How long can direct mail continue to be the odd man out among the direct-response media? Cold mailings and cold calls have long been considered junk - both have been the subject of critical television programmes - and yet the direct marketing industry has refused to accept its unpopularity and intrusiveness.
This year's evidence from the preference services confirms that more consumers are taking action to avoid traditional direct marketing methods.
Ten years of consistent growth in direct mail volumes stopped abruptly in 2004. Is this because, as some have said, direct mail is just not working as well as it used to? Is it because there is so much of it, people have learned to ignore it and the rise of the internet means that companies can go beyond traditional marketing methods?
We seem to have reached a point where there is no longer tacit acceptance that we have the right to disturb and interrupt people's daily lives with intrusive media such as telemarketing, direct mail or fax.The annoyance level is too high and the legislators seem ready to move if self-regulation does not prove to be more effective.
As the author and entrepreneur Seth Godin once said: "The biggest problem with mass unsolicited mailing is that it fights for people's attention by interrupting them. But there's too much going on in our lives for us to enjoy being interrupted any more."
Lester Wunderman's 1996 book, Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay, includes a 19-point "Consumers' Bill of Rights". This acknowledges that, because the internet and associated technologies have given advertisers greater access to consumers' lives, the advertisers need to respect some important boundaries.
"Advertisers get more information from consumers. If they're skilful, they use the information in a relevant way. If they're not, they'll use it in an invasive way. So I thought there should be a set of rules for advertisers to follow that would create a pact between us and the consumer," Wunderman says.
The bill includes rules such as "don't assume I want to have a relationship with you" and "make my shopping experience easier".
The IPA agrees with Wunderman's notion that there should be a set of rules that creates a pact between advertiser and consumer. This is why the IPA Charter recommends permissioned opt-in over the use of the negative option box.
E-mail, web and mobile marketers committed themselves to permission from the outset. Some commentators would say that, as a result, these media have worked harder to engage and involve consumers to a point where people are happy to give their permission for further communication.
Most new-media practitioners accept that, initially, prospects do not have a relationship with a brand or the medium it uses to communicate with them. The relationship is often with the content and, increasingly, the device that transmits it, be it mobile phone, computer or television set.
The term "channel" - when describing TV, press, DM, net or mobile - is increasingly redundant because nearly all these channels are available on all devices. Paradoxically, we keep saying the media are fragmenting, but devices are converging: TV on the web, video on mobile, the web on TV, DM via e-mail, SMS on interactive television. These devices are dependent on consumers opting in to receive advertiser content. Unlike letterboxes, which are apparently open to all.
The aforementioned new media now represent 4 per cent of all marketing spend (according to the latest Bellwether Report from the IPA), they are growing faster than any other sector and are emerging in research as the consumer's preferred method of brand communication.
The acceptance of DM principles across new media over the past three to five years has been gradual and relentless. The view that new media owe little to traditional disciplines has been consigned to history. There is now a greater understanding that the best new-media marketing has much in common with the best DM - indeed, much of it is being practised by direct marketers. E-mail response rates are typically quoted as being at least four times higher than those of direct mail - and e-mail marketing is considerably cheaper. Maybe direct mail should adopt positive opt-in now rather than wait for the inevitable legislation.
I conclude my case in favour of permission with the words of Amanda Phillips, the director of client service at Proximity and the chair of the IPA Direct Futures Group. She says: "We must expand the direct horizon well beyond traditional DM thinking to re-rate direct in the minds of practitioners, decision-makers and influencers.
It is about embracing the fact that personalisation does not make communication personal; this takes insight and imagination. Consumers deserve respect in how we market to them. We need to find breakthrough ways to get to them - not to intrude but to align ourselves with them."
- David Payne is the head of direct marketing at the IPA.