Direct always used to be a bit of a dirty word. The afterthought at the end of a sexy advertising pitch. The grotty bit of a brand's communications.

How times have changed. What's interesting about the following essays is the sophisticated approach of today's direct agencies. The image of the DM agency churning out a never-ending line of junk mail destined for the bin via the doormat has vanished. Good job too, as this sullied the industry's reputation, and dragged into disrepute agencies that prided themselves on their creativity.

A modern DM agency is just as likely to produce a press or an ambient execution as it is to orchestrate an e-mail marketing campaign, a DRTV execution or even a long-copy poster.

There's no doubt that technological innovation has boosted DM's arsenal in reaching consumers, but only if used wisely. Consumers might be more inclined to respond to a direct ad if they're being offered a relevant, timely incentive, but no-one enjoys being force-fed spam.

In terms of data management too, technology has spawned huge benefits.

Clients, with their direct agencies, are learning how to segment their audiences and experiment with different messages for different segments.

This is where CRM comes into play. Current thinking seems to indicate that individual relationships with consumers are the way forward. If this is the case, the CRM model begs comparison with an old school shopkeeper's relationships with his or her customers, where product preferences, personal circumstances and purchasing behaviour were effortlessly absorbed. Today, though, the advertiser looks to the agency to engineer this kind of relationship. And this is where creativity makes a difference.

All brands are trying to build up brownie points with consumers, whether it's through a creative execution that makes them think or laugh, or another method entirely. Retail brands, particularly the giants such as Tesco or Boots, have opted for loyalty schemes. Again, this makes consumers well-disposed towards those stores, as well as offering the potential to "pass on" information about that scheme to friends, family, neighbours or colleagues.

Good direct marketing, just like good advertising or gripping TV, is talked about by the water cooler or in the lift. The expertise on the pages that follow offers some insight into how to get there.