Close-Up: Is DM in the middle of a talent crisis?

Beset by an image problem, how can DM attract the big names of tomorrow, Matt Williams asks.

Compare and contrast Campaign's "Top 10 DM creative directors" lists in the Annual from 2002 and 2008. Both contain John Townshend. Both contain Steve Stretton. Steve Aldridge and Mike Cavers? Yup, they're both in there too.

Credit must go to those guys for consistently being at the top of the game, but it begs the question: Where are the rest of the talented creatives in the sector?

Worryingly, it's not a question that's easy to answer. "We're really struggling to find the next generation of talented direct marketers," Jon Ingall, the managing partner of Archibald Ingall Stretton, says. "The bottom line is that there are not enough people trying to get into the direct marketing industry. Without new talent, where will the next 'smoke is poison tanker' come from?"

Ingall is not alone in voicing concerns about the appeal of the DM sector.

"The DM landscape is broadening, but the outside view of it is narrowing," Dave Woods, the creative director of RMG Connect, says.

While DM encapsulates everything, from TV to online, most graduates think of it as door-drops and letters and instead opt for the "sexy" digital agencies.

This problem will continue to exacerbate if the industry does not address the issue. It is well known within the industry that DM agencies are now digital specialists (no DM agency worth its salt doesn't broadcast this far and wide), but outside of the business, the message gets drowned out.

However, there are optimists who think that the wind of change is already beginning to blow.

Liz Dowse, a managing partner at The Talent Business, says: "A couple of years ago, people were coming to us only to ask for places at pure-play digital agencies. But people are now realising that the marriage of data and digital is what's important to brands, which is making DM agencies more attractive to the big talents."

However, agencies should still be doing more to nurture this talent. Training is vitally important, but many believe that not enough is being done and, even if it is, maybe not in the right area.

Townshend, the creative partner at Rapier, says: "Colleges and agencies are training more integrated thinkers, which is great, but it means that the art of DM, the very basics, have been lost."

Perhaps this is why the top creatives from past years have yet to be budged. When starting out, these creatives were taught the craft of good DM, and they could apply the skills as required.

Now, it could be argued, young creatives are learning the technical skills before they learn the persuasive and responsive skills that are fundamental to DM's core values.

"The basic principles of DM will stay the same," Ingall says. "It's just the channels that will evolve. And it's far easier to have the fundamentals and learn the rest, rather than the other way round."

There's an array of untapped talent sitting tantalisingly close to DM agency doors. But, thanks to an image problem that has positioned the sector as far more unappealing than its digital counterpart, and a lack of investment in the fundamentals, it's clear that this talent has yet to come to the fore.

However, if DM agencies can rediscover some colour and personality while focusing on the craft skills, there's no reason why the next batch of DM graduates won't be the ones dominating Campaign's top ten list in the next couple of years.

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AGENCY HEAD - Jon Ingall, managing partner, Archibald Ingall Stretton

"DM is a powerful offering, but there's a lack of talent at the moment that's selling us short.

"I think this has come about because of a number of reasons but, fundamentally, it's down to the fact that we're struggling to attract people in the same way that we were.

"DM is not as appealing, exciting or interesting as it was ten years ago and there aren't any agencies or characters that stand out like they used to.

"We're also not encouraging new talent to train in enough of the basics. Where are the people taking the DM diplomas, for instance?"

CREATIVE - John Townshend, creative partner, Rapier

"There are lots of great people out there who are more open-minded and less media-prejudiced than before. But we aren't capitalising on that.

"For example, when I joined the DM world, I was amazed how few people train in the core values of persuasion.

"There's a huge future for DM, especially with the emergence of online. We need to reaffirm this and make sure we train people up in the right way, ensuring that they understand the fundamentals of the discipline."

INDUSTRY HEAD - Mike Spicer, group managing director, EHS Brann; chairman, Marketing Communication Consultants Association

"I'd say we are lacking talent in the DM business at the moment. Fifteen years ago, all people wanted to do was go into advertising but it just doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

"At the MCCA, we therefore need to take it upon ourselves to put more emphasis on attracting young talent into the industry, and giving those people a doorway to the agencies.

"It's then up to the agency to put that investment in from day one, which hasn't really been done as much as it should have been so far, because those people will become your senior managers one day."

CREATIVE - Dave Woods, creative director, RMG Connect

"The talent is there, it's just perceived not to be because in the broader sense there's not enough interest in our sector at the moment.

"The perception is that the digital sector is sexier, but all DM agencies do digital - so once we've got that clarification, it'll be easier to recognise that the talent is available in abundance.

"The departments I've worked in have been heaving with extremely talented people and I, for one, am hugely positive about the way DM is evolving. It's the people who don't know about DM who are the sceptical ones."