The Direct Approach: Out of the comfort zone

Business practices must change to keep pace with consumer control, Jackie Stevenson says.

Do you get the feeling that, in around 1996, someone hit the fast-forward button and sent the world into overdrive? Reading the press and talking to people across the industry, you sense bewilderment at the sheer speed at which everything is changing. From e-mail and the internet, to satellite, digital and interactive broadcasting, it's been tough trying to keep pace.

Of course, when it comes to talking about it, we're right on the money, especially when it comes to our own role in the lives of modern consumers. If one more person tells me consumers receive around 2,000 messages every day, the majority of which they ignore, I will cry. We know about personal video recorders, Mail Preference Service and its telephone sibling, and about downloading content from the internet.

Basically, the consumers of 2006, compared with those of 1996, are very different, exercising more control over what they see, choosing what they want to engage and interact with and setting their personal agenda. With more changes afoot, the degree of choice and control is only going to increase.

Many people in our industry seem confident that they know where the future lies: it's about brand engagement, creating bonds with consumers that go beyond simple price or functional differences, they argue. We do understand that it's no longer good enough to just push out information based on what a product or service has to offer; we know we must encourage consumers to engage with us, gaining their permission and their trust. There's also widespread agreement that we need to be more accountable, and focus on delivering ROI.

The industry has even indulged in smug satisfaction at its position in this new order. We are, after all, experts in building relationships - our industry is built on our success in creating bonds between brands and individuals. We also have a long-established tradition of delivering measurable, accountable campaigns. In theory, we've got much to be pleased about.

But, there's a fundamental issue that no-one seems keen to mention. The fact is that the industry hasn't changed its fundamental business practices to keep pace with its environment. There's so much change going on out there, yet the industry today resembles a rabbit, transfixed by the headlights of a truck tearing towards it. We can see it and hear it, but we just can't seem to move our feet.

For me, there are three key areas requiring urgent attention. The first is the customer journey. There is a need to properly plan a series of communications that build emotional engagement on an individual level, rather than grouping customers together with a one-size-fits-all approach. Deciding, upfront, where we want to take customers, and finding ways of identifying their position on that path, is something we should do as a matter of course, yet it almost never happens. The technology exists to track customers on a more individual level, so there is no reason why we shouldn't do this.

As direct marketers, we need to assess every individual touch-point in terms of opportunity (or, indeed, potential threat) in order to move that journey on and ensure customers are not lost to us. As things stand, activity tends to come in waves - one minute we smother customers with attention via specific one-off campaigns, then the next minute we virtually ignore them. It's this schizophrenic approach that threatens the relationship in the long term.

Second, we need to find a new set of measurement tools. For a long time we have been focused on response and short-term returns. Ignoring longer-term issues is folly. In future, we must champion all the benefits of brand engagement and bonding measures, and the need to work harder so that we understand all the steps that are likely to comprise a customer's journey toward sales as well as loyalty.

The fact is that response is only one facet of direct marketing. We sometimes seem to be unaware of this. Money is rarely invested in testing for the effect of brand image, but evidence exists to suggest that this can be both positive, if a piece of communication is warmly received, and negative, if work is executed badly. We need to measure the impact of activity beyond immediate response; if a recipient doesn't respond, what has been the impact of the communication? Have we improved the relationship? Has it increased a prospect's propensity to purchase or has the opposite occurred?

Third, we need to step outside our comfort zones and find new ways of working with our clients. The problem with direct is that it is often defined in isolation from the bigger marketing picture - generally in terms of response alone. Our business is really about changing people's behaviour, and converting this change into positive results for our clients' businesses.

As direct marketers, we will only break out of our silo when we focus on the thinking we can deliver, rather than the media in which we specialise. We need to champion our discipline's strengths to show our clients that direct marketing isn't merely there to convert people already warmed up to sales and to drive response. When a six million household door-drop has, for example, the same reach as a not-insignificant TV campaign, we should make more of our impact on awareness.

We must also confront an issue that many have wrangled with, but around which little has changed: remuneration. We need a system that rewards ideas, not simply their execution. If we can reach a situation in which we are paid for our media-neutral thinking, regardless of whether the outcome involves DM, then we will have altered our position in the business spectrum for the better.

When you consider the changes we are confronting outside our industry, it is clear that changing our outlook is key to future success. There is a perception that direct marketing - the golden child of marketing for many years - has been treading water for the last few. While nothing could be further from the truth, we don't help ourselves. Recognising the value we bring beyond simple response and then ensuring clients not only respect and value this but seek our input on a broader level will help us create a healthier, more secure and more valuable industry.

- Jackie Stevenson is the deputy managing director of Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel.