Direct Approach: Avoid the digital trap

Insipid online advertising is failing to keep pace with the state-of-the-art medium it represents.

If the rise of direct was the marketing story of the late 90s and the early 2000s, then it's fair to say that its star has waned a little in the past two or three years. Preference services and the spectre of legislation continue to cast a shadow over much of its activity, negative news coverage of campaigning postmen has caught the eye, while rising concern over the environment has given commentators another stick with which to beat DM. On the face of it, reasons to be cheerful appear thin on the ground.

Inevitably, there is also greener grass at which traditional direct marketers can enviously stare. Digital has replaced DM as the belle de jour, and its rude health provides a striking contrast to the more sickly pallor of traditional media. And it's not just direct mail that's looking a little dark under the eyes; the announcement that digital advertising spend had overtaken press escaped nobody's attention last year, and the demise of the 30-second TV ad continues to be forecast on a weekly basis. Once again, it is digital that stands poised in the wings.

You would think that, in order to precipitate this spectacular ascent, digital marketing offered something truly radical. But, step back from the technology itself, and a quantum leap is hardly obvious. In fact, much of the digital work we are being exposed to at the moment is positively retro. You can see why digital advertising might be earmarked to replace the 30-second TV ad, for example, purely because it operates on the same age-old principles of interruption.

And here lies the problem with an awful lot of the digital work out there. It's straightforward, traditional advertising, only it's wearing Heelys. The vast majority of online advertising remains pretty unsophisticated. It's like a straightforward brand ad with a small degree of interactivity. Click on a banner here, go to a landing page there, view an MPU or a streaming video, ask for a brochure. There's not much else on offer from most online advertising. In fact, away from a small minority representing the state of the art, there's little to demonstrate that the medium has moved on in any dramatic way.

One digital campaign grabbing the headlines recently was basically a TV ad (for Barnardo's), which appeared online with an "opt-in" in order to circumvent broadcasting regulations. In many ways it was excellent work - there was real PR value there, it was a highly arresting film, and the accompanying press executions, in particular, were very powerful. I liked it. So, an interesting integrated campaign that generated real value. But could they have done more with the medium? If you take the execution itself, it doesn't really move the digital game on at all. The only reason it couldn't go into a centre break of Hollyoaks is that you're not allowed to say "fuck" there.

But there are, of course, many compelling arguments for going online. For a start, consumers are spending a lot of time there. Long enough to do something that might constitute a more definite overture towards something like a relationship. It can help maintain that relationship once it starts. The online environment allows you to personalise and to carefully target. It's also, potentially at least, a fiercely commercial medium - responsive, measurable and definable, infinitely trackable and pretty hard-nosed. If something doesn't work, it's obvious.

But, hang on a minute; let's look at that paragraph again. Here is a medium that people spend time with. It's good for relationships, it can be customised and targeted, it's trackable, commercial, etc. Doesn't that all sound rather familiar? If you work in direct marketing, it should do. And it's hard to come to any conclusion other than this one: digital is a direct medium. Almost every aspect of it falls under the direct domain.

This isn't exactly a new argument. Direct agencies have, along with their counterparts from the traditional advertising agencies, taken part in the great digital land grab with gusto. And in the scramble to join the party, direct agencies should possess massive advantages over all of their rivals. But, on the whole, direct techniques are simply not being employed in today's digital world - even by some of the direct agencies that know them back to front.

The problem seems to lie in the formation of habits. Everyone knows the age-old story of the adman who says to his client: "The answer's a 30-second TV ad, now what's the question?" Digital, demonstrably the most exciting medium out there at this point, is beginning to fall into the same trap. It's natural that the marketing and advertising industries, with their ingrained media habits, should seek some kind of comfort zone in the new digital space; but it's also fundamentally wrong. In many ways, it's also a lesson that the direct industry has already learned in its own environment. There was a time when bombarding customers with unwanted mailings and carpet-bombing prospects was deemed perfectly acceptable. But the long-term costs of that approach are being felt by brands today, and the majority of direct villains have changed their strategies accordingly. But so much digital work remains, in many ways, an island - with little thought as to what comes next in the process, beyond directing interested parties to more information somewhere else online.

It's time for direct agencies to step back and take a good look at their role in digital media. More than anyone, we understand the customer journey and the importance of building relationships. We have been focused on delivering tangible results for years, we were the pioneers of customisation and continue to innovate in this area to this day. Elsewhere, our industry's demonstrable commercial acumen is the reason why so many marketing directors transferred their budgets into direct media for the past decade. Digital media could be a tremendously powerful tool in our hands, but with the exception of a few pioneers, too many direct agencies are being sucked into doing things the established way. There is no reason why the emerging digital "rules" should apply to anyone, let alone us; it's time we made a determined effort to use our unique knowledge base and stake our own claim.