The year ahead for ... direct marketing

Mike Dodds predicts 2009 will see more collaboration, especially between digital and direct.

Two themes are on my mind as we embark on another year in some of the most challenging economic circumstances we have ever seen.

First, at a time where there has been evidence of direct marketing slowing over the past couple of years and when various industry luminaries have been debating the "death" of direct marketing, I wonder where exactly we are in the lifecycle of the discipline.

Second, like every agency of any persuasion, I am constantly thinking about how we continue to respond to the explosion of digital media and channels we're seeing.

But before I get into details, I would like to dispel any suggestion that all is not well in my sector of the industry. On the contrary, I firmly agree with my predecessor at Proximity London, who suggested that we are about to enter the "Third Age of Direct" where agencies will prosper if we "remember the fundamental principles that underpin the discipline, but also are prepared to evolve and adapt".

This latter point is crucial. I would go as far as to say that those agencies that grasp the nettle and make the necessary changes will ride out the economic uncertainties of the next few years and emerge in a much better place. Those that do not could end up on the direct scrapheap. In that sense, 2009 is going to be a crucial year for our discipline.

What we have to remember is that the development of direct marketing has always run parallel to technological breakthroughs, from the ability to personalise messages to the reduced cost of capturing, processing and segmenting customer data, to the integration of CRM systems and the arrival of the worldwide web.

The explosion of digital media, and the infinite opportunities they present to address an audience of one, have always played directly to the strengths of our discipline but also provide the catalyst for its development, hence the approach of the "Third Age".

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing for digital exclusivity. Digital informs and changes every discipline and is owned by no one. What I am arguing for is putting the discipline first in 2009. That way, some of us become experts at building brands online, some managing customer relationships online, others managing reputation online and so on.

But it's not a matter of "the answer's digital, now what's the question", although you could have been forgiven for thinking this when looking through the various Cannes finalists in 2008. Of course, we are going to see deeply digital ideas such as Uniqlo's "Uniqlock" winner that don't fit a traditional classification. However, I still can't help feeling that many of the digital finalists within the discipline categories had little to distinguish them as distinctly direct, promotional or brand-building campaigns.

So, my prediction for 2009 is that digital will become "disciplined". By that I mean it will stop being owned by any particular agency and be absorbed into, and applied for, brand-building (advertising), relationship management (direct), reputation management (PR) and so on.

This isn't restrictive. Each medium and channel is relevant to each discipline. But the way they are applied, the purpose of that application and how performance is measured will differ.

As direct marketers, we are better placed than most. When we were first trying to get our heads round the internet (which seems a very long time ago now) I remember my then creative director Rory Sutherland saying: "Advertising is a collection of very powerful media in search of an appropriate idea, whereas direct marketing is a very powerful idea in search of an appropriate medium. With the internet, we've finally found it."

We only have to look at the excellent digital diploma run by the Institute of Direct Marketing to see how well the direct discipline translates into the digital space. This is a great example of the "disciplinisation" of digital and since launching in 2005 it's already into its second version. Let's hope we see more examples emerging from across the other disciplines in 2009.

But going back to the roots of direct marketing is not, on its own, going to be enough to promote success in the year ahead. There are some fundamental issues that direct marketing agencies need to address quickly, if they have not done so already. In short, we have to retain our principles but abandon most of the practices. The blueprint for success is too long to go into here, and will be highly personal to each agency, but there are three themes that I believe will be crucial to agencies of any persuasion.

First is collaboration. I'm not talking about the increased collaboration between different departments within an agency - media and creative for example - although we will see more and more of this in 2009. I'm really referring to collaboration between the different agencies and organisations which manage interactions between brands and consumers.

As more channels become digital, they will effectively be on the same "gauge of the railroad track", meaning that collaboration will be essential to ensure that a consistent and integrated customer experience is delivered.

Next, I expect the delivery model to evolve dramatically. This is going to be partly driven by cost pressures, but also by the range and complexity of media and channels we will be working with. This will not only affect the internal workings of agencies, but also how agencies and clients engage. I expect to see much more in-sourcing and outsourcing as a result.

Finally, in a world where do-it-yourself marketing is available at the click of a mouse, creativity becomes a key differentiator. In the search to survive the downturn, innovative marketing ideas will drive the agenda and innovation must be at the heart of creativity. The only people you won't find in a client organisation, or be able to replicate on the web, are the creative brains that sit in your office. They are there for a reason, so use them to good effect. Having said that, check out OpenAd.net, which gives you online access to more than 11,000 creatives in 125 countries to crack your concept for a fee. Is nothing sacred?

So, rather than the next 12 months presenting direct marketers and agencies with a threat, I prefer to see it as providing a massive opportunity. If there was ever a period that enabled us to really prove our worth, this is it. We must remember the fundamentals of our discipline but simultaneously make radical changes that are long overdue. Do this and the direct industry should emerge as one of the leaders, rather than a follower in 2009.

- Mike Dodds is the chief executive at Proximity London.