Direct Approach: Goodbye 'Dear occupier'

Digital is enabling the Holy Grail of direct marketing: reaching the right person at the right time.

It's a social event. A stranger asks you what you do. You now face a dilemma. Tell them you're a direct marketer and you may have to listen to a lengthy and impassioned litany about all the things they get sent that they don't want. You can then either defend the industry and its practices, explaining that no true direct marketer is interested in anything other than talking to the right people at the right time - or you can tell them you work in advertising and spend 20 minutes listening to their great idea for the next Sony, Guinness, Audi or Pot Noodle campaign.

The problem is that the general public, in these days of CCTV and stop-and-search, are convinced that somewhere in the sky there's a giant computer that allows "them" to know nearly everything about us all. Which makes it all the more inexplicable why "they" persist in sending everyone junk or spam about things "they" ought to know we don't want.

And they're not wrong - or at least not completely paranoid. The data really is there. It's just that it's fragmented, it ages quickly, and it doesn't yet let us do what we really want it to do.

So one Mr John Smith, solvent homeowner, car-owning father of three and lifelong stamp collector is demoted to a mere "Dear Occupier".

But, to use a great direct marketing phrase: "It doesn't have to be that way." This is not where Claude Hopkins imagined us when he first established the principles of direct marketing. And it's certainly not what you bought into when you joined the industry.

Yet, thanks to the internet (and the smartphone, the PVR, Moore's Law and the database and ...), the future of the DM industry has begun to brighten. Our ability to marry digital media planning with good old-fashioned database-building, testing and measurement offers possibilities that would have seen Hopkins or David Ogilvy alive with excitement if they were around today.

The simple trick is to avoid the mistake many people have made in considering digital as "a thing apart" - an area of activity that somehow exists in isolation from conventional marketing approaches.

You can, of course, use it like that if you really insist, but then you are missing the greatest strength of digital: which is that you can use it to drive everything, to do all the things we have always attempted to do, but to do it far better, cheaper and faster - and more cohesively. To build brands, to gain fame, to reach discrete audiences, to generate fame, to justify a price premium, to run promotions, and to sell ...

To start with, digital should be the test-bed and wind-tunnel for all your offline activities. Seventy years ago, early direct practitioners such as Hopkins routinely used classified ads in newspapers as a way of inexpensively and rapidly testing headlines and propositions before they made the commitment to buy larger and pricier display advertisements. Even so, testing for them was a long, drawn-out and laborious process. Today, by contrast, we can test new messages and executions for pennies and get the results back in real time. It's a Darwinian approach to marketing in which expenditure automatically shifts away from things that don't work towards those that do.

So what's still holding us back?

First, there is that dangerous tendency towards digital apartheid we mentioned above - the idea that "digital-ness" should be pursued as an end in itself.

Second, there are some leftover practices from conventional direct marketing that need challenging: for instance, the fact that target audiences are still considered as static entities, with most messaging still making no allowance for context - with no attempt to match messages to the moment. As Ogilvy said: "You are not advertising to a standing army but to a passing parade."

Then, there's the question of agency structure. Digital and direct specialists are often in separate companies or arms. Media and creative were likewise idiotically torn asunder at the precise moment when they needed to confer and collaborate. The kind of reiterative testing we propose above is impossible if media and creative are treated in isolation. (It's for this reason we have our digital media partner Neo@Ogilvy very much in-house.)

Finally, we need to see customer communications not as part of a protracted bombardment but as part of a continuous conversation. Our databases need to go beyond contact details to include context details. We need to develop a combined media-creative strategy that allows us to talk to people when, how and where they will be most receptive (and the rest of the time knows to shut up). Fewer but more meaningful communications. And each in whatever form or format works best.

These communications are not exclusively digital - but they are all digitally driven. Behavioural targeting might mean a digitally printed follow-up mailing, in turn followed by banners that recognise the reader's activity on previous website visits.

This context-sensitive approach - which will have a great deal to learn from disciplines such as interface design - is vital if consumers are not to be endlessly and irrelevantly bombarded with too many messages for too many brands at too many moments.

The paradox of choice is becoming a real issue for marketers in the developed world. It is a wonderful irony that direct marketers - for so long the people most accused of untimely and inappropriate carpet-bombing of consumers - may turn out to be the white knights who turn the tide, and drive the crucial metric away from reach and towards relevance.

So, the time has come - finally - for direct people like us to stand our ground at parties.

A century of accumulated experience already puts us in an amazing position. But it is through technology that our promise is delivered.

- Annette King is the chief executive of OgilvyOne London, Richard Wheaton is the managing director of OgilvyOne's Neo@Ogilvy UK and Dave Birss is the head of digital creative at OgilvyOne London