One Monday afternoon in February, about 50 field marketers were left sweating in a small room at the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) new offices in London’s Margaret Street, waiting for the heating to be fixed.
They were attending the Field Marketing Council’s (FMC) inaugural open meeting as part of the DMA, but for many this was not the first time they had been left hot under the collar in recent months.
Frustration over just why potential clients, other marketers and the press have trouble understanding that field marketing agencies (FMAs) can offer more than simple sampling and putting stock on retailers’ shelves has caused temperatures to rise at numerous behind-closed-doors FMC meetings.
Executives arriving for the Field Marketing: The Past, The Present and The Future event were keen to discuss what should be done to tackle the apparent lack of awareness, yet they left accepting that the industry itself must take much of the blame for the high level of misunderstanding.
The failure of agencies to persuade existing clients to put their names to successful case studies was cited as a major stumbling block to winning new business. The debate also focused on how unreliable sales figures supplied for industry league tables were harming the sector’s credibility by making it difficult to define the market’s true value.
Another open meeting is planned later this year, and the impressive turnout for the initial event emphasises the willingness among FMAs to work together to promote all their activities – such as sales, auditing, mystery shopping and roadshows – and to improve standards.
Headcount Worldwide Field Marketing managing director Mike Garnham says: “Maybe the term field marketing is too diverse and confusing for people. Headcount lists about 20 activities on its website, but 80 per cent of what it does is about generating sales. If it shouted louder about this, perhaps it would receive a more positive response from other sectors that should be using field marketing.”
Like its rivals, Headcount is hopeful that with the FMC installed as one of the DMA’s 16 councils and tough-talking chairwoman Alison Williams secured firmly on the DMA board, the profile of the industry, and consequently individual businesses, will see a significant boost.
Since the FMC replaced the Field Marketing Association three years ago, the number of companies joining the trade body has risen from ten to 26. All but one of the sector’s top 20 companies are members, with only Aspen Field Marketing conspicuous by its absence from the FMC and the recent meeting, although its directors were invited.
This year, the DMA introduced the promotional strapline “Together we’re better”, but DMA chief operating officer James Kelly accepts there were gaps in the association’s portfolio because most field marketing activities were not covered by the DMA’s other 15 councils.
“It became apparent there should be a closer link, because all councils need to be educated about field marketing and we are acting as a platform to explain the work of the FMC and its members,” he says.
The DMA has produced a Users Guide to Field Marketing, provided FMC members with a general presentation they can use when pitching for new business and added a field marketing category to its high-profile awards. Field marketers can also access the association’s public relations and legal teams and the DMA has recently appointed a specialist in employment law to address a growing area of concern among the FMC membership.
FMC chairwoman Alison Williams says the initial response from other DMA councils to the FMC’s message has been “varied”. An FMC working party, chaired by Zoo People managing director Martin Kiddle and supported by other leading industry players, such as Sure Field Marketing’s head Richard Finch and CPM’s senior client services director Nick Conway, has spent months talking to other DMA members and Kiddle describes the lack of awareness of field marketing as “quite frightening”.
Taking time out
“Like many others I have to take time out from my own business to try to develop the limited understanding that exists, but I do it because I see the mediumand long-term benefit to Zoo People of having a strong trade body that represents everyone’s interests,” says Kiddle.
Finch, who says the key objective of the FMC must be to raise standards across the industry, echoes this view. “Clients need to be able to differentiate between members and non-members and we all have to give something back. We can’t just put the DMA logo on our letterhead and expect things to happen,” he says.
The director of field marketing at Carlson Marketing Group, Brona Connolly, sits on another FMC working party, which tries to raise awareness through the marketing industry’s educational vehicles such as the Institute of Sales Promotions and The Marketing Society. The next step is to take the FMC on the road and visit universities.
“One problem is that field marketing briefs devised by clients tend to be put together by junior marketers; often they do not understand the discipline and underestimate the value that can be achieved. This is an issue the FMC must tackle for the benefit of its members,” says Connolly.
Carlson provides clients with a range of marketing disciplines and as part of its service conducts a mapping exercise that analyses the strengths and weaknesses in the supply chain. It then recommends the most appropriate action to take, which increasingly means suggesting some form of field marketing.
Connolly says: “Our positioning statement is that relationships drive business and our analysis might show, for instance, that to improve the relationship between clients, suppliers and consumers a big direct marketing spend is not the right option. Clients would get a higher return on investment by sending in a salesforce. There will be times when field marketing is not the best choice, but clients need to understand when it is appropriate.”
Reaping the rewards
There is a view that, if FMAs are to reap maximum benefit from the link between the FMC and the DMA, the FMC needs to demonstrate it has matured as a trade organisation.
For instance, its membership has been guilty of trying to hype the industry’s success by claiming a growth rate that cannot be supported with reliable statistics. Claims that the industry is growing by more than 20 per cent a year and is worth about £400m are now questioned by the same FMC members that have been championing these figures for the past two years. The irony is that talk of such success has tempted new specialist and multi-disciplined agency entrants into the market in the meantime. These are now threatening the sales prospects of the FMC companies that talked up the market so much.
Ellert Field Marketing managing director Kathryn Smith says the FMC needs to introduce more stringent barriers to entry to reassure clients and ensure that companies keen to join can actually deliver the services they claim they can.
At the moment, any FMA that has been trading for two years can apply for membership. All applicants are visited by a DMA and an FMC member, asked to fill in a questionnaire and to sign up to the DMA’s codes of conduct and best-practice guidelines. Three agencies have failed to meet the criteria but once a company is accepted by the FMC the business is never checked again. Any complaints against members are dealt with by the DMA.
Smith says: “Field marketing has reached a point where it needs to show clients it is a mature industry. The FMC must decide what it means when it says it is promoting best practice, because this can mean different things to different people. Major clients such as Procter & Gamble have their own strict checking procedures and need to have total confidence in their suppliers, so will want to use an FMC member.”
Whatever the FMC achieves for its members over the next few months, it is unlikely to be enough to convince its most noticeable absentee, Aspen Field Marketing, to join. Joint managing director Gary MacManus says he has no intention of signing up because he can see no visible benefit to his company from being an FMC member.
He says: “We have asked our clients if it would make any difference to them and they are more concerned that Aspen’s full-time staff develop either within our company or their organisation. Aspen is a contract sales agency winning business from FMC members and it can get the broader message about the benefits of field marketing over to clients without having to do it under the umbrella of a trade body.”
However, MacManus will never say never, and claims he would be prepared to sit around a table with active FMC personnel to discuss his concerns about membership criteria and the DMA’s definition of field marketing. He says: “If I am invited to the next open meeting, I will be glad to put my argument to FMC members face to face.”
If he receives – and accepts – an invitation his views are likely to be challenged by his peers, who see the FMC and its link with the DMA as crucial to expanding the industry for everyone, not just individual players. Whether DMA members or not, it seems the battle to raise awareness of field marketing is only just warming up.