The Direct Approach: Learning from Pete and Co

The generation of consumers used to new media is best reached through direct marketing.

The UK's media landscape is changing, which as we are all aware, is making it harder to engage consumers using the traditional channels. The change in TV channel viewing habits is especially dramatic.

In 1995, 225 TV programmes gained audiences of 15 million or more. In 2004, only ten programmes managed to attract this many viewers. There are now hundreds of TV stations instead of just a handful, with more radio stations, magazines and websites becoming available every day. The moves being made into digital by "traditional" advertising agencies should make all of us working at integrated and direct agencies feel especially smug.

What will the impact of this media explosion be on our society and - if reflecting and shaping culture is the heart of our business - on our culture?

Britain was a very different place a few decades ago. Then, rightly or wrongly, our culture - what was written, broadcast and talked about - was constrained by some very powerful forces. The innately British conservatism meant "mass culture" was often regarded as a bit vulgar. A small circle of owners and content producers controlled the media and it was this intellectual elite who determined what "the masses" would consume. The public were, by and large, just passive recipients of this output.

But assertive individualism and the growth of new channels of communication transformed 21st-century life. The public has grown used to voicing its opinions on everything from the Government to TV talent show contestants. The rise of directly interactive media and the explosion of channels has created consumers who would sooner give their time to transactional media experiences than passive ones.

Any deference we once had for the power of traditional content providers is dying out. Once a minority determined content, now everybody expects to have an input. We increasingly expect - and demand - the right to manipulate our own media experiences, when and where we want and through the channels that we choose.

Of course, it's still the case that big media owners and content producers dominate the communications landscape. However, the number of touchpoints and the growing ability of consumers to interact with content means that ordinary end-users are increasingly defining message content for themselves.

All of these opportunities for consumer engagement have resulted in what some have called the "autonomy of populism". You can see it in our attitudes to celebrity. We create cultural "icons" on Big Brother, on Pop Idol and online, only to then pick over their flaws on internet gossip sites, in magazines and on voyeuristic TV shows.

The respect many of us once held for celebrity has been undermined by the growth in opportunities to question it. Any duplicity or hyperbole from celebrities, politicians or other high- profile figures is quickly exposed, and this can have massive negative consequences on their reputations. As a society we're more in love with celebrity than ever, but the ubiquity of the media means we're also less inclined to keep it on a pedestal.

At Proximity, we believe the same holds true for brands. Just like celebrities, successful brands are cultural objects, created in concert by the supplier and the consumer. And just as with celebrities, the new channels have liberated the popular voice and made it increasingly possible for end- consumers to create and influence their own direct brand experiences.

Wherever we started, we are all direct marketers now. Direct brand interaction is the future. New avenues of experiential, digital and promotional creativity bring opportunities for one-to-one engagement to new levels. The new direct communications - especially online and by SMS and MMS - bring still more depth to brand and consumer relationships. Used well, this kind of direct contact reinforces a brand's meaning for its audience in uniquely relevant ways and across multiple touchpoints.

We've started to examine how we can better engage autonomous consumers in our work. Our campaign for TV Licensing is a fully immersive multichannel experience, which encourages the target to actively participate in not just the consumption, but also the creation of the campaign. As they build the content themselves through the website by SMS and e-mail, they become not only consumers of the message but its creators too. And because they've helped create it, we believe it means much more to them.

Of course, we're not unique in empowering consumers to create their own brand experiences. Before Coke's latest campaign, Pepsi created mydadada.com. Consumers were able to upload their own videos and vote on others' contributions.

The richness of the site's interactive content and its creative freedom was impressive. Obviously, the opportunities offered by the new populism and interactivity will also present us with lots of new challenges.

The power relations in the media are forever changing. As brand owners and agencies, we have to accept that, in the future, we won't always be able to control the ways in which the brands we create will be warped and flexed by consumers in the real world. But, creatively, we should run to embrace the democratisation of direct messaging. We're being offered unrivalled creative opportunities to directly engage -and even charm - our audiences.

We believe direct marketing has to face up to the autonomy of populism. In the future, brands won't achieve success by positioning themselves above direct discourse with their consumers. Success will befall those that directly engage with consumers on a respectful and personal level about the things that matter to them; insight-driven brands that use interaction to show that they have a real understanding of their customers as individuals.

As media continue to fragment and consumers continue to exercise a stronger and stronger influence on their media experiences, we are convinced that the direct channel is uniquely placed to give consumers the sort of authentic, immersive, responsive and malleable experiences they will increasingly come to expect.

- Caitlin Ryan is the creative director and Amanda Phillips is the managing director of Proximity London.

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