The direct marketing industry I joined 12 years ago is unrecognisable from the one we have today. In those days, if you made the case for more creativity and promoted it as a vital element of your DM campaign, you were gently patted on the head and politely reminded that the industry was all about response and related costs, not some high-falutin' creativity stuff.
That was then. This is now. An overhaul of the marketing landscape has literally swept aside the traditionalists in both the DM and advertising camps. Ad agencies now have to sit up and take notice of direct communications.
It's where their clients are going, it's also where the consumers are going, so it's where they are going too, albeit kicking and screaming.
And in the direct community, we've seen an enormous amount of change, principally because we're now playing on a much bigger stage.
It's fair to say that as an industry, we've not been found wanting. Standards have improved beyond all recognition. Bigger budgets, with the emphasis now on longer-term client relationships coupled with more strategic discussions, have finally given direct practitioners a seat at the top table.
Yes, our business is response and, yes, we are still judged on our results, but the more enlightened clients are now also taking into consideration the effect our communications are having on their brands. Make no mistake, consumers do not see the "line" that so many in our industry are obsessed with. They make no distinction between a brand press ad and a direct response press ad. All communications regardless of media are messages from a client to a potential customer. They all have the client's name on and they all influence how the reader feels towards that particular product or service. Our great responsibility is to ensure those feelings remain as positive as ever and to do this means we must raise the level and creativity of our communications.
It's all too easy to raise the level of response. "Massive savings", "new", "money off", "free", "never to be repeated", these are the bullets in any self-respecting direct marketer's armoury. Use them like a hired gun and you should see the phones ringing, the coupons clipped and the web addresses being clicked on.
But what of the quality of the leads? The damage to the brand? In the short term, you could probably point to an increased number of responses, but in the long run you are more than likely weakening and devaluing a brand that has to be around for a long time after the closing date of that "never to be repeated offer". This is where creativity has to play its part. I've been fortunate in that I've had two stints at DDB. Some words of wisdom from the great Bill Bernbach: "Properly practised creativity must result in greater sales more economically achieved. Properly practised creativity can lift your claims out of the swamp of sameness and make them accepted, believed, persuasive, urgent."
Those words should resonate with every creative person who wants to see their direct communications - whether it's press, online, television or mail - achieve their desired aim. I can't imagine any clients taking issue with them either. If we're providing our clients with properly practised creativity, responses and effectiveness will automatically follow and our campaigns quite rightly will be rewarded.
Effectiveness and creativity are not mutually exclusive. A quick check on any IPA Effectiveness Award winner should convince you of that. A couple of years ago we put together a paper for Saab laden with hard facts and indisputable evidence that saw Saab win the overall gold at the IDM Business Performance Awards. No airy-fairy creativity here. These were hard-nosed judgments made on response, conversion and return on investment. Volume, efficiency and effectiveness were the watchwords. Yet this same body of work, judged solely on its writing, art direction, look, feel, insight and idea, in short its creativity, won awards across the board and was named Campaign's pack of the year. Proof if ever it were needed that rather than sidetrack the quest for response, creativity is actually an essential ingredient if we're to achieve the responses we all strive for.
But the reasons are even more fundamental than that. Let's go back 12 years again. In my early days in direct marketing, you could get away with simply imparting information. Ideas were a luxury that most mailpacks could live without. And if whatever you did worked, you were expected to do it again. You had the winning formula, so just stick with it.
Mercifully clients and agencies now have to rethink this approach. We live in a world of information overload. On any given day, our target audience is likely to be confronted with thousands of messages.
Those same thousands of communications are helping to create a more cynical and hardened audience. People are not as passive as they once were. They know the power they can wield and they demand more from their brands.
Our challenge is to create communications that will not only cut through and stand out from the "swamp of sameness", but also make that all-important connection with our readers. If not, the well-documented problem of falling response rates will continue unabated.
We need to be smarter with our targeting. Smarter with our insights.
And better with our creativity. More ideas are the order of the day. Ideas are what truly engage with consumers. They involve and invite the consumer to participate in the communication. The good ones also tend to win the awards.