A call to action for direct marketing

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The 2006 UK DMA Business to Business Gold Award Winning pack for the National Phobics Society.

Why are UK direct agencies so reluctant to embrace digital?

Talking to friends at other agencies, it seems most are merely playing lip service to digital. Most direct agencies have a ‘digital department’ these days (usually a sort of studio affair made up of a couple of flash designers) but few seem to have really welcomed online into their hearts. From what I’m hearing, digital is not included in briefs as a matter of course, and it’s hardly ever seen as being part of the thinking or the big idea at the beginning of a campaign.

But whether we like it or not, the internet is changing the way people interact with brands, products and services. Research from the Henley Centre for AOL* proves that the internet is playing an increasingly important role in changing people’s brand opinions and modifying their purchasing decisions. They found almost half of online consumers had changed brands as a result of using the internet – with ‘brand embracers’ even more likely to switch.

Clearly it can’t be ignored.

And yet the UK direct industry is lagging behind. I certainly got that impression when I was at the American DMA ECHO Awards last October, when it struck me how rounded many of the winning campaigns were. Emails, mirosites, virals and blogs all seemed to be a natural and important part of many of the best campaigns from around the world.

The UK DMA Awards, in contrast, struck me as going in the opposite direction. Just to check, I did a quick calculation and found that almost half – 48% – of the ECHO Award winners featured an integral online element. Just a third – 33% – of the UK DMA winners did (and I think I was being generous with some of my definitions of ‘integral’ for the UK winners).

Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m a direct practitioner by training and I think direct mail is a fantastically powerful medium. A great pack can physically demonstrate a proposition in a way that no other medium can. It can be engaging, compelling, involving and motivating.
But why stop there? Why see dm packs in isolation – especially when we know that customers will go online?

Why not combine the power of dm with the interaction of the internet? Together, they make a mighty partnership, as we’ve found out for clients like Microsoft. When you start seeing direct mail as part of the bigger picture, driving people online, the results can be phenomenal. Two recent, integrated campaigns we’ve created, with distinct dm, emails and a dedicated, relevant microsite have yielded response rates of 53% and 66%. Compare that to the (maybe) 10-20% you might expect from a warm mailing campaign.

And the point is that it was undoubtedly the combination of mediums that generated such impressive results. On their own, emails can often get ignored or missed in people’s overflowing in boxes. And a stand alone mailing or postcard might be engaging, but will it get people to respond there and then? Put them together though, and it seems something powerful can happen.

As part of an integrated campaign, with a big idea, they can complement each other beautifully. They give people the chance to interact with your brand in different ways and to deeper levels.

Why would anyone in advertising not want to be a part of that?

Of course change can be exciting or troubling, depending on your point of view. Fear is obviously playing a part in the blinkered approach of many traditional direct agencies. And arrogance, too; because fear often manifests itself as aggression or snobbishness. I suspect many direct Creative Directors are dismissive of digital because they don’t understand it and because it takes them away from their comfort zones.

But the danger is that dm in the UK will become a quaint irrelevance as the world moves on. An industry dominated by ‘chip shop’ packs, reminiscent of the bad old days of the D&AD dm awards, which haughtily dismissed ‘real’ dm packs in favour of photographers’ moving cards and wedding invitations. There certainly seemed to be a lot of ‘chip shop’ packs winning honours at last year’s DMA Awards – small run, high budget packs for charities and hairdressers. I’m not saying these packs were not good, but they surely don’t represent the future of our industry. If we can only produce our best work for niche markets, then we’re in trouble.

Clients are certainly embracing online advertising. And unless traditional direct agencies respond they’re going to get left behind.

Seeing their budgets being slashed, even above-the-line agencies are now waking up to the new digital world. But may be too late; we’re already seeing some digital agencies, who have impressed with their can-do attitude and their creativity, being given branding and above-the-line briefs by enlightened clients.

Integrated agencies are the future; those who can combine creativity with technique, whose ideas cross boundaries and reach the customer whatever the ‘touch point’. The direct marketing sector is ideally placed to take advantage. Direct practitioners already understand the idea of bringing brands to life; the importance of involvement and engagement; the secret of getting people to do something. Combine that with the expertise of online practitioners – writers, interaction designers, information architects, technical wizards – and I think you’ve got something special in the making.

Or does it all sound a little bit too exciting?

* Source: Henley Centre/AOL 2004.

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