When it comes to reputation, the direct mail letter suffers from the same problem that afflicts every other marketing medium. For every masterpiece of subtlety and guile, there's an ill-considered rush-job undermining it on a doormat somewhere.
However, direct mail differs from broadcast, press and outdoor in one key aspect - the consuming public rarely see both ends of its quality spectrum. If your demographic is such that all you have ever received in the post are bank statements and honey-traps for crippling loans, you'd be forgiven for thinking the term "junk mail" just and accurate.
Which, of course, it isn't. And what's more, the Direct Marketing Association intends to prove it, with the publication of 26 Compelling Letters, a hard-back that showcases the copywriting skills of direct mail's finest exponents.
The books seeks to show the breadth of approaches companies can take with their mailings and the letters featured are written in numerous styles and target various demographics for clients from every sector. However, 26 Compelling Letters has ambitions beyond correcting the prejudices of above-the-line creatives and trade journals - the book aims to provide today's budding DM copywriters with a training resource that is not available anywhere else.
Keevil Kershaw's creative director, Simon Kershaw, is also the chairman of the DMA Creative Forum. His involvement in the project was partly motivated by his belief that young entrants into the DM industry, many of whom come straight from art college, are insufficiently trained in copywriting, but have no way to address their shortfall. "There's a definite gap in the market for a training resource for letter writing," he says. "Young writers don't go to awards ceremonies, so they have no opportunity to see the work.
"Most agencies don't have large training budgets and creative group heads don't have the luxury of time, so they don't get the chance to impart their own knowledge. There was a time when they would sit down with a young writer and the two would work on a letter together.
"There are courses and books, but these are almost always concerned with the old school of direct mail, which works for certain clients but is not appropriate for many of today's big brands."
26 Compelling Letters focuses solely on modern marketing correspondences, featuring work from no earlier than 1998. It is not a history of the direct letter, and as such steers clear of the blunt, hard-selling efforts that were commonly sent out by companies in the days before customer relationship management.
For Kershaw, the main difference between the "old school" direct letter and the best of today's work is that the latter category is largely spared the pressure of securing a sale in one visit. "The old-school formula works on the premise that the letter is a one-off and that a response is needed and expected on the day its received," he explains.
"Whereas modern direct letters are part of a stream of communications designed to make you think differently about a brand."
These days, a large percentage of direct letters target existing customers - informing them of product changes, awaking them to additional services or merely ensuring that they feel valued. Letters such as these carry their own pressures. It's important to get the feel of the piece just right, because if they are over-personalised they can appear either insincere or inappropriate, but if they lack the ability to engage the reader they'll no doubt be thrown straight in the bin with the unread bank statements.
The Rapier creative director, John Townshend, feels it's all a matter of knowing your audience. "You need to know who you're talking to," he explains. "Sometimes just the tone of voice makes the difference. When you're dealing with existing customers you have to treat them as if you know them and not write the letter as though it were a sales pitch."
Regular, routine mailings represent the biggest challenge for letter writers, especially when they're on behalf of big, ungainly companies with dry products to sell. Townshend believes this is work that direct creatives need to start cracking.
"There are a lot of nice ideas in direct mail, some of which are beautifully written, some of which are charming," he says. "But the challenge is to do it for the standard letters from difficult clients, and keep the quality high."
And how is the industry rising to this challenge? Not well, the Tullo Marshall Warren creative director, Darren Kay, says. "Most of the work I see is pretty formulaic," he adds. "My bete noire is 'as a valued customer' or 'I'm writing to you today'. That's like phoning someone and saying: 'I'm talking to you on the phone.'
"I think it's a combination of laziness and the fact that the letter is very often the last step of the marketing process."
Kay is the editor of 26 Compelling Letters and his hope is that by cataloguing the work that has had the time and effort invested in it, the book will alert young creatives both to the possibilities and the complexities of the medium. "Everyone thinks they can write," he explains. "But there is a big difference between just writing a letter and composing copy that gives something positive to the personality of a product while still selling."
The ability of the industry's copywriters to compose a decent letter is an issue that has implications for more than just direct marketers.
As press ads continue to evolve into mini-posters, direct mail is becoming the only arena for copywriters to flex their muscles.
For this reason, the book is well timed. It will, no doubt, fuel the long copy debate recently ignited by industry figures such as Robin Wight and further fuelled by the haul of awards given to Harrison Troughton Wunderman's text-heavy campaign for M&G Investments.
And, needless to say, everyone has an opinion as to what good long copy should look like. When it comes to letters, most direct creatives talk about the value of personalisation. But, David Brown, Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel's head of creative, argues, the situation is more complicated than that.
"Personality is just as important as personalisation. A letter has one signature, so it should feel as if one person wrote it. If you just string together the tried-and-tested phrases you will sound like a marketing department."
Some people even believe personalisation has had its day. Customers may soon expect the human touch in all their corporate correspondence and its value as a sales tactic will be diminished. If that happens, a new school of thought will have to emerge but, even then, 26 Compelling Letters will remain a testament to personalised persuasion at its best.
26 Compelling Letters is available through the Direct Marketing Association for £35. Contact Jo Marris on 0207 291 3300.
Agency: Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel
Copywriter: David Brown
Art director: Mark Buckingham
Craik Jones' festive mailing appears under W for warm. The copywriter David Brown describes buying someone a drink as the ultimate warm gesture and, as such, the mailing comes with a double measure of Gordon's gin.
The mailing was inspired by a letter received by the company's master distiller, Hugh Williams. It features a genuine quote from a letter sent to him by a customer from Midlothian, who admitted to keeping a spare litre of Gordon's at home in case he was faced with "an overabundance of visitors".
Brown saw this mailing as a chance for Williams to thank customers like this. "The festive season is overplayed as a commercial opportunity," he explains. "We were looking to offer people sincere good wishes rather than ask them to buy. Although there is a message to stock up, it's veiled beneath the good wishes."
Client: M&G Investments
Agency: Harrison Troughton Wunderman
Copywriter: Henry Adams
Art director: Robyn Wynne
This mailing sought to prevent IFAs from panicking at a time of bond market turmoil. Inspired by Sir Winston Churchill, a famously unflappable character, the letter was rolled up and sent out in a cigar tube.
Working to a linguistic template established by her creative director Steve Harrison, the copywriter Henry Adams aimed to write with wit and sophistication, making the product as transparent as possible without being patronising. Adams says working on M&G makes great demands on your vocabulary: "You must avoid puns and usual sales tricks, but once you've got the hang of it it's lovely to work on."
Client: Thomas Cook
Agency: Carlson Marketing
Copywriters and art directors: Tim Lines and Chris Martin
This high-energy missive from Carlson aimed to avoid the cliched mountain-side photography normally present in skiing brochures. Instead, it played on the fact that the people who were manning the Thomas Cook call centre were all qualified skiers.
The letter is written in the style of one ski obsessive addressing another.
"It attempts to convey the energy, fun and emotion true enthusiasts feel for skiing," Chris Martin says.
- Try to sound like an individual and not a marketing department. It helps if you can avoid lazy beginnings (eg "As a valued customer") and endings ("so why not ...").
- Engage the reader. Just because you are selling doesn't mean you have to be dull.
- Think about the person you are writing to. It's often hard to picture your audience when you've got Mr AB Sample written in the corner of the letter.
- Personalise the copy. Tailor it so that it is relevant, but make sure it reads like a person-to-person conversation.
- Don't go on for too long and judge carefully when to go over the page. Don't scare the reader off with huge blocks of text.
- Don't treat a letter as if it's an extension of your brochure.
- Don't rush the sale. Know when it is right to reach the heart of the matter.
- An art director has an important part to play. Ensuring fonts and layouts neither detract from or underplay the copy.
- Tempt the recipient - telling the reader you've set aside £10,000 for them, should they want it, is better than asking if they've ever considered buying a car/bike/yacht.