THE DIRECT APPROACH: Fiona Greggains of Proximity says DM's new-found status in helping to drive strategy

Fiona Greggains of Proximity says DM's new-found status in helping to drive strategy is attributable to the customer knowledge that is the backbone of the discipline.

The danger with writing a piece about how agencies work together is that it becomes yet another tract on media-neutral planning. Lots of great words about how we're all working so much better together now and how we're really making it a success. But this is nothing new. What is comparatively new is the respect that direct marketing agencies now receive among industry colleagues. Integrated planning has become a reality in no small part because there really are things to debate with the rise of DM and its subsidiaries.

Why have the DM agencies become such an important part of the mix? No doubt it's partly thanks to clients insisting that agencies work well together and consequently accelerating the process of DM agencies becoming great strategic partners. When agencies worked in splendid isolation, there was little reason for different agency disciplines really to respect one another. The advertising chaps had us down as the people who put things into envelopes, the media agencies baulked when we wanted to talk about 60-second DRTV during Watercolour Challenge, and, in truth, we had little to do with that seemingly unaccountable discipline - PR.

However, there is no doubt that DM agencies are now helping to drive the strategic agenda, and the potential for this to continue seems enormous.

Perhaps the fact that we can offer real customer understanding combined with a great passion for non-traditional media options and an ever-improving creative standard has forced other agency disciplines to become more excited by what we can bring to the party.

Perhaps the most important realisation among our industry colleagues is that DM agencies can bring unique, robust and meaningful customer insight to client problems. Ironically, this has always been the principal offering on our stall. We have long been able to deliver more sophisticated levels of customer understanding than any other agency discipline. Advertising and media agencies have long had the tool that is TGI as their mainstay.

Strategies have been built around finding the single truths that unite disparate groups of people, yet in many cases, direct marketers could tell you everything you could want to know about who was choosing and using your product, who'd stopped and who you desperately needed to find more of.

Yet until comparatively recently, this information was rarely brought to the top table. Rather it remained the domain of the database and DM teams. However, the tide seems to have turned in a way that seems to benefit us all. As finding real brand differentiation gets more difficult, the ability to access, interpret and use powerful and - most importantly - proprietorial insight is invaluable. How much more powerful is it to know that all the data we hold tells us that we can never sell premium washing powder to certain types of families, that our sporty runabout is actually being bought by retired chaps in flat caps, or that your most loyal and valuable credit card customer actually has another four cards in his wallet.

While we, as the DM industry, have known this for years, it's only recently that our agency partners in the ad, media and PR worlds have started to appreciate the power of this knowledge.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that we are likely to see a greater proliferation of strategies driven by data and real customer insight. Clearly the prerequisite is a well populated database, but where that exists, we are seeing, and developing, more strategies built around data-driven customer insight. These customer groups will probably be built around customer value, but will always include other critical variables which might be lifestyle, lifestage or based on attitude. Combining actual behaviour - as seen on a database - with qualitative and quantitative research can provide us with an enormously powerful tool. And best of all, it's proprietary.

But even more promisingly, we can use traditional profiling information to build bridges from information on a database back into TGI. Which, of course, means that we have sufficient information for all of the disciplines to be able to develop meaningful strategies against appropriate customer groups. And because data is at the heart of the strategy, it means that we can evaluate how those strategies performed.

So we're seeing direct marketing agencies taking a more substantial role in developing customer strategies. But how we work with other disciplines stretches way beyond this. As the DM world has changed over the past few years, we've seen the coming together of more below-the-line disciplines.

Powerful and innovative creative work and fresh media thinking seem to be two of the most exciting outputs of this process. And that might be why we are being taken more seriously by other disciplines with our ability to solve a difficult business problem with unusual, attention-grabbing (and accountable) solutions.

The only danger is that we might stop believing in other disciplines.

So instead of twitching with frustration when someone produces a TGI report as the route to eternal truth, we need to find an elegant way of presenting our 43-page data analytics report. But above all else, we must keep finding more interesting answers to client problems. Because that will ensure that direct marketing takes its rightful place at the heart of innovative and successful integrated solutions.