Direct Approach: Directing the dance

It's high time direct marketers, armed with their unique understanding of customer behaviour, stood at the very heart of the communications mix.

Direct marketing is poised to take its rightful place at the heart of the whole communications mix, and in a way more meaningful than ever before. It has more than earned the right to do so. So, after such a robust opener, if I were to say that the best way to describe our role was as choreographers, it might seem odd, especially given the public's recent love affair with Bruno and Arlene's troupe of hoofing hopefuls. So let me explain why I think the time has come to assert ourselves, and how direct should, in fact, must, be at the heart of all communications to the customer, irrespective of channel. First, though, I ought to explain the relevance of choreography.

I've used choreography in the past as a way of describing how direct marketers must use their understanding of the customer to build effective campaigns and to dodge using the word integration. There are two main reasons for that. First, I've yet to arrive at a simple definition of what integration means that doesn't sound insular or inadequate. And second, because I've always felt choreography, like the best creativity in direct, is more active, inclusive and collaborative. It is the role of the choreographer to interpret, organise and inspire action.

Our role as direct marketers, when isolated, involves understanding a brand and its objectives, and creating relevant, timely and measurably effective communications to substantiate a brand's positioning and its products. Since the days of Wunderman and Gossage, we've set about providing interaction, measuring it and improving engagement. To some, we've been just one of the contact points on the customer journey. My belief is that we've become the most important.

There are brands that make great efforts to ensure the customer lies at the heart of their communications. Barclays, for example, works hard to ensure that its activities along the customer journey are intelligently organised and that, in-branch, very little of the experience is left to chance. The journey itself is precise, as is the emphasis on combining marketing disciplines to best effect. Tesco, too, has developed an enviable reputation for its body language. The brand's behaviour, particularly in-store, is a reflection of a deep and hard-won understanding of the customer. You sense nothing is left to chance because no aspect of customer behaviour is considered insignificant.

So how does choreography fare as a way of describing the organisation of these and other customer-facing activities? The customer journey is an important analogy for the way that we interact on a day-to-day level, across channels. And the Tesco application of "body language" seems fairly definitive. One way of looking at it is that body language is the how, where our role as choreographers is to define the what, why and when. Our knowledge of the customer, founded on creative agility, testing and data, means that what we contribute is far more than just taking away and executing the parts of the customer journey that involve our own direct discipline.

Of course, as a descriptor, choreography is not without flaws; it is a set of instructions, dictated by one to others, with limited wriggle room. Compared with body language, choreography also lacks emotion or freedom. But in an increasingly complex media landscape, and even taking a media-neutral perspective, we simply have to exert more control if we are to succeed. As direct marketers, we are better placed than anyone to make this happen.

Our role as direct marketers is to substantiate the promise a brand makes in the most personal connection a brand can make. I'd argue that in an age in which experience is becoming more important, our ability to author the brand promise through which an organisation lives and breathes is priceless. And it's because we get closer to the customer than any other discipline that we've gathered the experience and the knowledge to do this.

There is, I believe, a huge opportunity for digital, too, which is to prepare for its future role as the direct channel most likely to be at the epicentre of marketing, in the same way that traditional direct ought to be today. Before too long, as digital's influence continues to grow and customers make digital their first-choice channel for marketing communication, it is almost inevitable that it will assume the lead in how all other activity will need to take place. It's already happening in some categories; others can't be far from following their lead.

But, for the foreseeable future, across many categories, it is the responsibility of direct marketers to make sure that customers are at the heart of marketing, and that the trust built by keeping brand promises is sustained and developed. It's the fact that we also make promises personal that makes it odd we haven't been so clearly at the heart of things before.

It's entirely possible that direct was sidelined in the past because of a narrow perception of its role as the salesperson, the test-drive organiser, the sample distributor, the final leg of the customer journey. Each is still a hugely important part of our tactical responsibility. But now, our influence should stretch far wider. And with data understanding contributing not just to the functional aspects of a campaign, but also to the creative solutions as well, we have a unique ability to occupy the centre ground. As direct marketers, we are in the right position to see a brand in all its forms from the customers' perspective.

Never truly glamorous, and always hard working, direct marketers need to keep their feet on the ground, constantly striving to produce measurable and accountable work that builds brands and keeps promises, making sure our work is rooted in what organisations can realistically achieve for the customer. But we should feel comfortable in the spotlight. It was once said that Ginger Rogers "did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards, and in high heels". That being the case, to ensure a more challenging and rewarding future for the world of communications, we should take the brands we work with by the hand and follow in Ginger's footsteps.