Could it soon be last post for direct mail?

Direct mail is in full retreat and direct marketing agency pitches have all but dried up. Is this a dreadful portent for a once-thriving sector, or simply a blip while it reorganises itself?

It has to be said the outlook does not look good. Most DM agencies would stoutly rebut the suggestion that they are all, or indeed anything, to do with what the public calls ‘junk mail’. But while what’s stuffed through the letter box scarcely represents the strategic high-ground of precision marketing, no one can deny that historically it has been the sector’s bread and butter. Nor that the 7.4% volume decline recorded by Royal Mail for last year represents a serious setback.

The problem, in a word, has been the internet. If people can get more directly what they want through search, they are likely to be even less tolerant of the ‘junk mail’. And so events seem to be proving.

But so what? In theory the advent of digital media is a huge opportunity for direct marketing agencies to reinvent themselves and build some added value in the process.

After all, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is king. Though clients are crying out for rapid mastery of the new digital communications medium, no one has an expertise that entirely fits the required template. But at least direct marketing agencies do, inherently, possess some important elements of that template. They understand the targeted response mechanism, they are at home with data extraction and management on a massive scale; and at their core is CRM. Seen from this perspective, ‘digital’ is simply a change of channel rather than a new medium.

Sadly, matters are not that simple. At a time when old-style creative advertising agencies are facing increasing difficulty in maintaining their role as the first port of call for communications-challenged senior clients, DM agencies have not been nearly as successful as they should be at making ‘digital integration’ the core of their offering and seeking out the strategic high-ground.

Why this should be so is puzzling. Possibly, DM agencies have an inferiority complex about their position in the agency pecking order that makes it difficult for them to rise to the occasion. Certainly commentators have noted a creeping demoralisation and lack of entrepreneurial fibre within the sector of late. The talent, some say, is moving elsewhere.

That shouldn’t be so as, managed correctly, direct and digital make good bedfellows. That aside, a major problem remains. The image of direct marketing (among some practitioners, let alone the client and consumer) has been befuddled by direct mail. Direct mail won’t disappear, but it has to get smarter.

As EHS Brann chief Matt Atkinson puts it: “The key point now is it’s quality over quantity…Consumers are not saying they don’t want direct mail, they’re saying they don’t want junk mail. As an industry, we have to be more considered about what we do, and so do our clients.”

Amen to that.

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