Digital vs Direct

The battle for control of the digital marketing space is hotting up. Will DM own digital, or will digital take charge of DM?


If you're looking for a sign of the times, consider this. In April this year, Rupert Murdoch bought, the global youth networking site, for £332 million and told his US News Corporation editors to "change or die".

Despite this and other seismic media shifts (Google becomes world's number-one media owner, Heineken calls time on TV), lots of people in marketing are still trotting out that tired old chestnut that "digital is only another marketing channel".

Nowhere is this view more strongly held than in the darker corners of the direct marketing industry. The unstoppable tide of consumers moving their lives online (music, relationships, movies, information, jobs, research, holiday snaps etc) offers the kind of opportunities that the pilgrim fathers of DM could only dream about.

Digital platforms enable genuine brand interaction, immediate content and real results, at a fraction of the cost. But many DM players have let this opportunity pass by.

Am I being unfair? If you look at this year's various awards for digital marketing effectiveness and creativity, 94 per cent were won by specialist digital agencies. Despite the fact that digital offers the ultimate in direct marketing, one look at the UK's top 20 DM agencies reveals that perhaps only three have any remotely credible digital capability. In this context, it's almost laughable for the DM industry to claim ownership of digital.

Digital is more than a marketing medium, it is the testing ground for a massive shift in consumer culture that will drive the agenda of marketers for the next decade.

So far, the agency world has been happy to keep digital nicely separated in a small but growing corner of the industry (or agency, in some cases). In contrast, a large proportion of clients have been busy integrating it into the heart of their operations.

Smart clients know the three digital basics: the line between entertainment and infor-mation is blurring, the relationship between media and message is tightening and, most importantly, control has shifted from brand to consumer.

The fact that online consumers (almost everyone you know) can manage their own relationships with online brands (banks, supermarkets, phone companies) should be of urgent concern to every DM practitioner.

Increasingly, transactional clients (those that sell stuff online) are seeing their digital partner as their lead agency. Agency Republic is being asked more and more to bring in off-line agencies to supplement its work with tactical bursts of DM, press or TV.

Naturally, these clients expect their offline agencies to know as much or more about their online consumer as they do but, in many cases, the offline shops just don't. Only by understanding digital properly can direct shops deliver the undoubted value of creative offline communications.

Take the car industry. With 90 per cent of new car purchases researched on the web, the clear role of the DM agency is to drive people online - but unless they understand how consumers use search engines and what they expect when they get to the site, how can they produce effective work?

Clients are increasingly looking for integrated direct/digital agency relationships - there have been four such major pitches in the past year - but there's a severe lack of quality options for clients to choose from.

Few shops have managed to get digital and direct working properly under one roof.

The principal stumbling block has been the unwillingness of the best digital talent to work in a generalist shop (often due to a lack of real understanding and support from the senior management at such agencies).

This has meant that most DM agencies have found it almost impossible to recruit the best online operators. Some have tried to inject digital DNA by merger, but we can all name at least three examples of failed on/offline marriages. So far, the best solutions have resulted from digital/direct agency partnerships, which, I predict, will be more and more common.

The best DM agencies of recent years have focused their strategic and creative minds on finding fantastically creative, relevant and effective ways to target audiences directly. But there is still a large, unreconstructed side of the industry that's far from moving on.

What use is a 25-cell mailing matrix when customers can decide for themselves what they want to hear about and when? What use are detailed, information-laden off-the-page ads when the majority of consumers compare potential purchases online?

Even data, the traditional stronghold of direct agencies, needs to update itself. Digital generates masses of it. Results can be monitored and analysed in real-time. These results are being tracked, even without the help of the DM industry; but their business value is still not properly understood and could definitely benefit from the experience and analytical firepower that resides in DM. The undoubted skill and professionalism of the direct industry needs to embrace digital in bolder and more imaginative ways than simply managing the margins on massive spam campaigns.

I believe the hot DM agencies of the future will evolve from close links with good digital shops. Why? Because the new DM channels (wireless, bluecasting, digital outdoor, instant messaging) all require genuine immersion, investment and experience to get them working well for clients. Digital people have wrestled with the uncertainty of new stuff for the past five to ten years to get the digital marketing industry to where it is today: creative, effective, growing, profitable.

Digital is the wake-up call that DM needs - and there are some progressive and ambitious DM agencies that are ready and able to carve out a piece of this space. But you don't need many fingers to count them.

- Martin Brooks is the chief executive of Zulu (Agency Republic, Claydon Heeley Jones Mason, Alcone, Code)


Sorry to disappoint everyone, but I don't actually believe direct marketing will or even should own the digital space. Not entirely, not exclusively. However, I do believe it will own a substantial - and, indeed, the most interesting - part of it. But before we go any further, perhaps I should define what I understand the digital space to be.

For me, it's just another communications channel, albeit a relatively new channel, and one that's changing and growing all the time. For that very reason, there is a lot of mystique and confusion clouding the issue.

But if you think of it as a channel, alongside TV, press, mail, outdoor and all the others, then everything becomes very simple. You don't have to be a Java programmer to have a view on what it can achieve and the best way to use it. In fact, I would argue, that level of technical expertise can actually get in the way of seeing the bigger strategic picture.

The point is that consumers aren't single-channel operators; they watch TV, read papers, interact with direct mail and use the web and e-mail increasingly prolifically. So we should not see digital in isolation.

In recent years, many direct marketing agencies have set up digital operations.

After all, if your background and expertise is in discreet, highly targeted marketing, then moving into the digital space hardly feels like a leap into the unknown. It's just more of what we know best. And whereas an adman will see all this splintering of audiences as a weakness, those of us in direct marketing welcome both the precision targeting it can offer and the interactive nature of the channel as great strengths.

We direct marketers quickly saw the opportunity digital gave us to capture full name and address data for marketing purposes and create a dialogue, rather than simply being happy to count click-throughs to a web page or gather e-mail addresses (which actually tell us rather less about a consumer than a good old postcode can).

You can't segment an e-mail database effectively, you can't append data to it and gathering web trends data is useless for one-to-one marketing.

If there's one thing we know about in DM, it's data. We know how to get it, and we know what to do with it once we have it.

But in order to own the digital space, you need to own the planning, not just the data. Increasingly, the battle for the comms planning space is being fought between media agencies and DM agencies.

DM agencies possess contact strategy planning skills and brand planning skills, as well as data planning skills. But they don't have the best digital channel planning or the creative skills that lead to executing great ideas that are unique to the nature of the medium. These are the domain of the digital specialists, who understand the confines of and the opportunities presented by the medium and are literally driving the application of the technology forward in a highly creative way on a daily basis.

It's a challenge the DM industry has yet to meet - but one it is uniquely qualified to overcome. We already have the majority of the skills in place: the strategic planning, the data know-how, plus talented creatives who can come up with campaigns that integrate the multichannel environment in which consumers operate.

We know how to identify an audience, how to target communications towards consumers and how to talk to them in a way that engages, inspires and activates them. But we are not the best at unlocking this channel in its most creative and technical form to create effective and award-winning campaigns - how many DM agencies won at Campaign's Digital Awards the other week?

Of course, it's easy to get distracted by technology and seduced by novelty.

I have been accused of being something of a gadget addict myself. And it is a mistake we as an industry have already made once (remember the dotcom boom and bust?), but now we need to be able to engage with this channel fully.

What I'm arguing is that the way for DM to claim its rightful place in the digital space is for us to stick to what we do best - coming up with acquisition campaigns, customer retention strategies and loyalty-building programmes - and to get better at leveraging the channel at a creative ideas and execution level. The digital space gives us another way of communicating with an audience we know ever more intimately.

Knowing the right question to ask is the key to formulating any strategy.

The responsible direct marketer comes to the digital space with one question and one question only: "How can I use this to drive deeper value for my clients' brand relationships?"

It's a question with more than one answer and I think we have to be honest and say we need help in getting to them all. That's where the digital agency comes in. We can't hope to rival the best-of-breed digital agency when it comes to an understanding of how the technology works or what it's capable of.

Equally, I respectfully suggest that they can't rival us when it comes to designing the over-reaching contact strategy and working out how the digital space fits into it. For it should be that way round. The digital space fits into the contact strategy, not the strategy into the digital space. So perhaps there's a business model out there that has not yet been used in this space that will achieve this "best of both worlds" ideal I'm talking about?

By the way, I'm not the only person to believe that the future belongs to data-driven communications. Remember the personalised hologram posters in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report? Hmmm, now there's an idea. Anyone know anything about microchip implants?

- Phil Andrews is the managing partner at Partners Andrews Aldridge.


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