Tapping into a universal truth for a pan-European direct campaign isn't easy, but too many advertisers treat DM too locally, Glen Mutel writes.

"Below the line" and "pan-European" are two terms that are seldom found within the same sentence.

While media and above-the-line agencies are increasingly suiting high-profile European accounts, readers of the marketing press could be forgiven for thinking the direct marketing industry is an entirely domestic affair.

Which, of course, it isn't. Direct networks such as Draft Worldwide and Wunderman have been servicing clients in multiple markets for years. More recently, networks such as Tequila have appeared on the scene. OgilvyOne, however, probably wins the longevity award - the network has held the pan-European American Express direct marketing account since 1973.

Despite this, many advertisers still see direct marketing as a strictly local issue. Take T-Mobile, for example. Although the mobile phone giant uses networks to cater for its European creative and media needs, earlier this year it handed its direct marketing account to Tullo Marshall Warren - a UK independent agency, with no network backing.

Why are advertisers so reluctant to entrust their European direct marketing to just one shop? Perhaps it's because experience has taught them that co-ordinating a pan-European below-the-line campaign can be very difficult.

First, there are the obvious language problems. Direct marketing material, particularly direct mail, is very often text-heavy. When a campaign written in London has to be translated into Swedish, French, Spanish and Italian, the subtleties of persuasion and salesmanship can be lost.

Then there are regulatory problems to overcome - for example, the fact that postal practices can differ from country to country.

Yet obstacles like this are surmountable and, although it's not always written about, pan-European DM campaigns do run, as Draft Worldwide will testify.

Earlier this year, Draft's London office added the Saab global business to the UK account it already held. The agency's latest mailing, for the Saab 9-3 Convertible, is to be adapted for European and possible American use.

Equally eye-catching is Arc's forthcoming mailing for the new Fiat Punto.

The work, which adapts the brand's Spirito di Punto theme, consists of a red mail pack designed to look like a box of matches, on which the line "The Fiery New Punto" is emblazoned.

Work such as this is testament to the notion that good ideas travel, and it will soon be rolled out across Europe.

As visually satisfying as these pieces are, it would be wrong to assume that car mailings travel well because they rely so heavily on graphics.

Perceptions of car brands differ wildly across Europe -manufacturers such as Jaguar and Mercedes, for instance, have a very different reputation in a country such as Germany than they do in the UK.

The Wunderman EMEA executive vice-president, David Butter, believes campaigns that cater for specialist interest work far better across borders than generic, photo-led automotive mailings.

"Take IT specialists, for example," he explains. "The things that bind them are their interests more than their national characteristics. You are much more likely to find a common message with this niche group than you are with a broader section."

Wunderman's UK agency, Harrison Troughton Wunderman, has proof that seemingly unsexy products, in this case photocopiers, can be successfully sold around the Continent using work from just one office.

Its Xerox Carpet business-to-business mailing was designed to promote a Xerox model that "looks after itself". The pack contained a worn-out carpet square. The line on the back read: "If the carpet around your photocopier looks like this, it's time for the new Xerox WorkCentre Pro."

The mailing ran in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and the UK and generated an 11 per cent response. It might not have been as eye-catching as a car mailing, but the campaign worked because it tapped into a universal truth - that in every office, somebody will be standing over a photocopier, drumming their fingers, waiting for the machine to finish the job.

The Fiat, Saab and Xerox campaigns show that effective European creative solutions can be produced out of one office. However, the role of the rest of the network is still vital.

Draft London's managing director, Sez Maxted, explains why this is, citing Saab as an example. "What we're trying to do is to allow local markets to get some input," she says. "For instance, in terms of cost, some markets may be able to afford a more extravagant pack. We try to allow flexibility.

"I don't necessarily think it's a big deal thinking of an idea that could be adapted, but I do think that the really successful work comes out of plugging into networks. It's the learning, evaluation, research - all the things you need people on the ground for."

Although there are several direct marketing networks with London offices, a cynic might accuse many of them of being disparate groups of agencies unconvincingly united by a single name. So perhaps it's a lack of choice that explains why so few genuine pan-European direct marketing pitches are held. The only ones of note to have incorporated the UK market this year have been the Goodyear, Green Flag and GM Daewoo reviews. According to Butter, direct agencies rarely gain European accounts by winning single pitches - they are more likely to do it by gradually extending their domestic relationships across other markets.

The OgilvyOne European chief executive, Philip Greenfield, believes that the lack of Continental reviews and accounts has much to do with client attitudes. He feels that while some multinationals, such as American Express, IBM, Nestle and Unilever, are alive to the possibilities of direct marketing networks, others just don't take the medium seriously enough.

"Usually, below the line goes under the radar of the big guys. It's not sexy enough, so they don't realise how much they're spending in it.

"But I think they're making a mistake. These clients are underestimating the fact that direct marketing has as much brand-building effect as mass-media marketing. Every point of contact has an effect on the brand."

At the moment, each of the big five holding companies have at least two direct networks, so the "lack of choice" theory is at least technically inaccurate. Many of these networks are slowly improving their offering, and have just cause to bemoan the idea that there is still a big three - OgilvyOne, Wunderman and Draft Worldwide.

But if direct marketing is ever going to be seen as a truly global discipline, there has to be as many strong networks in below the line as there are in above the line. This will only happen if clients wake up to the importance of the discipline, and start to show their agencies that they have a genuine need for this to happen.

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