THE DIRECT APPROACH: WWAV's Clare Rossi comments that direct marketing agencies are the most natural exponents of the art of media-neutral planning

WWAV's Clare Rossi comments that, contrary to popular belief, direct marketing agencies are the most natural exponents of the art of media-neutral planning.

Media neutrality from a DM perspective is a more valid concept than it might first appear, as DM's heritage perfectly fits the ideals of media neutrality. The importance of multimedia, data-driven campaigns and stringent measurement techniques ensure that campaigns are planned, and media routes selected, on the basis of hard data, not predisposition.

A recent book of Campaign Essays contained several different definitions of media-neutral planning (MNP). But to my mind, the chief characteristics of media neutrality are as follows: the selection of individual channels and media should be on the basis of their individual and then collective merits; they should be chosen according to brand and customer centricity; there should be ongoing evaluation of effect to determine return on investment and future activity optimisation and also, some ongoing analysis of channel and media "fitness for task". Campaign planning should start from the view that no medium has a greater chance of being selected than any other.

Where to start and how to select channels and media is also subject to varied interpretation. For some, it is about putting the brand at the heart of the media and channel selection process. For others, it is about customer centricity. Meanwhile, another group sees it as putting ideas at the centre of the campaign.

Another area of disagreement is over where MNP is initiated: with clients, media agencies and "total communications agencies" all being cited.

One key issue, which hasn't attracted much attention so far, is the likely impact of the media-neutral philosophy on any discipline, channel or medium.

Will there be winners and losers? Will TV's dominance be threatened or enhanced?

Perhaps other media with softer impact will struggle to demonstrate the same effects, so could possibly become more difficult to justify.

And what about the impact on DM? Well, DM campaigns are already close to the MNP ideal, in that effect is monitored and known. Future campaigns are built on the knowledge of previous campaign results.

In fact, taking it a step further, DM has traditionally had to be media neutral because data lies at its heart and this defines past performance and appropriate selection of future media. DM's heritage means that the choice of media within any campaign is more inclined to be based on fitness for task than predisposition.

One clear piece of evidence of this is the very full range of channels used by DM compared with above the line. Not only do we offer traditional routes to markets such as TV, press, radio, direct mail and posters but also online, inserts (including third party), telemarketing, field marketing, events and product sampling. Only when you understand the relative merits of each, can you produce a truly media-neutral solution.

Agencies such as ours have not been limited by our comfort zones; and our creative teams and media planners have always been willing to learn new channels. Such an attitude is an essential component of a media-neutral world.

Critics will say that understanding of brand and customer centricity are possible areas of weakness for some DM agencies, but this is not necessarily so. For instance, we have a brand and consumer planning team with wide experience in both above- and below-the- line communications. Media neutrality, customer centricity and evaluation are already givens.

Increasingly, we see possibilities for communicating powerful brand messages within our direct-response campaigns. This can only increase the fitness for task of DM as a whole versus above-the-line advertising. We start with the advantage of being able to measure the impact of responses. What we need to add is knowledge of the value on brand as measured by both primary and secondary means.

Where there is a clear need for change in DM is in the interface between media planning and brand planning.

Mirroring the dilemma of above-the-line agencies, we all need to understand how best to fuse the knowledge of these twin disciplines to greater effect in understanding the potential of multimedia campaigns. While this may cause turf wars, it is not nearly so difficult in DM as it is for above-the-line agencies.

Here we have another heritage advantage in that our media and brand planners already share a common cause, making the building of greater interaction a relatively simple task.

Media neutrality will provide a force for ongoing experimentation with a wide mix of media for DM campaigns. This is something with which the entire communications industry should be concerned as it encompasses best-practice utilisation of channels as well as media neutrality.

Apart from the provision of skills within the individual companies, there is obviously going to be variation in the ways that MNP will impact DM agencies. The demands of our clients and the attitude of their other communications partners will influence, to a greater or lesser extent, the opportunities and scope of the corporate offering.

Much of the debate around MNP centres on whether clients or agencies should be the instigators. Actually, this is a largely pointless debate as it looks as though the best agencies will be going to their clients with media-neutral proposals - not least because their competitors may get there first. Fear should at least ensure the issues get discussed.

The future for MNP may depend upon how far the industry can measure activity.

At present, it seems the debate is a tale of two disciplines in this respect.

As the saying goes, you can't improve what you can't measure. Multimedia above-the-line campaigns are difficult to measure and improve, whereas the effectiveness of DM is eminently measurable, making MNP ideals a much more natural fit for the DM world.