P.O.V. – Interview with…a Canadian direct marketing evangelist

It's been a heck of a summer for Yves Blain, VP of strategic development at Montreal-based FCB Direct.
He kicked off the season by being named Direct Marketing Personality of the Year by the Quebec Direct Marketing and Customer Relationship Association, and served as one of the jurors in the first-ever Cannes Lions Direct.

It’s been a heck of a summer for Yves Blain, VP of strategic development at Montreal-based FCB Direct.

He kicked off the season by being named Direct Marketing Personality of the Year by the Quebec Direct Marketing and Customer Relationship Association, and served as one of the jurors in the first-ever Cannes Lions Direct.

An admitted direct marketing (DM) evangelist, Blain was honoured for his contribution to and achievements in the DM industry. Following a stint in publishing roughly 20 years ago, Blain joined the Wunderman ranks before settling at FCB Direct where he currently serves a roster of clients such as Air Canada, CIBC, Primus long distance and Fido wireless services.

The Cannes experience invoked several wide-eyed, wakeful nights of contemplation, he says, and fueled several new annotations to his direct marketing creed – observations that Canadian marketers ought to take heed of, he says.

What do you believe earned you the title of Quebec direct marketing personality of the year?

Primarily lack of competition! In all seriousness, I’ve been around for 20 years, which is a long time if you’re a direct marketing animal – it’s like dog years. I was involved early on as one of the founding members of the Quebec chapter of the Canadian Marketing Association, and I’ve been pretty active on that scene ever since – not always at the forefront, but teaching courses, doing a lot of missionary work and talking to thousands of companies about how they could use direct marketing to enhance their marketing mix. I think it’s a matter of being very visible and active within the community, and I think that eventually gets you these kinds of accolades. And in all fairness, I’m one of the most visible components of an incredible shop. FCB Montreal is a bit of an anomaly being a large direct marketing agency in the Quebec marketplace, with an Ontario presence. I represent the sum of our collective resources and qualities.

After all these years of missionary work, do companies today get it [direct marketing]?

There used to be a time when I would go to industry functions, and I’d always be the one sitting next to the kitchen door or the washroom. Companies are realizing how much they need it – from every area of

business, people are realizing the value of nurturing customer relationships. Customer churn, for example, is becoming a big issue, especially for all four wireless carriers. And it’s the financial markets telling them, ‘Look, do something because this is not an acceptable level of churn.’ So the job of missionary in this business has become altogether a lot easier as consumers have helped us get the message across loud and clear.

It’s one contact at a time. What I’ve found is that you hit very few home runs, but you hit a lot of singles. Over the course of the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve met with a ton of small and large companies, many of which had no idea what to do, where to start. So there’s a lot of one-on-one education about direct tactics and principles. At some point it means something.

So yes, companies are much more aware and interested and open about it. But we’re still in the early stages of direct marketing integration. It’s not business as usual yet.

Having said that, what are the foremost trends or challenges in the direct marketing industry?

Integration is certainly a challenge – there is a role for general advertising to carry one message but that message isn’t necessarily identical when you talk one-on-one with a consumer. It’s not necessarily taking your billboard, folding it in 20 and throwing it in an envelope. That wouldn’t do it – you have to be sensitive to the differences required by different touchpoints.

A good example of that is when we rebranded Air Canada a few years back. The brand promise, ‘You’re an individual, not a seat number,’ is a message you could convey through mass advertising. But when you’re down to one-on-one, you don’t need to say that to that extreme – just the fact that you’re communicating with them one-on-one with relevant information is a demonstration of that. So you want to be consistent with your brand promise but make sure you adapt it to the channel or method of marketing you are using.

And as always, everything that surrounds data – in terms of how we can use and absorb it more intelligently, and manage it properly to help us be more relevant – is a big challenge.

Technology has come to bear and made it a little easier, but there’s also the other extreme of data overflow – where there’s too much and you lose perspective as to what your business is. You have to find the middle ground. And now, that’s compounded with the whole privacy legislation issue, which as a consumer, I think is the right thing to do to a certain extent, but as a marketer I’m threatened.

How do you envision the future of direct marketing?

It’s interesting. It’s still a young business and it’s still defining itself, but it’s got a great future. It’s not a one-size-fits-all business. Direct isn’t the answer to everything, but it does a few things very well, and we’ve yet to understand the boundaries and the applications of DM. That was very much one of the Cannes challenges. As a first-year jury, we had to determine: What is direct marketing? And secondly, what is great direct marketing, and how great does it need to be to make it?

It was interesting to see the variety of applications of DM in Europe, and other parts of the world, that we haven’t yet seen in Canada, but also in North America.

For example, they launched the Mini in Europe with a heavy, heavy DM launch: they must have thrown half, if not more, of their budget to DM. They had a real true commitment to making that launch happen through DM campaigns. It was a very convoluted program – perhaps too much so for my own liking – but it was a natural. That’s the way to do it.

The chairman of Cannes always says that DM spending equals more than half of communications budgets – I think he’s taking very much a European view of that [because it's not like that here yet] but the variety of applications and the variety of industries using DM was a very striking difference. And there are many areas that people here should dare to do.

We’re behind still – not in terms of the quality of the work that’s being done because Canadian work would compete very well in the Cannes world (in spite of our shockingly low participation this year), but the variety of applications and industries should be a big area for growth.

What did you identify a ‘great’ direct marketing at Cannes?

There were two schools in Cannes in the Lions Direct among the entries and among the jurors, many of whom were very senior practitioners. Some of us came from a traditional direct background – brought up on the publishing/credit card marketing/direct response business. That’s my upbringing, starting in the Book-of-the-Month Club and eventually applying traditional DM to a varied base of clients.

The other camp has landed in the direct marketing world a little bit out of nowhere and found themselves doing direct out of necessity or natural evolution – they’re the new kids on the block and they don’t necessarily know the rules but they bring a certain freshness of thinking, which is great.

So there was a lot of debate among the jury as to what constitutes great direct marketing. Sometimes it was a great communication effort, but there was no notion of either dialogue or measurement of interaction of any sort.

There was a campaign by a Tuscany tourism office, for example, which mailed a series of beautiful communication pieces to journalists and in turn got a lot of press. But the question is, was that a great PR campaign that should be judged by PR experts (which to me was the case)? Or, was it a direct marketing campaign even though there was no measurements of direct response per se?

We had dozens of those discussions trying to understand where something belonged, especially in the DRTV category. There’s a fine line – just because you throw a URL at the end of a commercial, doesn’t make that a drive-to-Web direct response commercial.

That was the challenging part of the jury’s job, to really determine first, what is the business? And I don’t think we resolved it. But we still managed to identify great ideas and greatness from a strategic, execution or creative standpoint, which is the purpose of Cannes, I guess. (Strategy, creativity and execution were 30% each and 10% was results.)

Not everyone interprets those criteria the same way.

It turned out to be pretty intense – a lot more so than I would have thought, and triggering a lot more soul- searching, at least for me. Cannes recognizes great ideas in the general environment of direct marketing. That’s a somewhat different view of the business.

Any commentary on the winning campaign(s)?

The Grand Prix was a campaign from the U.K. – The U.K. equivalent of the CAA. It was the fourth effort of a renewal campaign that featured your name and address on one side of a piece of cardboard. The message basically said that since you haven’t renewed your insurance, ‘Here is the best way we can think of to help at this point.’

On the other side of the cardboard, was your city, written in felt pen – recognizing that if your car was to break down on the roadside, you could use that to hitchhike home – very smart, clever way to demonstrate a product benefit. There were a few campaigns like that I wished I had done myself.

How was your overall Cannes experience? Was there substantial direct marketing representation given that it was the first year?

I got there asking myself whether it was a mere effort from the organizers to generate more revenues as the direct entries represented about 15% of total entries at a premium cost (more expensive than general entries). Just at a time when the general entries decreased by about 15%!

The more cynical observer might say it was a nice little financial coup and that these people don’t really care about direct. The other way to look at it is that people are finally realizing that direct plays a role in the communication mix, which should be recognized and integrated with what’s going on at Cannes.

I saw extreme differences of attitude – some people had a genuine interest and demonstrated that; and I also had journalists turn their back on me when they found out I was a direct marketing juror, out of total lack of interest. That’s the reality – I didn’t get offended. They also changed the date so that the two festivals would co-exist, instead of Lions Direct following the other – and I suspect that also had to do with a lack of direct participants, and that it would have looked very anti-climactic if it had followed the Cannes main event.

It was a very good effort, but frankly I could hardly comment on the quality of the Cannes Lions Direct Festival because I was locked up in the jury room from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at night. I could have been on Mars, I would have been just as disconnected. But I saw all the evening stuff that goes on – the talking and exchanging and meeting – which is the most amazing part of it.

I would recommend that everyone go just to be exposed to so much great work and thinking and people. That makes the week worth it.