in an increasingly design- conscious world, they expect mailings to hit a quality threshold. Yet 12 per cent now say it is less often well-designed, up from just 2 per cent in 1993."
"Some 44 per cent also believe direct mail is less often interesting and relevant, up from 31 per cent in 1993," Howard-Brown adds. "And relevance, not surprisingly, is key. Asked to define what isn't 'junk mail', consumers usually start with something that is 'requested', then move on to 'informative', 'of interest' or 'useful'."
Who's most to blame?
If anyone is to take most of the flak for DM's poor image, it is surely financial services companies, the industry that sent the biggest portion of the 4.5 billion items of direct mail that were sent to consumers last year.
Barbara Casey, Scottish Widows' customer development manager, concedes that financial services brands should be raising the bar for consumer targeting. They have access to more data than most, so should be able to build the most accurate profiles.
"The financial services industry has been singled out for hitting consumers with 'junk mail' and it is still seen as a cheap and proven execution channel," she says. "In some cases, our industry is guilty of not recognising DM as a separate discipline - direct mail is deployed to support general marketing campaigns. This can lead to poorly targeted DM and, from the consumer angle, what feels more like junk."
Casey bemoans the "one-size-fits- all" approach to targeting that is letting DM down. Things could be improved though, she says, if the industry were to work together. "We must change this perception by coming up with direct mail that is competitive and easy to purchase, is executed through creative that supports our brand values, and that reinforces our above-the-line work."
Righting the wrongs
Good intentions, but what is actually being done? The Direct Marketing Association UK is the largest communications sector trade body in Europe, so surely it has the clout and resources to instigate change.
James Kelly, the DMA's managing director, points to some attempts to get the ball rolling. "Our initial environmental campaign with Planet Ark (to encourage consumers to reduce and recycle unwanted mail) in October 2003 was a huge success, but more needs to be done," he says.
"A working party was set up in March this year to spearhead the campaign's second phase: we needed to focus on improving data quality and targeting.
Industry research showed the main reason for direct marketers not using suppression (a technique designed to avoid sending unwanted mail) was the belief that their data was accurate, so there was no need for third-party suppression files.
"Consumer research highlighted the damage caused by companies sending mail to people who had gone away and, disturbingly, to dead loved ones. Improving the quality of data remains the key challenge facing direct mailers. It is vital such improvements are made if we are to change what people think as well as meet the environmental targets agreed with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs."
But what about response media beyond mail? Surely everyone has by now been texted, congratulated on winning a competition they haven't entered, and asked to call a £20-a-minute number? Or received an offer for a penis enlargement to their Hotmail account? Spammers, typically a handful of cowboy outfits based in the US, are damaging opportunities for brands to build relationships via e-mail and SMS marketing.
"We've been researching consumer attitudes and different forms of DM, such as SMS and online," Kelly says.
"We've developed a strategy group to focus on consumer education, and will be championing a consumer awareness campaign to be rolled out next year. This will tackle consumer misconceptions, create an understanding of the benefits of direct marketing and provide the guidance needed for further growth."