CLIENT OF THE WEEK - 'DM's only weakness is its PR,' says Orange brand director Spencer McHugh

Spencer McHugh on agency rebrands, Google and DM's pesky image problem

McHugh: 'DM's only weakness is its PR'
McHugh: 'DM's only weakness is its PR'

Spencer McHugh's rise through the marketing ranks at Orange is a textbook case of direct marketer made good (see CV, below). Having begun his career in DM supplier firms and agencies, McHugh replaced Justin Billingsley as Orange's UK brand director in March. He now commands a team of some 60 marketers at Orange, including acquisition and retention.

Last year Orange appointed Chemistry to integrate the "Together We Can Do More" campaign into all DM activity. Jeremy Morris, head of DM at Orange, reports to McHugh, but McHugh vows he's still a direct marketer at heart.

Q: What was your proudest achievement as head of DM at Orange?
Growing our direct acquisition team, definitely. When I first joined Orange, there was a small team of people in acquisition and that's grown to be a larger part of our marketing activity. And it's had a big impact on our bottom line as a business. We've done a lot of good work in retention too, introducing a number of initiatives on churn reduction. I was involved in setting up Orange Wednesdays [the cinema tickets promotion programme]. That's been a great asset for us. We've just had its fifth birthday and it goes from strength to strength.

Q: Best piece of direct marketing (digital or otherwise) that you've ever witnessed?
Am I allow nominate one of our own?! Orange Wednesdays is an amazing programme of activity with some great communications at its heart. Otherwise, the best piece of direct marketing is Google, in every sense. They rewrote the rulebook on how you target and put offers in front of people at the right time and convert them. AdWords is particularly brilliant.

Q: Do you miss being a direct marketer at all?
I don't miss it because I haven't stopped being one. It's an incredibly important part of what my team do.

Q: What do you think DM's strengths are?
That's a pretty simple one for me. Direct marketing has always been grounded in accountability and fuelled by technology, and for modern marketers they're great foundations to have. Accountability is the life-blood of direct marketing and marketing as a general function needs to be more and more accountable these days.

Over the years technology has fuelled a lot of growth in DM and innovation in database marketing, print or targeting technology.

Q: And weaknesses?
The weakness was, and continues to be, direct marketing's bad PR. We need to get a good PR agency on the case! We haven't been able to shrug off the whole junk mail tag and as a sector it hasn't done enough to defend itself.

Q: You were Orange's head of DM during the so-called Summer of Discontent. How did the bad headlines of summer 2006 make you feel?
The media onslaught of 2006 was a perception/reality thing - marketers and direct marketers knew it wasn't true and that the perception was being fuelled by the media. You couldn't blame anyone in particular for it. But the issue remains that the image of direct marketing is the direct mail and door drops coming through your door that you don't want.

Q: Isn't the adoption of digital channels by brands such as Orange solving this issue?
Absolutely. It's becoming increasingly difficult to identify what direct marketing is, as a lot of good digital is firmly rooted in the principles of DM.

Q: So as direct marketing becomes more digital, do DM agencies need to rebrand?
I don't think so. We worked with Craik jones for a number of years, as well as Wunderman and recently Chemistry. The best agencies have a strong sense of where they're coming from and where they're going to.

Q: Can direct marketing build brands?
Yes, absolutely. That question feels like a tired old argument the DM industry debates every so often. In the world of multiple channels with which to communicate with customers, it's obvious all those communications will have an impact on brands and how they're perceived.

Q: Do clients pigeon-hole agencies according to their provenance - be it digital, DM, sales promotion, above-the-line?
We try not to define agencies by their output. We want smart, innovative people who can make a difference to our business, no matter where they come from. It's about having good creative output and executional nuance in specific areas - so occasionally we might want to hire someone with executional detail in search, for instance. Good agencies know where they're coming from and stick to their principles. An agency rebrand is not likely to sway me.

Q: What's your advice to direct marketers within brand companies - how can they use the DM platform to go further up the ladder?
Know your strengths and play to them. Accountability is more important than ever. Direct marketers need to discover new ways of proving effectiveness, developing models of response analysis and ways of interacting with consumers on Facebook. It's also about making sure technology is an integrated part of marketing and DM people are comfortable with that. It's a feature that should stand them in good stead.

Q: Can you tell us about your role, now that you're a few months into it?
Watch this space! We've lots of exciting stuff planned.

McHugh's CV
1993: Data manager, Aspen Direct
1995: Senior data planner, GGT Direct
1997: Strategic planner, Limbo (BBH)
1999: Planning director, Publicis Dialog
2000: Planning director MBO (Havas)
2003: Head of digital and direct, Orange
2008: Head of brand communications
2009: UK brand director

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