A theoretical advantage?

Many of direct marketing’s top players claim to have learnt their trade on the job. Does this mean formal qualifications aren’t worth the paper they’re written on? asks Ian Whiteling

Which marketing qualifications do you have and to what extent have they helped your career? The quick answer from many in the direct marketing (DM) industry would probably be: “Not much”. It is easy to dismiss qualifications as meaningless pieces of paper but, on reflection, many marketers grudgingly admit that they do have some uses.

Take Andy Arnett, managing director of London’s Liquid Communications. His initial response is dismissive. “I don’t believe they are necessary and are only of limited use.” However, he then goes on to say: “On the positive side, they do give an overview of the industry.”

Arnett is probably only too aware that without that initial “piece of paper” it can be difficult to get ahead in the marketing industry. It’s true that there are a number of senior people in direct marketing without a relevant qualification to their name, but many in this situation are loath to condemn studying as a waste of time.

Matthew Warham, chief executive officer at Somersault Creative Marketing Solutions, based in High Wycombe, originally studied law. “My marketing skills were learnt at large organisations such as the Prudential and Hays and in a medium-sized international Finnish company called Esmerk, where I had pan-European responsibilities,” he explains. “Although I’ve attended seminars, I’ve taken no formal marketing exams because, essentially, I’m an entrepreneur first and a marketer second. I’m more interested in psychology and economics than in classical marketing theory because these tell us where our customers’ customers are at and give us clues on how to get to them.”

In contrast, Warham encourages his project staff to study and contributes towards the cost of them doing so. “Our project staff, all of whom deal directly with customers, need exposure to cutting-edge thinking in tactics and methodology,” he says, “as well as fundamental knowledge of how markets function and where what we do fits into the spectrum.” Wareham’s staff are steered towards studying for Chartered Institute of Marketing qualifications, which cover all marketing disciplines, including specialist DM courses.

Managing partner at agency 23red Adam Wylie also has no formal DM qualifications but, unlike Warham, wishes he had. “I learnt the hard way at an agency that was focused on other marketing disciplines,” he says. “I regret that I didn’t have the time, encouragement or financial support to embark on industry qualifications.”

On comparing study with on-the-job experience, Wylie says: “Qualifications are no substitute, nor are they meant to be. They offer an excellent grounding, but the real deal comes later.”

At the same time, Wylie cautions against an overreliance on training on the job, arguing that this can mean “people pick up bad practices and have gaps in their learning”.

The first “piece of paper” for many who venture into DM is the business degree with some kind of marketing focus. One person who started this way, and is now high up the DM ladder as business development director at data suppression company The Read Group, is Martin King. “It’s a good starting point,” he says. “It shows interest and commitment and lets any potential employers know you’ll understand what they’re taking about.”

However, once you’re in the industry, King believes it’s time to get work experience rather than immediately studying for more qualifications. “The most successful approach for individuals entering the industry is to focus first on doing the job. After gaining crucial knowledge of the market you may then want to develop a particular specialisation, such as direct marketing,” he says. After all, it’s always better to sample DM in the real world first, before committing more study time to it.

“This practical knowledge,” continues King, “can then be combined at a later stage with a qualification such as the Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) Diploma.” And that’s exactly what King and many other marketers have done.

“The IDM Diploma was by far the most useful of my three qualifications,” says David Cole, managing director of CCB-Profits from Data. Cole was head of database marketing at the Telegraph Group before setting up CCB, which helps media groups create new revenues through customer relationship marketing and enables them to supply DM services to their key advertisers. His company’s client list includes News International and TV channel, Five.

Cole’s other two qualifications are a business degree and a marketing diploma. So why does he favour his IDM study? “It was practical,” he says. “I took it over the course of a year when I was already working in the industry, which meant I could combine theory with practice. I can genuinely say I found it inspirational. It exposed me to books such as Drayton Bird’s Commonsense Direct Marketing, which fuelled my enthusiasm for the subject.”

David Titmus, now marketing director of The Funding Corporation, took his business degree in 1983 and completed an IDM Diploma in 1994 while working for the Capital Bank. “I did it to increase my direct marketing skills and it did just that,” he says. “The diploma focused on creativity, yet had a scientific base. This enabled me to judge agencies’ work better, while improving my ability to select databases, plan campaigns and analyse results. All in all, I think it doubled my ability to perform.”

The Capital Bank paid for the study, but the impetus to take the diploma came from Titmus himself, who chose the course and pushed his employer to send him on it. Titmus went on to become head of marketing at the bank, where he encouraged his 150 staff to take the IDM Diploma, paid for by the bank.

“The course paid for itself within a couple of campaigns because it made people more effective and efficient,” he says. “If training means you improve the results of a £100,000 campaign by just three per cent, it’s a big return on investment.”

Titmus believes that companies should invest in training their staff, but also says it’s down to individuals to help themselves by specifying the course they want to do and selling it to the company.

IDM managing director Derek Holder also stresses the need for appropriate training, something that’s often dropped when the industry is experiencing an economic downturn, as is currently the case. “I can understand why companies cut back on training,” he says, “but this has happened at least twice before and resulted in a skills shortage when the recovery took place. Companies then have to pay a premium for qualified and experienced staff, so it really is a false economy.”

Holder graduated in management science in the Seventies and is now a professor in direct marketing. After working for several multinationals, including British Airways, Ford and McGraw Hill, he joined Kingston University as a lecturer in the Eighties. The dearth of DM courses drove him to launch the Diploma of Direct Marketing in 1981, with 25 students – one of which was Sarah Owen, who now runs major recruitment agency Direct Recruitment. The diploma celebrates its 21st birthday this year and last year enjoyed one of its most successful years to date, taking about 1,000 students through their DM paces.

Growth in the DM industry during the Eighties led to Holder setting up the Direct Marketing Centre in 1986, because the industry was in dire need of an independent body. This culminated in the formation of the IDM in 1992.

“After 1986, the ways in which you could take the diploma has expanded,” explains Holder. The diploma can now be taken as an evening class; a three-week residential unit; intensively; as a distance learning module; or as an in-company learning programme. And there are various subject options from basic DM through to customer relationship marketing and e-marketing.

Holder believes the diploma’s success lies in the fact that it is a practical course, with an emphasis on applied knowledge. “It’s not based on out-of-date textbooks like many courses. What’s more, 75 per cent of the course tutoring is carried out by direct marketing practitioners – that’s more than any other course I can think of.”

It’s true that qualifications are no substitute for on-the-job experience, but then neither is working a substitute for studying. Having a regular training and learning programme means staff refresh their knowledge of the basics, keep on top of the latest trends and techniques and mix with like-minded individuals to gain a broader perspective of the industry. Even Holder says: “I have to keep learning or I’d put myself on the scrap-heap.”

But it’s The Read Group’s King who perfectly sums up the important symbiosis of study and experience when he says: “Academic theory is the skeleton of DM. Practical experience is the flesh that brings this skeleton to life.” Without both, anyone’s DM career is incomplete.

The DM Show

The DM Show, backed by Marketing Week and Precision Marketing, takes place at London’s Earl’s Court on October 15 to 17, 2002. The show combines a conference, featuring world-class speakers, with an exhibition of more than 120 leading direct marketing suppliers.

The event aims to provide a forum for business professionals to meet innovative thinkers, experts and suppliers. Industry gurus reveal the secrets of their success. They include Stan Rapp, founding father of one-to-one marketing; Keith Mills, originator of loyalty schemes and inventor of Air Miles; and Murray Rafael, the leading expert in retail direct marketing.

The Institute of Direct Marketing is holding interactive workshops, called Masterclasses, designed for senior marketing professionals. The IDM Academy is also offering free training sessions covering key topics.

For further information and complimentary tickets to the event, call Lucy Hewetson on 020 7970 6558 or Abigail Stockton on 020 7970 6511.

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