The Direct Approach: The unpercieved wisdom

It is time to ditch the unwritten rules retarding the future of direct marketing, Tim Bonnet says.

In direct marketing, as in life, some rules just make sense. They are a way of encoding generations of learning. And they are frequently rooted in the fundamentals of human nature.

Other rules are the products not of collective wisdom, but of unthinking repetition: conventions or handy truisms agreed upon to spare us the agony of new, independent and provocative thought. That's just what clients are demanding of us right now.

Incremental improvement is good. But for more and more businesses, it is not good enough. Step changes in business performance are called for, and the conventional thinking of the past can only take clients so far. So, of all the sacred cows grazing in the lush pastures of Soho, which should be the first to be shooed towards the slaughterhouse?

"To find the customers of the future, we need look at our current ones." Customer profiling is a wonderful technique. But retrospective analysis is of little use in many of today's rapidly evolving markets. As readers of Geoffrey Moore know, a member of the "early majority" usually differs entirely from an "early adopter".

Likewise, respondent analysis can tell us much about our targeting and our message. But how much more could we learn by talking to those prospects who very nearly responded - and finding out why they didn't?

"The value of a company is proportionate to the size of its database." Remember the dotcom era? That fortnight of pre-millennial exuberance when all a business needed was a brand, a database, and a really good-looking PowerPoint deck?

Cross-selling was the optimistic venture capitalist's best friend back then, and in some quarters it still is. It is the philosopher's stone by which names are magically transformed into value. And we direct marketers are supposed to know its secret.

The secret is: cross-selling doesn't work. Helping customers to want to buy more from you does, but it doesn't sound nearly so snappy. Until more companies understand the difference, the economic potential of their databases will remain unrealised.

"Customer loyalty is the ultimate goal of DM." We have repeated this so often that we believe it to be always true. However, as the writer Andrew Ehrenberg has shown, the biggest drivers of loyalty are actually habit and inertia.

Much more indicative of the positive effect of direct marketing is advocacy. A growing body of academic opinion supports this, as does common sense. After all, isn't the creation of enthusiasm a more positive creative goal than the cementing of inertia?

"We need to listen to our customers." This convention sounds good in theory. And voicing it allows one to take a rhetorical swipe at marketers' natural tendency to talk too much. However, it's worth remembering the remark attributed to Henry Ford that if he'd listened to his customers, he would had invented a faster horse.

Of course, we shouldn't ignore what customers tell us. But neither should we forget that a lot of the time, they are lying. Not wilfully - in fact, they often try very hard to co-operate. The problem is that our customers usually know even less about the future of our businesses than we do. It's our job to create the future, not theirs.

"We should build deep relationships with our customers." People do have relationships with brands, and emotions play a part in them. However, the psychological language of relationships can be just as misleading as the military analogies of "target", "strategy" and "objective" that still dominate our thinking.

People want a deep relationship with surprisingly few of the brands they use. Many see banks as little more than a public convenience. They walk in, they do their business, and walk out again as quickly as possible, studiously avoiding eye contact lest it be misconstrued as a sign of interest. More often than not, both brands and consumers are in it for what they can get out of each other, and the best we can hope for is enlightened self-interest. Forget this and we are in trouble.

"A 5 per cent response means 95 per cent haven't responded." For all our holistic communications literacy, we are still quite myopic in our definition of response. We measure the direct response to our activity to several decimal places. But the secondary sales effects, the incremental walk-in purchases and the untracked direct sales, are seldom, if ever, accounted for. So, for that matter, are the effects on brand consideration and imaging.

It's not that the effects don't exist, or that they can't be measured. We simply assume that an absence of direct response means an absence of any kind of response. Which, as practitioners and consumers, we know to be patently untrue. Pricing in proportion will destroy creativity in direct mail.

Creative people often tell me it is the size of the idea that counts. I would argue it also has something to do with the scale of the original insight. Either way, until insights and ideas are priced in proportion, we have less to worry about than some might contend.

"Direct marketers need to get up to speed with digital." Quite the opposite is true. Though there are pleasing signs that, at long last, digital agencies are catching up with some elements of traditional direct marketing thinking.

After years of gathering vast volumes of prospect and customer data, digital marketers are beginning to divide and analyse customers in just the same way we have been for nearly two decades. There is even an acknowledgment in some quarters that the expression "customer journey" refers to a consumer's end-to-end transaction with a brand, and not merely to their progress through a website.

Where next? Perhaps, with our help, more online communities can be turned into true co-creation opportunities rather than sterile talking shops. After all, paper-based direct marketers have been designing products based on customer data for some time.

"Everyone has to be media-neutral these days." Unless you are Swiss, neutrality is not an inspiring concept. Nor is agnosticism an especially exciting debating position. Being neutral or agnostic about media is no way to excite or inspire clients or consumers.

Being passionate about one's discipline, however, is. In our readiness to join in the broader communications debate, we should not forget why we were invited into it in the first place. Clients want specialist DM skills. As agencies, our first duty is to know our craft. Our second is to practise it in a way that leverages the skills of others.

"The rise of procurement is killing the industry." Procurement is not our nemesis. It may yet be our saviour. We just need to change what it is the procurers are procuring. Currently, we are selling our clients ads, packs, banners and websites. But we all know that what we are really selling is results. If we could change the unit of currency from communications inputs to commercial outputs, it could be the best thing that has happened to the industry in decades.

- Tim Bonnet is the chief executive of Tequila\London.

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