The Direct Debate


Mike Welsh, chief executive of Publicis Dialog, argues that it could be time to reflect changes in the approach to direct marketing by rebranding the channel.

It’s great to see free flowing debate about direct mail at the moment. A number of key things are falling out – some positive, some negative – and yet the discussion could be taken even further.

Firstly, the fact that most agencies are now doing direct. A response is the first thing every brand asks for, the opposite is becoming a tool or technique. Let’s not pretend that, as direct agencies, we’re the only players.

Taking this even further, everyone’s now interested in data, measurement and evaluation. With departments full of data experts, we still assume it’s our gig, but it’s not. No longer can we smugly believe we’re the best at measurement.

Historically, we’ve only measured what’s easy, and what’s short-term, rather than the cumulative effect. No agency has yet cracked the ultimate question: how do you measure engagement?

When it comes to defining DM, Professor Derek Holder of the Institute of Direct Marketing says people now know what the initials stand for: that’s not true and never has been.

The shorthand ’DM’ means direct mail to some (or most) and direct marketing to others. This has never been resolved. (By the way, there’s no such thing as ’direct and digital marketing’: one to one happens anywhere you want it to.)

Direct marketing should have been first into the web, but we were too cautious and unable to make giant leaps.

So when Derek Holder says the first commercial users of the internet ’built websites that were little more than extensions of outdoor advertising’, it’s because we were still dithering around stuffing envelopes.

He goes on to say ’the jury’s still out on the marketing use of social networks’ – rather than the fact that this is the most exciting thing to happen in the last five years and we’re leading the change.

Direct mail won’t die; the older target audience is a growing segment and they’re people who still have some preference for the medium.

Anyone born after the early 90s likes it because it’s physical and tactile. And customer magazines will generally deliver higher levels of engagement than direct mail packs. When’s the last time you left a mail pack on your coffee table at home?

Direct marketing generally is not the thing that keeps MDs awake at night. Too much of our debate still revolves around techniques and regulation. Anyone outside of our discipline gets bored rigid by this kind of talk.

And it’s the big ad agencies who still command advertising dollars. The conversations they’re having with marketing directors are about engagement as well as preference and consideration.

What we’re not talking about.

Principally, creativity. Not enough of our debate is centred around creativity, and how we demonstrate the disproportionate effect of outstanding, brave, contagious creative work.

Rebranding – are we ready to jettison ’direct’ as a label and come up with something new?

As long as the short hand DM exists, we’ll never really shake off the ’shit-that-folds’ image. The most interesting thing about modern agencies is that they can no longer be defined by discipline.

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