The Direct Approach: It's all there for the taking

That times are tough should not be wholly bad news for direct marketers: this is their chance to show their true worth.

I caught a programme on the radio the other day about a group of people who are rejoicing at the economic crunch.

These are the repo men (are they always men?), the guys who make their money by repossessing things on which consumers can no longer keep up the credit payments.

They've not been so busy for a long time, and the prospect of a full-blown, drawn-out recession puts a spring in their step and orders in their books.

The programme, which initially sounded rather unappealing, was fascinating. The main character it trailed was a largely sympathetic figure, who attempted to be as undramatic as possible in the task he was compelled to perform. But what I found most interesting was the relief his appearance gave the people he took from.

If you'd expected tense stand-offs on the doorstep as the television was wheeled out, or a lie-down protest in front of the hire-purchase car, you'd have been disappointed. Most were only too pleased to be offered a way out of the debt spiral into which they had been sucked.

For everyone is looking for a way to make life easier. Marketers too, in these straightened times. And this is where DM agencies can clean up.

As budgets tighten, DM outfits have their main chance to prove themselves a cheaper and more effective route than traditional above-the-line alternatives. It's a well-worn argument, but one that could really prove its power in this economic climate.

Many DM agencies are also ramping up their digital credentials. As clients look for less expensive media options and higher-volume audiences, so the trend to online will intensify. The savvy shops are those that are in a position to scoop up that business too.

Now is also the time for them to wheel out their biggest strategic guns. Then, when the good times roll once again, they will have forged themselves a new reputation among clients.

The instinct in times of hardship is to cut costs and batten down the hatches. But, for DM agencies, the brave option of holding steady, maintaining investment in standards and in a high profile might prove the most profitable, long-term.

The essayists in this book who met to debate at our roundtable lunch must be among those most prepared to meet that opportunity head-on. They are some of the best placed because they are taking the time to take a break from the day-to-day and take measure of the prevailing wind.

If it seems an unfair comparison to liken direct marketers to repo men, then the message has been taken too literally. It's just that, for some (DM agencies among them), the economic gloom can take on a certain lustre.