Direct marketing has long been dogged by the perception that it is at the boring, grubby end of communications. While the rest of the advertising industry was off making sexy, glossy ads for a mass-market, ad men pitied their poor relations in DM left trawling through mountains of data with which to contact individuals.
But now, as the whole industry tries to get its head around one-to-one communications and customer insight, it is the direct marketers' turn to be smug. After all, the tables have turned. Haven't they? Well, yes. And no.
Despite the rich opportunities that now present themselves, particularly in terms of applying DM principles to digital, the industry is suffering from an identity crisis.
DM in an Identity Crisis
In the eyes of the consumer, it is still hampered by the "junk-mail" tag. "If you ask the consumer on the street to play a word association game, it would probably go like this: 'direct marketing', 'direct mail' then 'junk mail'," Marcus Reynolds, the head of planning at Publicis Dialog, says.
In the eyes of the marketing industry, DM is also synonymous with direct mail. "This shows the power of labels. It's a sad fate of coincidence that DM stands for direct marketing as well as direct mail," Neil Morris, the deputy managing director at the Institute of Direct Marketing, says. "It's our job to make them think of e-mail, but it isn't necessarily happening at the moment. DM should be e-mail as much as it should be direct mail."
However, it's not just the rest of the world that is confused about what direct stands for in 2007. Those working in the industry day in, day out are confused about their role and how it should be labelled. The entire modern marketing lexicon seems inadequate.
"There are many people who have grown up in a direct environment who have been practising digital for the past five years. What are they now?" Annette King, the deputy managing director at OgilvyOne Worldwide, asks. "Are they digital or are they direct? Or just direct marketers who understand digital?"
Big challenges ahead
As a result of this identity crisis, DM has lost some confidence. On one hand, DM practitioners know that they have the history, experience and understanding to take pole position in the agency line-up. On the other, they are overwhelmed by the challenges facing them.
One of the major questions that DM is grappling with, along with other marketing disciplines, is how to engage consumers in a commercial message. DM is still about sending specific and relevant messages to individuals, but the act of actually delivering these messages successfully has become much more difficult.
As Nick Walters, the creative director at the London office of Gyro International explains: "Consumers have become far more savvy and are starting to apply a huge amount of filters to all the communications that they receive. Rather than thinking 'I'll open every piece of DM, then decide whether to bin it', consumers are binning direct mail or deleting e-mails before they even look at the message."
Not only that, but consumers are taking more control over the way they want companies to talk to them. It is this "power shift" that John Hiney, the managing director, UK at Carlson Marketing, believes is the biggest challenge: "We've always talked about the nirvana of the one-to-one relationship. Now consumers expect it. If I complain to a company, I expect someone to get back to me and do something about it. Consumers are realising that they're empowered to manage relationships with brands."
While this sounds good in theory, in practice it means that brands must respond to consumer input or risk alienating them. "If you give someone an opportunity to give an opinion, you have to act on that or suffer a backlash," Hiney adds.
With this new consumer behaviour, direct marketers need to change their whole culture and mindset. The all-important call to action used to be the hallmark of DM. Now it is increasingly characterised by ongoing, two-way customer communications.
"We're geared up to thinking that the consumer response must be an action at the end of the communication. But there will be a huge growth in non-transactional, non-outcome communications," Morris says. The way he sees it, relationship building will have to underpin all communications if a brand's sales messages have any hope of cutting through.
At the same time, in an increasingly environmentally aware society, the DM industry has to respond to calls from green lobbyists to reduce the amount of paper-based communications it produces. Some experts argue that, in future, direct mail will only be used as a premium channel for contacting a brand's most valuable customers, with e-mail being the standard. If this happens, then the industry has to act fast to stake its claim in the digital marketing sphere.
"The green issue, for every client and every agency, is an issue gathering momentum day by day. It's becoming one of the five most important things for any brand to consider," Reynolds says. Morris agrees: "We're going to have to have a bloody good reason to use direct mail in the future."
But rather than get "hung up" on media channels and the fate of direct mail, Paul Beier, the creative head of iris Direct, urges his peers to focus on "making direct marketing into a new breed of marketing. Let's take the philosophy of DM and what we've learned and take that as a toolkit to apply to a new way of working with consumers and new media. Perhaps we should just call it 'direct.'"
With all these challenges facing the DM industry, you could be mistaken for assuming that the outlook is bleak. It's not. In fact, Patrick Baglee, the executive creative director at EHS Brann, prompts many enthusiastic nods of agreement around the table when he declares: "As direct marketers, we are at the epicentre of everything. We are closest to the customer and we probably have the best understanding of any of the different disciplines. Therefore, it is our hard-won right to be in the middle of the agency mix, directing others."
The group identifies a few specific opportunities that could elevate DM's status in clients' eyes. Most important is accountability.
Mobashara Nazir, the head of planning at MRM Worldwide, believes DM agencies could position themselves as the "champions of measurement".
"If we can do this, then we get access to all the client's campaign information. If we can pull all that together, analyse it and provide recommendations, then we become the most important agency."
Direct marketers need to show clients that they are more than mere information gatherers. They must demonstrate that they can interpret and make sense of huge amounts of data, too. Digital marketers, in particular, have prided themselves on the vast amount of information they are able to feed back to a client about campaigns.
However, clients have complained that they often feel snowed under by statistics and are unable to exploit the data to its full potential. This is where direct marketing could steal a march on its younger sibling, digital. Rather than measuring for the sake of measuring - a criticism often levelled at digital agencies - direct specialists have the chance to mould themselves into the essential interpreters.
All agree that planning will continue to come to the fore. Unlike above the line, where planning is an established part of the campaign process, agencies have traditionally struggled to get clients to invest in the function below the line. "Planners have been seen to be exotic creatures corralled in a hidden-away part of the agency," Baglee says. "They should and will have far more input in the future because insight will be crucial to the success of what we do going forward."
Nazir is particularly optimistic about DM's future. She believes that, with so many consumers tuning out from traditional advertising and marketing, direct communications are the only ones that can achieve cut-through. It irks her that direct mail gets so much bad press. She's sick to death, she says, of reading alarmist headlines trumpeting that "direct mail is dead".
As an example of direct mail being very much alive and kicking, she points to one of MRM's clients which asked it to stop using direct mail on an account targeting senior decision-makers in businesses. "We actually found that e-mail didn't work nearly as well as direct mail followed up by e-mail," she says. "You just couldn't get through to these senior business people without direct mail."
The principles of DM - as Beier has already suggested - can be applied to a host of new channels. As Nazir says, with broadband-enabled TV, direct marketers are in a perfect position to combine the emotional power of TV with the precision of DM. "DM is a great space to be in and has a great future. There should not be any lack of confidence in it," she asserts.
DM needs its own marketing push
There's a saying that no-one can make you feel inferior without your own consent and this adage can definitely be applied to the DM industry. As the Campaign editor, Claire Beale, points out, there is a sense that direct marketers actually believe some of the bad press about the industry and the assertions from other disciplines that DM is "one tier down".
"If you feel that," she says, "how on earth are you going to convince everyone else that you are indeed the epicentre of the marketing universe?"
What's needed, everyone agrees, is for the industry to get behind DM and "celebrate" the discipline more. Both the IDM and the Direct Marketing Association recognise that they must play a key role in convincing clients that direct skills are fundamental across all communications. As Robert Keitch, the director of media channel development at the DMA, says: "The industry needs to do more in terms of its own promotion. It is focused on getting on with the job, but these days that isn't enough. You've got to tell people you're getting on with the job."
Beale also points out that it is often down to the "showmen" of an industry to publicise good work. Ad agencies and digital shops are much more comfortable with showboating and crusading their causes than their DM cousins. Apart from Rory Sutherland, the executive creative director at OgilvyOne, the group struggles to name a "big" personality who is fighting DM's corner in the pages of the press and on the networking circuit.
Morris even tentatively suggests that direct marketers are thought of as the "Tim Henmans" of the marketing industry. "It's terribly insulting," he says. "Ten years ago, we did have showboaters in direct marketing, such as Drayton Bird, but now it's bloody hard work and people have got their heads down, surrounded on all sides by legislation, codes of practice and shareholders. It's difficult to get your head above the parapet." Baglee also concedes that "perhaps we are all a bit too bookish?".
As all at the lunch attest, "land grabs" are rife at the moment. "You turn up at a meeting with the client and there are five agencies in the room," Reynolds says. "Everyone is encroaching upon everyone else's turf. A lot of agencies are scrambling about in areas that would traditionally sit with a direct agency."
While the flamboyance of the traditional ad men or the cocksureness of the digital marketers may not be their style, direct marketers need to assert themselves more or they will lose out on turf that is rightfully theirs. This debate and these essays are certainly a step in the right direction.
TOPICS AT A GLANCE
- DM is suffering from an identity crisis and an image problem
- The challenge of how to get a commercial message through to a savvy and inundated consumer
- The power shift to consumers
- This new consumer behaviour requires a new approach
- Planning will continue to come to the fore
- The DM industry has to respond to calls from the green lobby
- DM is closest to the consumer so has the opportunity to lead in the agency mix
- The industry needs to get better at promoting its work to improve its image
- Does the industry need more showmen and women?