Direct Approach: The not so mad men of DM

In the age of the consumer, DM agencies will have a vital role between a brand and its customers.

With suits as sharp as their repartee and clients falling under their spell, it's hardly surprising that BBC Four's Mad Men proved to be such a hit.

Forty years later, many of the brands their real-life counterparts created, such as Heinz and Coca-Cola, are as popular as ever. Reliable and comforting, these names have been joined by innovative newcomers such as Apple plus the clothing brand Howies and Innocent drinks - both founded by former ad agency executives.

Others, meanwhile, have fallen by the wayside. When Woolworths closed its high-street stores to go exclusively online, even former customers interviewed on the news couldn't think what its shops were for. The Zavvi chain also lost relevance in a world of music and movie downloads.

Under Tony Blair, the Labour Party did appear to be listening to voters through endless forums and consultation exercises. It would then promise to create policy in accordance with these findings. But when it failed to deliver on many of its promises, the public felt disenfranchised and disconnected with the party and politics in general. Joanna Lumley's championing of the Gurkhas' cause shows how public feeling can be focused and marshalled through an unexpected channel, taking those who thought they were leading on the issue by surprise.

The souring of the New Labour-voter relationship and the collapse of many apparently solid brands, together with the radical rethinks demanded by others, old and new, demonstrate that the Mad Men are no longer masters of the branding universe. Instead, we live in the age of the consumer. As direct marketing agencies, we are more aware than anyone of how consumers are now using the power of new channels to express their views and examine and challenge brand claims. They're even co-creating brands. Consumers have seen inside the machine and, through blogs, social media and other online forums, they're telling us that they can make it work better.

Consumers don't sugarcoat it either. They've set up "hate sites" where they can attack companies they feel have let them down or do not share their values. Add to the mix petitions posted on the 10 Downing Street site and, suddenly, the Twittering consumer really is king - or do I mean dictator?

The vast majority of consumers might be unaware of the work of DM agencies, but they do know that they can now shape brands and influence the way these brands interact with them. Apple and Nike demonstrate how a brand can use this co-creation to make itself part of the architecture of the customer's world. Apple is in constant dialogue with its users and Nike even allows customers to design their own trainers online.

Brand Republic, the sister website to Campaign, recently listed the top ten brands mentioned on Twitter. Interestingly, fewer than half of these names actually Tweeted themselves at the time - although many thousands of their customers certainly did.

On their own sites, brands are now inviting customer input. Virgin Wines allows customers to rate its wines and tell it what they'd like to see stocked.

Ocado, meanwhile, takes an active interest in helping you with your groceries. It'll suggest things that you might have forgotten this time and will even create a whole shopping list for you based on what you usually buy. Boots UK is working to bring greater intelligence to its marketing. For instance, customers who choose to buy a digital camera as part of a start of holiday season-themed promotion will find, when they get back from their trip at the end of summer, a communication encouraging them to buy a photo frame for the pictures they took.

Instead of the Mad Men inventing brands over a three-Martini lunch, which consumers then aspire to purchase, those consumers have arrived at the restaurant with their own ideas. Just as this is the age of the consumer, it should also be the age of the direct agency. DM agencies are uniquely placed to be the nexus between brand and consumer. Building on our traditional skills in data analysis and fusing data from different sources, DM agencies can now inject a more sophisticated, detailed evaluation of customers' needs, desires and motivations.

We can help a brand form part of the architecture of people's lives. Consider Simple Health & Beauty, which has a staff of around 50 but is taking market share away from huge multinationals such as Procter & Gamble and L'Oreal. The Birmingham-based company has its VIPs, customers who contribute towards product creation in return for discounts on various lines.

Orange has associations with film and music via its entertainment portals, providing a forum to build communities where fans can share their experiences. The Orange Feed blog allows customers to suggest ideas for how the company might improve its service, while its recent YouTube demo of the HTC Hero handset has received more than 123,000 views to date.

Sheraton Hotels provides a forum where guests can recount their travel stories and recommend restaurants, shops and attractions. These tales allow Sheraton to monitor the thoughts of guests in a more nuanced, qualitative way than any customer satisfaction questionnaire ever could.

So, are the Mad Men redundant? No, but their role has changed, as it has for everyone involved in the brand, be they in marketing, branding, PR or design. Even with this robust new customer input, a brand still needs self-confidence, direction and a sense of identity. To help here, the DM agency must become the vital missing link between the brand and its customers. It is an opportunity for direct agencies to come of age and act as honest brokers between customers and brands.

Exploiting the opportunities created by this brave new digital world, DM agencies can filter out the background noise that is created when everybody touched by a brand can offer their view. The Mad Men are now finding that they need to invite input from DM agencies, perhaps once considered to be more like the boys from the post room. Our role is pivotal as we analyse the data, collate social media comment and help anticipate how customers' lifestyles, desires and requirements will change.

Most of all, we can identify, pull together and translate these passionately held but often conflicting and sometimes inarticulate views as they are communicated, ever more directly and vociferously, and turn them into that vital ingredient for brand success - genuine empathy with the customer.

- Lisa Thomas is the chief executive of Lida