More and more companies are placing their trust in field marketers and forming strategic partnerships.

Ask five field marketers to define their job and they will probably give you five different answers: outsourcing; merchandising; answering services; selling; and sampling… Their actual role is still confusing to an outsider because their activities are so disparate.

But what is identifiable is that in its 60-year history, the industry has come a long way. Starting in the Thirties as “counter marketing” – where staff were persuaded to bring goods from behind the counter onto the counter – field marketing has now become an integral part of company strategy. Field marketers are increasingly being used as strategic partners.

At the top end of the sector, most companies talk about field marketing in the same breath as outsourcing and sales – and this represents the majority of their work.

Field marketers seized their chance when companies started looking at ways of making their sales function more accountable.

But while manufacturers of packaged goods have been outsourcing sales since the Seventies, the idea is now spreading to all sorts of sectors, from utilities to telecoms and IT.

Compaq Computers outsourced part of its sales function to Aspen Field Marketing for the first time just over two years ago, when it entered the retail market with the Presario range of PCs. Hamish Haynes, consumer marketing manager at Compaq, says the company decided to take the outsourcing route because it was the most effective way to deliver local sales and support to retailers. It also gave them instant access to 1,300 outlets.

“It was a risk when we first started,” says Haynes. “But it’s arrogant to assume that we can do everything better than anyone else. I don’t believe that if we employed people ourselves we would do a better job than Aspen. Our problem is one of numbers; we’re selling thousands of models. We were new to the retail market and wanted to incorporate a company which had the expertise to satisfy retail demand. Aspen understood the market and the way to merchandise.”

Compaq had identified its core value as being the manufacturer of “bloody good computers” and was willing to look elsewhere for a strategic partner which could improve its links with retail outlets. The move was made easier when Aspen set up a dedicated team to deal specifically with Compaq.

Using an expert outsourcing company was a natural extension of Compaq’s corporate culture. But for many more established companies, for example banks, the idea of ceding control to an outside agency is a leap of faith and one that many are likely to find difficult. This is a barrier that many field marketing agencies are working hard to overcome.

Eddie Phillips is managing director of CPM International, which has recently won a contract supplying merchandising services to Barclays Bank. His company employs over 3,000 staff and is one of the largest field marketing agency’s in the country with a turnover of nearly 40m. Phillips has spent years building up the trust of his clients, many of whom have used CPM for a number of years.

“The idea of a strategic partnership is crucial to our business,” he explains. “By outsourcing what is possibly one of the most important parts of their activities – sales – our clients have already placed us in a position of great trust. We develop our business by delivering results.”

Field marketers are often brought in on development plans at an early stage: “In a sense we are part of the team,” says Phillips, “but with the added benefit of being able to provide a high level of third-party consultancy when necessary.”

On the back of clients’ demands for greater information, astute field marketers have pioneered new ways through technology to become more efficient.

Rob Ellert is the chairman and managing director of Ellert Retail Operation Services, which had a turnover last year of about 12m. He is regarded as something of a pioneer in the industry and the success of his company has gone hand in hand with a dedication to technological expertise and research and development.

Ellert has an in-house team which designs and develops field marketing software. “We’ve been using technology ever since we launched. The database comes in on two fronts. The first is accountability, which is something of a negative stance. But you can present a second proposition using the database as a marketing tool, to drive and make the business more cost efficient and effective.”

The company has developed systems that target the most appropriate and effective outlets for the salesperson to approach. This is particularly useful if a client has many brands – Ellert handles Procter & Gamble, for whom the proposition of hitting outlets that sell two, three or more of its products is obviously appealing.

Information is fed into a journey planning system (created in-house by Ellert) which clusters calls geographically. Rather than using the expensive and time-consuming scattergun approach of calling on as many outlets as possible, the field marketer can present a more focused and cost effective method, hitting a higher percentage of receptive targets.

Where Ellert’s company is particularly skilful is in collecting post-campaign data. Some key perfor- mance indicators could include miles travelled and the number of calls made. But going beyond this, by use of regression (or correlation) analyses, companies can be inform-ed of where they weren’t success ful and possible contributory factors, such as location or competitor promotions.

“We can tell clients about where we weren’t successful,” says Ellert. “That’s where our approach is relatively unique. It may be that there is a reason and this could be a crucial learning experience. There could be an important characteristic as to why it didn’t work well. Our system allows for qualitative rather than quantitative information.”

Not surprisingly, Ellert sees a future dependent on technological advances. “We need to be able to turn raw data into information. Collecting data is one thing, making it usable is where most people fall down. We are doing lots of work on pen technology, which we see as analogous with the low-tech operational environment.”

So what of the future for field marketing? Phillips foresees a growth in internationalisation (CPM already has clients in the former Eastern bloc, Spain, Italy and Ireland) and he envisages further growth in sectors outside the traditional packaged goods firms.

Ellert sees long-term renewable contracts as the trend for the market leaders but a continuing competition on price at the lower end. “I think the industry will polarise. At the top end the blue-chips are demanding in both financial and performance terms and they will want to go with the companies which are less driven by cost. The bottom end of the market I think will always be driven by price.”

Barriers to entry in the field marketing industry are low and so current players, particularly those competing on price, will be open to competition over the next few years as the demand for field marketing increases. What is significant is that the top few players have distinguished themselves in different ways to protect their competitive advantage.

Phillips describes field marketing as something which is “easy to do, but hard to do well”. Aspen offers a unique approach, employing predominantly full-time graduates: a salesforce profile that is an appropriate strategic fit for Compaq. And one of the most seemingly unassailable advantages is held by Ellert’s company: competing with such a level of technological expertise will present costly barriers to entry for many companies.

What we can be sure of is that field marketing companies will become vital strategic partners to more and more organisations.

What will be interesting is watching how companies unaccustomed to placing trust outside their organisations will manage to build meaningful and productive relationships with their new bedfellows.

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