DIRECT MARKETING: PERSONAL TOUCHES - Michele Martin assesses the latest methods used by planners to help creatives come up with mailshots and other forms of DM - all aimed at the increasingly discerning great British public

In the early 90s, the comedian, Ben Elton, did a memorable comedy routine about junk mail, railing at its quantity, quality and the fact that he was often addressed as ’Mr Bun Eltoon’.

In the early 90s, the comedian, Ben Elton, did a memorable comedy

routine about junk mail, railing at its quantity, quality and the fact

that he was often addressed as ’Mr Bun Eltoon’.

In the past few years, the direct marketing industry has grown

impressively and should have had time to iron out those glitches. Sadly,

it hasn’t.

Last year’s Trends Survey from the DMIS showed that just 10 per cent of

consumers think the direct mail they receive is becoming more relevant

to them - a rise of just 2 per cent since 1993.

It is ironic that a business which prides itself on intimate

communication with the consumer should still produce so much that goes

straight in the bin. Opinions differ on who is to blame for direct mail

that doesn’t reach the right people.

David Reed, a co-author of Cus-tomer Relationship Management, says:

’There’s no excuse for mailshots to lack relevance. Seven out of ten

British households have now filled out lifestyle questionnaires. The

problem is that lots of agencies approach projects in a formulaic way

and clients don’t push them enough.’

Agencies, of course, reject such criticism. ’There’s still a lot of work

to be done on the data side. It’s rare for a direct marketing agency to

find a client which has its data sorted,’ Tanis Newman, a senior planner

at OgilvyOne, says. What is certainly clear is that many direct

marketing agencies have been making attempts to improve planning

facilities in the past few years, bringing in above-the-line planners

and even psychologists to understand consumers better. Perhaps such

changes reflect an implicit acceptance that they are to blame for much

poor targeting.

Wherever the responsibility ulti-mately falls, today’s customer data is

so sophisticated it is possible to find out almost anything about

someone, from their income and reading habits to the kind of food they

like to eat.

The market leaders in geo-demographic data are Acorn from CACI and

Mosaic from Experien, whose systems are derived largely from the census

and group people by postcode, on subjects such as household type, age

and employment. Claritas’s Prism dominates the lifestyle sector, with

data derived largely from questionnaires, clustering people by household

using variables covering anything from pet ownership to preferred


All three, however, are about to be given a run for their money with

this month’s launch of CACI’s People UK system, the first to offer

information on individuals.

In theory, then, it should be possible to present copywriters with a

brief that tells them everything they need to know about each person

they are addressing, but the industry now realises that raw facts are

not enough.

As Bill Portlock, the planning director of WWAV Rapp Collins, says:

’Data can only take you so far. It is two dimensional. You might know

that your consumer is 35 with two kids and where she lives, but you

don’t know her relationship with your brand.’

It is for this reason that direct marketing agencies have been pushing

through a wave of planning initiatives in the past two years to help

view consumers as more than a jumble of facts. WWAV has hired two

planners from J. Walter Thompson, while the Buckinghamshire-based FFwd

Precision Marketing re-cently appointed the industry’s first resident

psychologist, Dr Tamsin Addison.

At the same time, many have begun funding research programmes. A recent

survey by the Western Development Partnership, the Institute of Direct

Marketing and the Direct Marketing Research Consortium, for example,

looked at whether sex affects the effectiveness of mailshots. Women

responded well to bright colours, photos and images and men to bold

headlines and bullet points.

The new approach is already beginning to pay off, with even very basic

techniques improving targeting and tone. When WWAV was working on a new

campaign for a major supermarket, it introduced focus groups to find out

more about customers and the result ’was a revelation to us’, according

to Portlock. The agency discovered that the client’s biggest spenders

did not want financial incentives to keep them loyal as they had

previously thought but ’special treatment’. The findings resulted in a

succ-essful change of strategy, away from money-off coupons to mailings

offering invitations to special events.

Other approaches are more innovative, with FFwd’s Addison pushing back

the boundaries in psychometric testing. She illustrates her job using

the hypothetical case of an upmarket shoe manufacturer, explaining that

such a brief might involve her talking to customers to discover their

reasons for purchasing expensive shoes. Having defined the sub-groups,

Addison would then have to find a defining element to identify them on a

database (perhaps health-conscious women regularly visit a


Finally, she would have to help creatives hit the right tone in their


Helping creatives in their dialogue with the consumer is undoubtedly one

of the most important jobs for a planner but it is also one of the

toughest, as creatives resent dealing with what they see as an


Addison reveals: ’I make life harder for the creatives. I tell them to

do something and they say ’how the hell do I do that?’ But that’s not my

problem. That’s their job.’

Creative teams will need to learn to love the planner’s input, since

getting the tone of a mailshot right improves business performance as

well as brand image.

But there is a more pressing need for direct marketers to get things

right, according to Reed, who says: ’More clients and agencies need to

define their message according to their targeting because if they don’t,

customers will reject the medium as a whole. In other words, shoddy

mailshots do more than just annoy the recipient. Agencies need to find

out who they are writing to for the industry’s sake, not just their



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