Speaking Directly: The future is now for direct marketers

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.Back to...

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.

Back to the future.

Recently, I was struck (not quite dumb, but, certainly, dumbfounded) by profound, and, ostensibly, prophetic words uttered by the chief executive officer of a worldwide advertising agency in his speech about the future effects of the information highway on general advertising to the 34th World Advertising Congress, excerpted in a recent issue of Advertising Age.

To make his point, the ceo transported himself (hypothetically) ahead to 2004 and observed:

‘What interactive has done is effectively eliminate the timing gap between image advertising and tactical promotions. Interactive has allowed us to target or address the audience with absolute precision.’

I wonder what those direct marketers who have been profitably using direct response television, direct mail, telemarketing, catalogues, etc. for many years have been doing? Knitting?

Stepping back to 1994, he asserts that interactive ‘has the potential to transform the advertising industry.’

No disagreement there.

How will this tranformation take place? By making advertising answerable (through interactive technology) and, therefore, accountable.

Once agencies are called to accountability, I’m sure we will see a major transformation. I just hope they’re ready for it.

The revelations continued:

‘Over time, we’ll get to know who our audience is, and we will be able to address our communications to their needs and tastes. And we will know right then and there if our advertisements generate a response.’

The question is, What have all those traditional general advertising measurement tools been doing – the mall intercept interviews, focus groups and usage and attitude surveys?

And what about all those share-of-market reports, off-take numbers at retail and product turn cycles? What are they? Smoke and mirrors?

Now, here’s the really interesting part.

According to this leading light of the advertising industry, interactive ‘promises to be the salvation of the global advertising industry.

‘And, once we are able to accurately measure responses, I guarantee you that clients will increase their marketing communications budgets exponentially.’

Now, every experienced direct marketer knows one thing that does increase exponentially through the accurate measurement of response (plus measurement of other points of interest such as average order value, recency, seasonality, product purchase patterns, lifetime value, etc.) is the acumen to spend marketing budgets only where they will produce profitable returns.

And, the overriding measurement is just that – profitability. And, further, if direct marketers can help it at all, they don’t spend the square root of zero marketing dollars unless the expenditure can be proven viable through testing and analyzed accurately as to potential outcome.

Although our speaker, and, presumably, his general advertising colleagues, seem willing to wait until 2004 before all this kicks in, I believe there were some significant points made which should be taken seriously, sooner rather than later:

1. Timing. No longer will there be a gap between the action and the reaction.

The most graphic illustration I can think of can be seen at an order capture centre for direct response television – an ad runs on the air, and, almost like magic, the phones start to ring (or, worse, not ring.)

It’s as simple as that. There’s no place to hide if the ad doesn’t work.

2. Convergence – of ‘image advertising and tactical promotions.’

Devices such as response coupons, 1-800 numbers, fax backs, etc. (plus the necessary customer service support and fulfillment systems) are really all that is missing from most of the ads we see today in any media. Why wait until 2004?

3. Targetting. Or, ‘addressing the audience with absolute precision’ will be the ultimate fantasy fulfilled by interactive, according to our ceo friend. What a radical thought. To actually pinpoint the appropriate audience for your message instead of blasting away at random.

There’s an old saying: be careful what you ask for, you might actually get it, and, it goes without saying, have to live with it.

4. Know your audience. Who buys how much of what, where and why, or, why not.

Imagine the implications of being able to answer every one of those questions about every responder, right away, not waiting for a recall survey long after the advertisement.

5. Address communications to their (your audience) needs and tastes. Make your advertising customer-driven, versus creative-driven.

Winning creative awards will not be the yardstick of good creative anymore. Customer response will.

The above five points will certainly not be new news to most direct marketers.

These are simply the most basic rules of the game.

Perhaps the subliminal message we direct marketers can take away from our speaker’s remarks is that at least we are coming into our own.

Problem is, people like our venerable speaker make it all look like a brand new invention. But, then, we can always console ourselves that, sooner or later, like rag-top cars and platform shoes, everything old is new again.

Barbara Canning Brown, a 20-year veteran of the direct marketing industry, is a direct marketing consultant specializing in catalogues.