The decade of digital has changed the communications landscape forever.
Now the social web is doing the same in about a quarter of the time. So, what does it mean to be a "direct" agency in the second decade of the millennium?
I believe that it's still good to be a specialist direct agency in 2011. As a group, we have specific skills, tend to attract certain types of people and generate ideas that other kinds of agencies would find difficult to sustain. We are concerned with creating relationships between brands and customers over time. And by applying the power of data, we can come up with campaigns and CRM programmes that are wide-ranging in their scope and innovative in their approach.
However, direct in 2011 will no longer be just about talking to one person at a time through a highly personalised piece. The power of groups with shared interests, peer recommendation and the rapid multiplier effect of social media have shown how a well-placed idea can capture imaginations to create huge, long-lasting ripples.
Harnessing this "always-on" culture is one of this year's key challenges. Demands on budgets will not diminish, while the infinite stream of new digital platforms, channels and devices to evaluate and assimilate mean that direct agencies will continue to evolve new skills. It also means our core principles will have even greater relevance and resonance, starting with our long-held expertise in behaviour change.
Behaviour change. Whose expertise is it anyway?
Everyone's trying to eat our lunch. With influential books such as Nudge and Herd and the adoption of behavioural economics by the Cameron government, all kinds of agencies are in the behaviour-change business.
Direct agencies are the real experts in effecting behaviour change. We've been doing it for years, we know how to get really close to consumers and, most powerfully of all, we know how to use data to test, measure and improve our work on a continuous basis.
But what's to stop non-direct agencies doing the same? After all, if it's all about a bit of nifty data analysis and digital deployment, there's nothing to stop a load of tanks parking up on our lawns. Thing is, it's more than that. The best direct strategies are about programmes, not projects. We look years into the future, planning different customer journeys, preparing different scenarios and providing specific context to every brief. Everyone in a direct agency knows what they are doing, why they are doing it and how it relates to all the work produced for a client.
Our challenge as direct agencies is to get our collective acts together, sharpish. We have the background, skills, knowledge and outlook to continue to own behaviour change. But only if we have a strong point of view about where it should go next, and how our clients' businesses can benefit from new thinking. Starting with the redefinition and development of "social".
Social. The future of everything, or the emperor's new clothes?
In 2010, Facebook overtook Google to become the most-used website in the US. Ads are being made exclusively for YouTube and celebrated every week in Campaign. Brands as diverse as Jimmy Choo and Best Buy showed how Twitter can move beyond gossip and link-sharing. And the two-year-old Groupon recently turned down a $6 billion takeover offer from Google. Social is clearly part of the party but, to stay, it needs to pay its way.
The immediacy and intimacy of social, plus the measurability and customer-centric tenets of CRM, look like perfect bedfellows. And if approached, planned, executed and evaluated correctly, brands can get closer to customers, for longer, with Social CRM. I'm convinced that direct agencies are best placed to offer clear, cohesive and long-lasting Social CRM.
Direct agencies can't "do" all that is social. We must identify the elements of social that would be most appropriate to our skills and, more importantly, to the aims of our clients. Here's one example: both Facebook and now Twitter Groups mean that we can deliver messaging that is guaranteed to be relevant to distinct groups who have effectively identified themselves as prospects and/or advocates. And by providing content that is shareable, those individuals can propagate specific messaging to wider groups, drawing more people towards the brand.
At the moment, this is happening fairly indiscriminately. Our skills in gathering and analysing data, behavioural modelling and building multi-strand strategies mean that the best direct agencies will be able to tell clients what works in social, why it worked, what we can learn from it and how to make it better next time round.
Direct marketing can be an expensive business. And social can certainly give a client more punches per pound. But it wasn't so long ago that e-mail was presented as the panacea to all direct's ills. Now, e-mail is an integral part of pretty much every CRM programme. Yet sometimes there is still no substitute for a well-judged, beautifully crafted piece of direct mail. The truth is that channels will constantly change shape, new ways of communicating will arrive and direct agencies will adopt those that are most suited to a well-structured, long-lasting CRM programme. What we will always need most are people who can make it so.
Collaboration isn't an option, it's a given
I've argued for the continuation of the specialist direct agency. But in this multi-platform, always-on world, the sheer amount of in-depth knowledge, technical skills, information exchanges and detailed cost-controls require a more expansive way of working.
We also have a responsibility to help clients break through their own legacy issues. Whether they still see channels as silos, are lagging in the adoption of new technologies, or being subject to short-term thinking that restricts the development of long-term customer relationships. Creative collaboration is the only way for our sector to thrive. The direct agencies of the next few years will, more than ever, become "curators" of ideas, rather than sole instigators, developers and producers. This is something that both forward-thinking ad and pure-play digital agencies have done. It's time for direct to adopt this model, or get left behind while we methodically grind our way to answering a client's business needs.
Bringing it all back home
Direct has the potential to go further in 2011. Our core principles are becoming the default for all manner of communications. Our inquisitive nature unearths more ideas in more spaces. Our capacity for collaboration is increasing. And with data in our DNA, we can continue to deliver measurable value to our clients. We're specialists, and proud to be so.
Phil Andrews is the chief executive and founder of Partners Andrews Aldridge.