DMA fights ‘junk mail’ jibes with PR drive

Reeling after successive blows from the media, public and politicians, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is attempting to climb off the canvas by launching a consumer charm offensive.

From swathes of consumers rubbishing all marketing mail as “junk”, to MPs calling for residents to display stickers on front doors warding off direct marketers, the sector has had its reputation dragged through the mud.

Fifteen months after direct mail was voted consumers’ biggest irritant by viewers of the BBC’s Brassed Off Britain show, the DMA is unveiling a public relations drive to convince people that direct marketing is an essential part of their lives.

The trade body has appointed PR agency Hotwire to identify a wide range of consumer groups – including schoolchildren – and develop “mini-campaigns” to target them with relevant, positive messages.

Mike Barnes, director of marketing and business development at the DMA, explains/ “Until now, our campaigns have been about industry promotion and consumer protection. But we’ve gone for a PR specialist to seek regular coverage for our activities. We want to tell consumers the facts about direct marketing.”

The DMA will focus on promoting core messages to show people how they engage with direct marketing, and change their views on the industry. A consumer portal is to be used to collate feedback, while a research group will also measure attitudes and awareness. Barnes says: “We need to start by informing people what direct marketing actually is – and that’s a big task.”

Dissenting voices have claimed for some time that the DMA has not done enough to portray the industry in the best light. But they seem to be giving qualified support to the PR drive.

Chris Gordon, chief executive of direct marketing agency network Rapp Collins Europe, says: “There is a desperate need to educate consumers about the direct marketing industry because a lot of the distrust that exists is down to a lack of understanding. Direct marketing is well-regulated and by and large responsible; we need to get that message across. But we must continually preach best practice to ensure that any messages aren’t undermined by negative experience.”

Chris Morris, managing director of behavioural data supplier Transactis, comments: “We’ve got to promote our positive messages more assertively. But the DMA also has to be more focused on stopping the few rogue traders that give the industry a bad name. They should be publicly named and shamed, in the same way as the Advertising Standards Authority works with above-the-line ads.”

Detractors of the DMA cite the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) as a better base for such a campaign. Proximity London director of client services Amanda Phillips is the new chairman of the IPA Direct Marketing Futures Group, which will provide “brain fuel” to look at broader horizons for direct marketing, including online and digital disciplines.

She says: “If we create engaging communications that respect, reward and are relevant to consumers, we won’t have an issue with raising direct marketing’s profile. With the DMA’s plan, I worry that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. However much you tell people it’s a good medium, it’s only through clever use that you’ll convince consumers.”

Phillips envisages no return to the Big Tent idea of trade body collaboration mooted five years ago. She says: “I’m happy for the DMA to concentrate on the here and now. We’ll concentrate on the future, and we’ll hopefully do a pretty good job between us.”

The DMA will be hoping the new campaign will help get the industry’s image off the ropes.