Some of my best friends are list brokers

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.Strategy also...

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.

Strategy also invites other news items or column submissions for this section. Enquiries should be directed to Mark Smyka, editor, (416) 408-2300.

With more and more marketers shifting chunks of advertising budgets into direct mail, it is going to be critical to have the best advice and assistance available.

When it comes to direct mail, conventional (a.k.a. uneducated) wisdom would say get a list, mail it and watch the response roll in.

Well, if you were born under the second star to the right that approach just might work for you.

However, for the rest of us who are not quite so lucky and have been plugging away in this direct marketing business for lo these many years, it is more complicated.

Fortunately, there are people out there who make it their business to provide expert assistance on dealing with mailing lists.

Although I have heard several uncomplimentary names for these people, in public places at least, they are called list brokers.

Among all the service providers who can help you to control costs, achieve response breakthroughs and increase profitability in your mailing efforts, I would hazard a guess that your list broker has the potential for having the most impact.

That is provided you are able to form a relationship with one who is interested in helping with your business and not just persuading you that more is better and leaving it at that. ‘More’ meaning the more names you mail, the more money the broker makes.

That approach might have worked in the ’80s (1880s, that is) but now, even if you are not too sure what you are talking about when it comes to all the ins and outs of the list business, you should still demand quality of service. And, get it. And, in the process, you will be able to learn a lot, too.

My purpose is not to rail against unscrupulous practices in the list business. If that was the case, brokers are probably the good guys. You should hear what list owners get up to sometimes.

I want to help you understand what the responsible list broker of the 1990s can and should do for you – from a mailer’s point of view.

Of course, the primary focus of your broker should be finding good lists and helping you to get a good deal for them. Pretty basic. And, what else?

Certainly their knowledge of industry trends will be of value, particularly if you are new to the mailing game. What lists are working well? What lists need updating?

A proactive approach to uncovering new markets and new sources of names is also useful.

I have often helped this along by sending brokers sample mailings I have received and asking whether the lists are available on the market, or, whether, if it is a u.s. mailing, there are Canadian names available.

Needless to say, the level of service you receive has a significant bearing on how happy and productive your relationship will be.

There is something extremely unhappy-making about running around on the day your mailing tape is due trying to round up the various lists you have ordered.

That is the broker’s job and delivering tapes on time is basic, basic.

Another basic is access to and information about all lists that are available and (in my book) even those that are not. This is where more is better. What else? Knowing your industry is a big bonus.

Now, granted, most brokers will be as versatile as they can possibly be. It is in their best interests after all. But, you are going to be better served by the one who knows your industry, reads that market, knows the responsiveness of individual lists in your market, can give you actionable advice and can help you adapt to any changes in the marketplace.

It will be a challenge for brokers to keep up as more non-traditional industries enter the mailing market. How much mailing went on in the automobile industry before Lexus?

Another thing your list broker can do to make your life a whole lot easier is to practice proven and accurate accounting procedures. Surprised I might think this is even worth mentioning?

Then, you have not spent countless hours trying to reconcile multiple invoices back to original list orders. Or worse yet, your last three mailings are lumped together on one invoice.

Taking this opportunity to paint a picture of the ideal broker/client relationship, I would add to the evaluation whether your broker is willing (or, better yet, volunteers) to help suggest test patterns, comment on your promotions and assist in analyzing and interpreting the response you get. Some of this depends on you.

You know when you get into bed with someone you have to be willing to share the covers (we will leave it at that) so you will both stay warm. Likewise, you have to share all your little business secrets.

Which makes it all the more important to have a solid, professional relationship with your broker founded on mutual trust fostered through an on-going, interactive exchange of ideas.

Sound like a lot to ask? You bet. But, like your mother said when the dessert went around – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Barbara Canning Brown, a 20-year veteran of the direct marketing industry, is a direct marketing consultant specializing in catalogues. She was named Direct Marketer of the Year in 1990.