Any marketer trawling quickly through news coverage of the direct marketing industry is likely to be struck by the absence of stories about media. Compared with above the line, there are few stories about clients moving their media buying from one specialist to another.
This could lead the casual reader to one of two conclusions: either the budgets being spent on direct marketing media are small, or few clients have split media from the strategy and creative. In fact, neither is necessarily the case. Rather, there are other, structural reasons why DM media buying does not enjoy the high profile of its broadcast cousins.
The recent history of the major buying houses suggests that DM remains the poor relation. From having standalone direct response units, the big players such as CIA Medianetwork, Mindshare, Zenith and Medianet have submerged them into their core offering. Underneath the surface there are still specialists at work, but they are not promoted on the frontline. DM agencies themselves have not given media a high profile – you are more likely to find a digital strategist than a media director.
Yet the scale of DM media buying is substantial and growing. WWAV Rapp Collins Media counts itself among the top 20 buying points of any description in the UK. But group media director Ceri Davis accepts that the weight of his agency’s buying rarely gets recognised.
“It is because the work that goes into spending each of our media pounds is heavy. We don’t buy &£3m TV campaigns. There is more front-end and back-end work involved. As a result, the headcount per account is higher,” Davis says. This is undeniably one of the features which keeps DM media out of the headlines. Even if a client is spending millions on a single campaign, this is likely to be broken down into multiple, small hits.
Response Advertising Media (RAM) managing director Philip Nixon gives a prime example. “One of our clients spends &£3m a year on media. Five years ago, they were only into two mainstream media channels – loose inserts and door-to-door. Now they are into 18, from direct-response television to classifieds,” he says.
Nixon says that the thinking behind that shift has moved from buying share of voice to buying incremental response. “It is about using anything that works, no matter how small, as long as it is cost-effective. Sometimes we are in niche media that have no roll-out potential at all,” he says.
This means that as a media buyer, RAM has become a major player in what are often small media channels. A good example is take-ones – leaflets distributed at point of sale – where the agency is buying into all of the few opportunities which exist. “We’re probably the largest buyer of card decks in the UK. They are not sexy, but they work,” says Nixon.
That could probably qualify as a slogan for the DM media buying sector, which is concerned with working rather than flirting. At the heart of direct marketing is a culture of accountability. That means the media buyers cannot buy space or time on a client’s behalf simply because it gives them visibility. “Ratings are a by-product, not a target. With DRTV, we are buying phone calls,” says Nixon.
Ensuring that a campaign generates response is at the core of the DM media buying approach. And it means that specialists are involved in more detailed planning, often involving substantial number crunching in advance of placing an ad. That is one reason why DM media specialists need a closer relationship with clients than is usually the case.
Ian Maynard, managing director of Prager & Partners – a media independent owned by Barraclough Hall Woolston Gray (BHWG) itself part of the Omnicom group – says that this relationship is becoming more visible. “When we go to pitches now, media is high on the agenda – it is becoming more important. It is not just about the rate, it is about producing quality customers with the right lifetime value,” he says.
To understand how a campaign or particular media strand will yield customers with the right profile and value, Prager & Partners frequently works hand in hand with BHWG’s data planners and strategists. It also brings to bear its own resource, called Mediator, which holds five year’s worth of data on campaigns, rates, results and values.
A dichotomy is emerging for DM media buyers between what might be called classic direct response advertisers and a new generation of brand response clients. An example of the former among Prager & Partners’ clients is Slendertone. Over the past few years, the media agency has helped the company build a highly successful UK business by steadily finding more media outlets which produce immediate response at an affordable rate.
In the second group sits a client such as BUPA, which Prager & Partners works on, alongside BHWG, as a full service agency. “We know BUPA’s market, its competitors, and the hit-rate it can achieve,” says Maynard. That means working with the client on planning against specific targets for business volumes and growth, not just for advertising effectiveness.
Davis at WWAV Rapp Collins Media says: “Bigger clients are looking for more accountability or are setting up direct operations. Then there are clients which are more media savvy and don’t feel the need for an agency account manager, so they deal directly with us. We have planners who are making strategic decisions with clients about how to go to market and who can then encompass the inter-media decisions of which routes to use.”
On major accounts, such as Legal & General, it is the detailed planning and information from WWAV Rapp Collins Media’s own proprietary system, called Stars, which has enabled specific propositions to succeed. But Davis points out that, however large the client and its budget, DM media is never about big splashes. “It is about timelines. Direct mail can’t be turned on and off, but radio and press can.”
This is one of the key reasons for DM media’s low profile. Direct mail continues to dominate the DM industry, specifically on the agency and supplier side. It is high profile – particularly with Royal Mail promoting itself heavily as a media owner – and big spending, at more than &£4bn last year. Yet it is not bought and sold like other media, and the key decisions about mailings are still made away from the rest of the media schedule.
Specialist media channels
Some unusual hybrid specialists can result, however. Central to cold prospecting by mail is the mailing list, which some DM media buyers deal in. At Tri-Direct, list broking has long sat alongside its activities in door-to-door and other media. Such has been its reputation as a buyer, that the company has also become a sales house.
Tri-Direct managing director Patrick Carew says: “As a list broker, if we are buying lists effectively and doing a good job, list owners say to us, ‘could you do as good a job for me?'” The list management side of Tri-Direct has been established with its own teams and space alongside the list buyers. “The biggest complaint I hear from the manager of the department is that his worst customers are our own buyers,” he says.
In fact, close working relationships with media owners are a key characteristic of DM media buying. It is not unusual for media specialists to be involved in developing new channels, or encouraging media owners to open up space. The inserts sector has grown symbiotically with the detailed efforts of both owners and buyers in this way, for example.
Carew says: “We realised that door-to-door media had more mileage than was being used – the contractors were not doing much in terms of profiling and targeting.” But this does not mean all media owners recognise the needs of direct marketers. “When we talk to them about dot-com clients, many think that means premium rates. They see a distinction between dot-coms and direct response, so we have had to work a lot harder. There is no reason to expect e-commerce ads to perform any differently,” he says.
Meeting business criteria
It is the connection with a client’s business objectives, and not just with the most efficient expenditure of a pre-determined budget, which most distinguishes the DM media buyer from those working above the line. As Davis puts it: “We are not just trying to equalise rates.” If an advertising opportunity will not yield sufficient prospects with a high propensity to convert to customers at a rapid break-even point, the buyer will walk away.
Matthew Wride, media director at SMART Media Solutions, a division of Intermarketing Communications, points out that the devil is in the detail. “While the emphasis with regular agencies tends to be on coverage and/or frequency, direct agencies look at a combination of controlled expansion and refinement. As a result, direct campaigns tend to be made up of a multitude of smaller elements, each of which is designed to achieve a specific objective and be accountable.”
The goal is not to create an elegant, balanced media schedule, but to add bucks to the client’s bottom line.