The mailers' job is a complex one at the best of times. But the
upheavals and disruption to the US mailing process caused by the 11
September terrorist attacks and the subsequent spate of anthrax scares
have tested the skills of mailing houses as never before.
Some US campaigns have been suspended to avoid log-jams in mail rooms,
while others have had to be cancelled altogether, sometimes owing to the
inappropriate nature of their contents. Clearly this is not a good time
to be sending white powders through the post, although one US company,
about to mail a Christmas catalogue containing scented talcum, opted to
go ahead after issuing warnings through the media.
Another casualty is the personal touch thought to give added appeal to
marketing communications. Since anthrax started to arrive in handwritten
envelopes a New York charity has reverted to an official-looking printed
style. The implications for the UK direct mail industry have not proved
so immediate or direct. But mailers here are having to examine their
capability to deal with security issues and confront the challenges
posed by emergency situations.
TMW, for instance, had to move smartly when British Airways needed to
mount a special promotion to counteract the slump in air travel. And DBM
Direct was similarly challenged when a Real IRA bomb blast in Ealing in
August damaged the offices of its client Vision Express, requiring an
emergency mailing to customers (see panel).
Risk analysis procedures
One effect of the recent events has been to highlight the need for
The Direct Marketing Association has issued a set of commonsense
guidelines, such as ensuring that client identification is clear,
providing a return address, and avoiding sending out items that could be
For mailing houses security is not a new issue. Individuals with a
grudge against a company may try to get revenge by taping razor blades
to a coupon or competition entry or, believe it or not, by putting
excrement in the envelope.
Graham Cooper, divisional managing director at Mail Marketing
International, says these are not unusual events in response handling
but any damage can be minimised if proper procedures are in place. "The
occasional oddball is something one has to accept," he points out.
Political disturbances are not the only potential hazards: mailing
houses also have to have contingency plans in place for fire and floods.
"The sensible thing is to conduct a risk analysis of the process to see
where problems might arise, then act on it," says Hugh Conway, head of
marketing at DBM.
Tasked with ensuring continuity of TV licence reminders, one mailing
company decided to keep a minimum stock of four weeks supply at both the
printers and commissioning agency, with an alternative set of plates
held in Holland.
If things do go wrong, be upfront with the client, Conway advises. "It's
important to tell people immediately what is going to happen," he
"If you get that right you will retain their loyalty."
Another challenge mailers can face is contacting customers quickly, for
instance with product recalls. That happened with Rover recently, when
Mini owners had to be warned about a potential problem with the
Quick reactions are something that agencies with charities among their
clients are used to providing. For Oxfam, WWAV Rapp Collins has a set of
processes in place to ensure than an appeal for funds can get under way
quickly in response to floods, earthquakes or war.
Another client is the RSPCA, which needs to time its fundraising to
coincide with media coverage, such as public and political debates on
A mailing earlier this year had to be achieved in two weeks, compared
with the normal time span of 10 to 12.
According to Gail Cookson, client services director at WWAV Rapp
Collins, this means getting all the key decision makers working together
from the outset to cover the legal, marketing and creative aspects of
the brief, and ensuring a quick turnaround from each.
"When we go to the client's head office we expect to find every expert
who needs to be there round the table," Cookson says. "It's daunting for
a copywriter to see their work being written over by the lawyer, the
fundraiser and everyone else, but it is necessary to get things moving
On the other hand it gets the adrenalin going, which can be good for
creative work, she adds. "It's not something we would advise as a norm,
but nothing is better than the client asking for help: it brings out the
best in people," she says.
Often it is the knowledge and experience the creative team has gathered
of the client's needs that enables an agency to respond quickly. Faced
with an emergency, it already has the background it needs to turn the
design round within a few days.
When it comes to mounting a campaign in a hurry, or stopping one at the
last minute, it pays to have good communications with the carrier. "You
need to focus on that to start with," says Adam Sherman, TNT's regional
director for North and West Europe. "When things go wrong in the
industry it's often because there has been a misunderstanding at the
beginning and expectations haven't been met."
Pulling a mailshot once it has been injected into the postal service in
individual countries is difficult, he says, although it helps if the
carrier has a global presence. "If we have our own people at the other
end, we may be able to intercept it later in the chain."
How much this costs depends on how quickly the client gets in touch.
Recently, TNT got a call from a customer asking for a mailing to be
pulled after it had been sorted and was ready to go. That involved
having to extract the packs from different bags, consolidating them into
a single shipment and returning it to the client. In such cases, the
inconvenience is not too great and TNT says it prefers to absorb the
cost. But not every carrier will be so generous, and getting the stop
order out as soon as possible could limit the damage.
Hopefully UK mailers will be spared the kind of ructions affecting their
US counterparts. But emergencies are bound to occur occasionally, and
good communications, contingency planning and attention to security can
help minimise the fallout.
CASE STUDY: BRITISH AIRWAYS
One effect of the 11 September attacks has, of course, been a serious
fall in business for the air travel industry. Since October, TMW has
been running a direct mail campaign for British Airways (BA), offering
free flights to around 200,000 frequent business customers.
The mailing had to be put together quickly and TMW, only one of two
agencies to survive a recent cull of BA's direct marketing capability,
faced the challenge of honing a three-month production cycle down to
Instead of the normal one or two staff dedicated to the campaign, it
created a team of four, and held daily rather than weekly production
In some cases, updates were required on an hourly basis, for instance
when the client decided later to extend the offer to include free hotel
"Managing a campaign to take account of market sensitivities and within
a vastly compressed time frame is a true test of a client-agency
relationship," comments Chris Freeland, business group director at
"There is no room for unnecessary mistakes," he adds. "The strategy
development, agency briefing, creative execution, data processing work,
lasering and fulfilment, all have to be co-ordinated with the utmost
attention to detail for a mailing to go out on time."
ENSURING THE MAIL GETS THROUGH
Include an indication on the outer envelope of the sender's address.
- Print an introduction to the contents on the envelope.
- Use a contact telephone number on the outside of the envelope for
recipients to cross check the contents.
- Ensure address details are completed.
- Avoid sending items with hand-written fonts.
- Avoid including anything in an envelope that could be
- If you are sending something of an unusual nature to a customer,
consider pre-advising of its arrival.
- Avoid unnecessary excess wrapping.
- Brief your agency, suppliers and internal production departments and
make them fully aware of your policy.
- Just for the time being, make it look like direct mail.
Source: Graham Cooper, divisional - managing director of Mail Marketing
CASE STUDY: VISION EXPRESS
Vision Express was one of several high street retailers whose premises
were damaged in the IRA attack in Ealing Broadway in August. That posed
a problem, as a mailing was about to go out to customers inviting them
in for their regular eye-checks.
DBM Direct wanted to minimise the risk to customer loyalty. It devised a
plan which involved taking local customers out of the mailing, and
sending them a separate letter informing them of an alternative branch
close to their homes. Processing the data quickly, it extracted the
Ealing customers and analysed their postcodes. Once a letter had gone
out warning them about the bomb damage, it was followed by regular
updates about re-opening.
"It's about telling people what's going on," says Hugh Conway, marketing
director at DBM Direct.