It is a common complaint among those working in field marketing that few people truly understand what they do.
They may have dispelled the perception of field marketing as a few pretty girls distributing leaflets at exhibitions, but they often feel their role in maximising below-the-line activity is severely undervalued.
It was this frustration which prompted the formation three years ago of the sector’s first official trade body. The Field Marketing Association (FMA) burst onto the scene with an aggressive manifesto, promising to raise the profile of the industry and improve the standards of those companies operating within it.
At first glance the initiative appears to be working. The FMA says the value of the field marketing business has risen five-fold to more than 100m since the association was set up. An aggressive advertising and PR campaign funded by the FMA’s 11 members has promoted the broad range of field marketing services now available. These include: merchandising; sales support; crisis management; sampling and demonstration; training; telemarketing; auditing; and customer assessment.
Yet despite the FMA’s obvious successes and its determined efforts to act as a platform from which to expand the field marketing industry, a number of grey clouds are threatening. The association’s membership represents only an estimated 65 per cent of the industry’s turnover, and there is a feeling among members and non-members that the absence of some key companies is diluting the association’s credibility.
Among the companies refusing to wave the FMA banner are respected businesses such as Aspen Field Marketing, which pulled out of the FMA earlier this year; founder members the Ellert Retail Group, which worked with Camelot on the launch of the National Lottery yet resigned from the association 18 months ago; and FMCG, whose managing director Mike Cottman has been persuaded to attend a couple of FMA meetings but has so far refused to join.
FMCG’s acquisition of TPS meant that its name also disappeared from the FMA’s membership list this year.
Aspen’s Gary MacManus says: “The FMA is no longer concentrating enough on core activities which I believe are data collection, selling, training and merchandising. Field marketing used to be defined as face-to-face, but the FMA is promoting areas such as telemarketing, which to me is not true field marketing. The FMA is going in the wrong direction.”
Ellert Retail’s managing director, Rob Ellert, says his company agreed to help set up the FMA to boost the industry’s profile, but he left the association because he was unhappy with the criteria for membership.
“We wanted clients to consider field marketing in the same way they consider advertising. If a company uses an advertising agency and it does not work they do not stop advertising, but often if they try field marketing and it is not a total success they are reluctant to use it again.”
He adds: “The problem is anyone can set up a field marketing agency and apply to have the FMA logo on their letterhead. Perhaps the industry is too young and fragmented to have a trade association, and maybe the job of raising the profile of the industry should be left to individual companies.”
The current FMA chairman, Alison William of FDS, disputes the criticisms made by the former members, and she has challenged them to re-join and to implement the changes they want to see from within the association. She says the FMA only promotes telemarketing because it is a service offered by some of its members, while she is adamant that the rules governing who can join are strict.
Companies must have filed at least one set of accounts at Companies House to be considered, while sole traders must have been in business for two years. Prospective members must also be proposed and seconded by existing members, agree to adhere to the FMA’s Code of Practice, join the Institute of Sales Promotion (ISP) and take part in the annual FMA survey conducted to assess the general health of the field marketing industry.
“The element that non-members are missing is that field marketing is not understood by enough people – and this is what we are trying to change. I am disappointed that some of the big companies are not members, but why criticise from the sidelines?” asks Williams.
Nick Fennell is business development director of market leaders CPM Field Marketing and claims an estimated 35 per cent of the field marketing business. The company was the main force behind the launch of the FMA. His company remains an active member, but he says he has sympathy with the companies that refuse to join, and says the FMA must attract them if it is to realise its full potential.
“After us, the companies which account for the next 30 per cent of the market are not members. Which trade association would not be disappointed with that? The FMA does not do a good or bad job, but it is trying. It is essential, for example, that we have a body to lobby the Government on our behalf.”
He adds: “It is too early to say whether the FMA has a bright future or not. It is certainly at a crossroads, and needs the entire industry to be part of it to make a real difference.”
The companies that are members welcome the chance to discuss industry topics and ideas at the quarterly meetings. DSPS Field Marketing, whose managing director Ian Snelling was persuaded to join after attending the FMA’s AGM as a guest, says the association’s generic advertising and PR campaign has helped raise his company’s profile, while the FMA has provided him with useful advice on employment legislation.
Another ardent supporter of the FMA is MML Field Marketing. Its managing director Paul Narraway is annoyed that some sections of the industry still complain of a general lack of professionalism throughout the field marketing business, despite the work of the FMA and its members.
MML operates what it calls its “brand ambassadors” scheme, where all the staff promoting a particular product are trained to understand everything about the brand, including collecting data from retailers which can be used by a client planning a campaign.
Narraway says: “The FMA is being driven forward by initiatives like ‘brand ambassadors’, while the association is also considering other ideas such as introducing a bond scheme similar to the ABTA travel agency system as a condition for companies becoming members. This would further the professionalism of the industry.
“Not having some of the big companies as members is holding the FMA back. We would all like to see the association do different things, but at least MML is trying to change things from the inside.”
Improving professionalism and standards was one of the FMA’s core objectives when it was set up, of course, and Williams points to the Code of Practice as further evidence of the association’s determination to keep membership standards high.
The Code was devised to reassure existing clients and those considering using field marketing techniques for the first time. It demands that members conduct their business in an ethical and professional manner, are registered under the Data Protection Act 1984, comply fully with all employment law – particularly affecting part-timers, who make up a significant part of the industry – and ensure their staff are suffi- ciently trained to respond to a client’s brief.
Complaints about the actions of any FMA member are investigated by the three-strong executive committee. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, a company found to have breached the Code of Practice will be warned about their future conduct or, as a last resort, expelled from the association. This disciplinary procedure has yet to be tested, however.
The FMA’s success in getting the country’s marketing directors to consider field marketing as a serious option is not in dispute, and Williams remains optimistic that the association will continue to change perceptions with or without some of the industry’s most important companies pledging their support.
The FMA is working closely with the ISP and field marketing was part of the ISP’s lecture training programme for the first time last year, and a question on field marketing is now included in the ISP diploma.
“There is a long way to go with the FMA, but it is a good forum for discussion and we have other initiatives planned. We are launching the Suppliers Committee, for example, which looks after the interests of those who supply the sales promotion industry, including field marketing companies, direct mail businesses and handling houses, while we have plans for a field marketing award scheme.”
The field marketing industry is still a relatively young sector, and the FMA is a young trade association still finding its feet in many areas. Whether the FMA can continue to fight the industry’s corner effectively while some of the biggest players remain on the outside of joint industry initiatives will determine whether or not it has a long-term future.