The Direct Approach: Flip the lens

The rise of digital is coinciding with a recession, and agencies that can survive both challenges will be those who avoid lazy, formulaic thinking.

There are two forces revolutionising business today. The first is the rise of digital - and we are all more than familiar with the reasons for this. The second, less obviously and perhaps more controversially, is the credit crunch. We tend to think of one as a positive and the other negative.

If we are to advance as an industry, it is vital we flip the lens and view the one we deem negative as positive and vice versa. The credit crunch can be like a shot in the arm; the digital "revolution" could be a nail in the coffin.

Positives in a negative

The value of recessions is that they bring seismic change. The oil crises and deep recession of the 70s brought us to Thatcherism and Reaganomics. The first world had a new paradigm.

With the "r" word looming once again, our need to re-evaluate, to change, to alter the status quo is long overdue, and without it, this industry will head into obscurity. If we do not refocus on work that works, we will lose. But let's not confuse this with a call to arms for the formulaic, mechanical process of yesteryear. Let's be clear: that would be a disaster.

An obvious effect of recession is that people become cautious. A tougher market means a bigger gap between winners and losers. And the winners this time will be the brave thinkers, those happy and free to take risks.

Radical times require radical solutions. But more than that, they require ingenuity; the ingenuity to understand how to persuade. And to make that solution elegant in its simplicity. This, and the pressure on purse strings, will focus the mind and challenge what can be achieved. Imagine, for example, launching a car globally with a budget less than Ford spends in an average trading week.

This recession, in conjunction with the digital revolution and a changing consumer, will cement the shift in the balance of power away from sellers to buyers. In a buyer's market, we'll have to work harder to sell products and services. We will have to think harder and be rigorous in our accountability and evaluations. Service level agreements, anyone?

Out must go the laziest of all thinking, "The Value Exchange" - the notion that the consumer and brand interaction can be reduced to a rational bribe. It's just utter nonsense. Can we really believe that the best we can come up with is "In the absence of a compelling argument, I'll bribe you"? Where has the succession of 0 per cent deals on credit cards taken us? We need to develop more compelling creative solutions to engage audiences. Like the bribe, shouting messages at people no longer cuts the mustard.

In times of recession, the DM industry has always claimed the high ground, but today's consumer is a different animal to the one of the early 90s. Relying solely on trackable direct mail is no longer a viable option. Yes, we need to continue to measure campaign effectiveness, more so than ever before. But we also need to shift our focus towards positive engagement, and this is where digital can start to play its part.

Negatives in a positive

However, digital used without care could be our downfall. We've long held the view that all wise communications thinking, since military metaphors got a bad name, should be analogous to football. (Yet, strangely, Germany remains our implacable enemy ...)

Watching kids play football is funny; wherever the ball goes, they go. They just have to be where the action is. In contrast, the professional game is played astutely, with well thought-through tactics that find players holding positions, creating a multiplicity of passing options.

Why bring up kids and footy? Well, because marketers' dash for all things digital is much the same as "jumpers for goalposts". It is an immature response to a serious subject. We are in danger of repeating the grievous sin that once pitted comms channel against comms channel, above the line versus below, direct against sales promotion and so on.

Digital is a channel; it is not communications penicillin. For sure, there are different rules of engagement and, of course, craft skill is critical. And, yes, some people do know more about how best to exploit its undoubted virtues than others. But let's remember that at the heart of all good advertising and marketing remains storytelling, and that what drives great stories are powerful ideas. If we take heed of this advice, we'll avoid the lazy thinking that points us towards the obligatory Facebook campaign requirement, much like last year's demand for half a pound of viral. We'll challenge ourselves, and those around us, to take a different view of the communications world. We'll focus on the power of ideas and we'll reap the rewards.

Yes, we'll take risks and, yes, we'll make some mistakes along the way, but as long as we're brave enough to admit them and learn from them, we can have confidence in our direction.

So, granted, there's never a good time for a crunch in the market and digital certainly needs to be treated with care. But let us embrace the future for what it is - a wake-up call. Let's look for the positives and move forward once again.

- Martin Nieri is the managing director and Ben Rachel is the planning director of CMW.