Forget about letters filled with cliched incentives, signed with "handwritten" signatures and punctuated by red pen, direct marketing is coming out of its creative envelope. Unfettered by the constraints of two-dimensional media, it is pushing back the boundaries of creativity with bottles, leaves, badges and baby wristbands.
Although no-one is denying there is still a lot of dire material landing on the doormat, the direct marketing creative fraternity is agreed that there's more clever, creative and brand-driven work out there to challenge the traditional supremacy of above the line when it comes to creative plaudits. And there's plenty of evidence to back up the industry's turn-of-the-century pride.
John Townshend, the creative director at Rapier, holds that direct marketing has moved to a different plane. "There are some really good examples of creative ideas and good people working in it which makes it transcend the old ideas of DM," he says. For him, the boxed definitions of DM and advertising make little sense when you have clients, such as First Direct, whose communications strategy has a direct core to it. "It's just about having great ideas and great craft and there are definitely more people doing it," he says. "There's a new wave of people in DM and we are getting dramatic changes in response. People are using good ideas and challenging the rules."
"There's definitely been a noticeable shift in the past three years or so," Gary Sharpen, the creative partner at Leonardo, says. He points to new agencies as part of the proof. "In the past few years there have been some interesting agencies cropping up - Archibald Ingall Stretton, Partners Andrews Aldridge and ourselves get talked about as a new wave.
You have the bigger, more established agencies such as Rapier doing good work, others reacting to small hotshops and there's a bit of a renaissance at agencies such as WWAV and Brann."
There's also clear evidence from the strong showing in awards schemes, which are now taking DM seriously, with Campaign Direct, the Cannes Lions Direct and D&AD being three of the most coveted creative awards.
Steve Harrison, the creative director at Harrison Troughton Wunderman, walked off with this year's inaugural Cannes Direct Grand Prix, where the agency's Xerox mailings also won a Lion.
He believes DM has definitely gained its creative spurs following a decade of struggle. "The battle has, I believe, been won. Ideas-driven creative has emerged triumphant," he says.
And this creative flowering doesn't just look pretty - it also delivers the goods. The Xerox mailings cost £186,000 to produce yet they generated £4.6 million in sales. That's a return on investment of 25 to one. TBWA/GGT Direct's award-winning Unicef "autumn leaves" campaign, which ran late last year and relied on leaves printed with messages such as "Winter's coming, help Afghan children now", cost £500. The return?
£2 million. Partners Andrews Aldridge delivered a milk bottle to people's doorsteps, which led to a 25 per cent increase in people signing up for milk to the door.
Steve Aldridge, the creative partner of Partners Andrews Aldridge, believes that clients now have little option other than to think creatively. "DM executions have had to become more sophisticated as the consumer has become more savvy," he says. He advocates the tell-it-you-see-it approach: "I call it 'reality communications', work which borrows from natural language and behaviour and develops into communications reflecting everyday experiences."
It's certainly not just clever bits and bobs here and there being created for smaller clients either. Master Foods, Lloyds TSB, Volkswagen and Orange have all run with unusual DM executions. "The people who are doing it are big companies; it's not a gimmicky kind of work," Aldridge says.
Direct marketing has become more brand-driven and adopted some of its advertising cousin's methodology, such as planning, to help inform some more creative ways of thinking. It has also become more accepted as a career option for aspiring creatives.
Advertising, meanwhile, has had its own coups with direct marketing work.
John O'Keeffe, the creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, has been in charge of a number of recognised campaigns. "I wouldn't allow anyone to do a glossy brochure that lands on your doorstep," he says. For him the challenge is much the same as with advertising. "It's one small step from the mat to the bin. The rules are the same: it's one small switch on a remote control to turn off the ad."
BBH's new Audi 4 work included jigsaw puzzles sent direct to consumers with the message: "The new Audi A4. Every piece matters." More than 10 per cent of prospects responded to it, more than double the number expected.
Despite a newfound confidence in DM creativity, no-one thinks it's one big bed of roses in the DM garden. The TBWA/ GGT Direct creative director, Nick Moore, sees two divergent phenomena in the industry. "Over the past few years two things have happened. The first is that a small amount of work has got really good ... the cream of the crop has got much better. The second is that the vast bulk of direct marketing has got worse. There's a stream running in one direction and a river in the other."
Townshend used his chairmanship of the judges at this year's Campaign Direct Awards to attack a large part of the DM industry's output. "Let's face it," he said, "most direct marketing is ugly, unimaginative and badly crafted - from hokey ads on satellite TV to the doormat detritus that arrives each morning."
Even Harrison is concerned that great work isn't always focused on the bottom line. "While there's a lot of agonising over the 'big idea', a lot of agencies are falling down on the bit direct marketers are supposed to do best - persuading people to respond."
But that doesn't stop both Townshend and Harrison delivering reports on a great chunk of the DM work which hits the streets. It seems even the sceptics agree that the Holy Grail of good looks which actually pull is being reached by an ever-growing band.