When it comes to direct mail, think inside the box

Media neutrality and integration have been the vogue for some time, so why is direct mail still planned separately? James Northway makes a case for change

More than &£2bn was spent on direct mail in the UK last year, making it the third-largest advertising medium by spend, with 13 per cent of the market. However, despite direct mail being one of the few media still showing growth, within media agencies it is rarely given equal weight with other media. In fact, it is rarely viewed as a “medium” at all, as media agencies probably plan less than one per cent of all direct mail.

Traditionally, direct mail planning has been left to below-the-line agencies. Because of the specialist knowledge required, it has always been considered rather a stretch for media agencies’ skills. For the past ten years at least, the majority of direct mail has been treated in isolation, with a separate targeting and planning brief and a separate agency. On the client side, it is often handled by people who are not involved in above-the-line activity.

“Media neutrality” has stimulated a great deal of debate, but it is generally accepted as common sense that any decent media agency must have access and expertise across all media. So why should direct mail be the exception?

Many people do not realise that modern media agencies are well-placed to plan and evaluate direct mail. From a planning perspective, they are comfortable in dealing with extremely detailed and numeric plans – they have been doing it for years with TV and are experienced in evaluating fully the merits of the communications being planned.

Just as importantly, media agencies are becoming increasingly involved with clients at a strategic level, especially when it comes to the critical task of allocating budgets across media. No one is better placed to quickly implement and adjust the flow of investment across different media within different campaigns than the media agency.

And the benefits of using a media agency to plan direct mail don’t end at budget allocation. Having a single team controlling all through-the-line media planning simplifies the process and leads to better-integrated campaigns. It also nurtures media neutrality – a good media agency is not emotionally attached to any particular medium. Finally, using a single agency ensures consistent, unbiased evaluation across all channels of communication.

The problem is that most media agencies lack people with direct mail expertise. More than this, the agency also needs experience in data, client databases and specialist activities such as customer relationship management. Once these skills have been bedded-in and integrated, however, the agency can greatly improve its offering to clients.

Moving direct mail planning is clearly not a course of action that will suit all clients and like any change it requires vision and effort. However, several clients with significant integrated budgets have recently made the change. If this trend continues, as I believe it will, we may soon see 15 per cent, rather than one per cent, of direct mail being planned through media agencies. This would represent a fundamental shift in the advertising market – a shift that will greatly benefit clients.

James Northway is data planning director at Carat


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