Twas the year of direct – whatever you called it

When I assumed this gig in March, I sat down with friends for some congratulatory pints and to boast - just a little - about my newfound stature. I was brought back to reality suddenly with one very simple question - asked innocently enough: what the heck is direct marketing anyway?

When I assumed this gig in March, I sat down with friends for some congratulatory pints and to boast – just a little – about my newfound stature. I was brought back to reality suddenly with one very simple question – asked innocently enough: what the heck is direct marketing anyway?

‘Why it’s direct mail…and loyalty programs…telemarketing and e-mail marketing, of course,’ I sputtered. Then gaining momentum I rallied with a strong closer: ‘Any type of approach that comes to you personally – that speaks to you directly.’

I was reminded of that conversation recently, when Rob Morgan, president of Brann Worldwide, which recently purged the ‘direct’ from its company description and has begun to brand itself as a marketing/communications agency, contended that there remain multiple definitions out there – even within the industry itself.

Thankfully, I don’t think I was too off base – each of the tactics I listed certainly falls under the ‘direct’ moniker. But as the lines blur, the definition is becoming less and less clear. Some direct shops are turning out billboards and point-of-purchase collateral. Many now consider themselves authorities on interactive, or online marketing – a medium still in a state of emergence. All this in addition to what most would call their core competency, the tried and true, direct mail.

Earlier this year the Canadian Marketing Association completed its two-year transformation to focus on all forms of ‘information-driven marketing.’ At the time, we wrote it was the association’s belief that direct and traditional marketing disciplines were morphing together as marketing organizations adopt an increasingly integrated approach.

Take this year’s submissions to our first-ever Direct Agency of the Year competition. Agencies were asked to tender three of their year’s best campaigns, along with a year-in-review synopsis. Of the 24 different campaigns, 15 were traditional direct mail campaigns, five fell under the interactive banner, and the remainder covered off such things as direct response TV and radio, loyalty and CRM programs. Roughly half of the campaigns employed some form of traditional media, usually print or out-of-home.

So as direct marketers begin to embrace all things direct and more, is calling yourself a direct marketing shop exclusionary? And if so, what does it mean for agency structures and business models? Granted, a good portion of Canadian direct agencies have ties to national and/or global advertising networks, many of which initially established independent direct divisions or shops purely for financial and accountability reasons. Then what of the smaller independent shops? Will they keep their direct face on account of their heritage or brand experience, but continue to broaden their communications expertise in response to the market?

And most important of all, what does it mean for the clients who are demanding targeted customer communications that create sales, and ultimately provide value to their customers? As we move into a future in which companies are re-engineering to put the customer at the centre of the enterprise, I think the important thing is to deliver the parts that are most relevant to the clients – whatever parts those may be.

The ‘direct’ label doesn’t really matter. What clients want is the accountability, results and the elusive one-to-one relationship. And in many cases, technology is enabling that. We’ve got advanced data collection and mining facilities, increased personalization, new wireless capabilities, interactive TV, and the Net, which is providing new results like never before (new measurement standards are being adopted, for example, that center on ROI).

And who better than direct marketing professionals – who have the right blend of creative and traditional direct marketing smarts and leading-edge technological know-how – to fuse creative with technology to be able to reach anybody anywhere at any time? My sense is that direct marketers have never been better positioned to reside in the spotlight.

As the editor of Strategy put it, ‘it was the year of direct.’ The direct industry has experienced many challenges this year: privacy; the dot-bomb; the struggle for accountability; the confusion over CRM; the advent of anthrax-laced letters; and now a troubled economy. But it has also seen several positive milestones, like the advancement of database marketing; the ability to produce far more personalized and customized communications; and the success of e-mail marketing.

The coming year will hold as many obstacles – one being continuing to manage this integration process productively and profitably. Everyone seems to be distancing themselves from the label ‘direct.’ But in your hurry to drop it from your lexicon, don’t become a traditional agency. As per Labatt, it’s a ‘flawed model.’ Très cher.

Who knows, maybe ‘direct’ marketing will have a whole new life in 2002.

Cheers,

Bernadette Johnson

Editor, Strategy Direct+Interactive

bjohnson@brunico.com