Direct is not a technique - it’s an attitude

Updated: Apr 2

Direct marketing is back, I hear. I didn’t know it had ever gone away, but it's been unfashionable for a while, I agree. At least, with the supposed opinion-formers in our industry. Not so much with clients, who are more interested in what works for them. And DM does.

Direct has always been a bit of a Cinderella, in truth. Ad agencies in the past were both disdainful and perhaps a little afraid of it. I recall once being asked by a pair of ad agency creatives what we direct people would present in a pitch. Might it be spreadsheets?

A few weeks later, after working and winning a client together, one of them sent me a letter, asking if he could come and join us. He was excited by the idea of using many media, and being able to come up with ideas that were tangible, physical and could appeal to touch, smell, and taste rather than just sight and hearing. He was tired of writing endless TV scripts, most never to get made. ‘But please don’t tell my creative partner,’ he added.

Digital should have swept away all such prejudice, and given direct its day in the sun. It offered us better targeting, faster testing, and combined communication with the means of response, instantly. But instead it brought with it a cloud of new nonsense, new terminology, bamboozlement and obfuscation, plus a massive side-order of fraud.

It also drove prices down. Never mind the minuscule response rates, the media costs were also tiny. And why bother with all the hassle of printing when you could bang out millions of identikit emails or social media posts for fractions of the cost? Cheap, fast, good – you can only have two of them, as this yet again proves.

I’m exaggerating, of course. You can do exciting, engaging creative things now that you couldn’t before, and we and many other creative agencies make the most of the opportunities digital offers.

But it's also true that email and social media can flatten out brand identity, by forcing the creative expression of it into pre-ordained forms – which are determined by the media, or by the device you use to view them, not by the creative minds who came up with the brand communication ideas.

If there were creative minds involved at all, or ideas. In the dismal sea of email that greets you each morning, and which you sweep away with barely a glance, does it matter if a human or robot composed the plankton?

In truth, all forms of marketing generate this kind of sludge. Ad agencies are often sustained by work they would never put on their showreels, for carpet warehouses, payday loans and funeral plans and the like. And direct marketing got its bad name by following the gurus of formulae such as ‘the ten most powerful words to use in a headline’, or ‘use a PS to boost response’ and so on, and on.

If the revival of direct marketing means a return to such rules, it will not last.

I think what makes direct worth reviving is not the techniques it offers, but the attitude that drives it.

An ad agency boss once told me the goal of his work was ‘to make people think’. Mine, I replied, was to make them act. In his view, action came after a change in attitude. In mine, attitudes would change to fit actions already taken. So prompting action took precedence, and ads could help reinforce what direct marketing had already accomplished.

In short, our attitude in direct was always ‘do something.’ Get a response, make things happen, measure them, do better next time, and all of this while building the brand and delighting the customer.

You do this by using some of those direct techniques - things like understanding the customer, and knowing how to test – but more important than that is setting out with ‘do something’ in mind.

Creative ideas in direct marketing are there to make things happen. Usually, to sell, to keep customers buying, and encourage them to tell others about it. Or as we put it, ‘to do something they’ve never done before, and keep doing it while telling all their friends.’

You can talk all you like about brand experiences, content, engagement, or even, heaven help you, humaning, but it won’t save you.

The direct attitude might – it’s not about media – it works in all of them – it’s not about rules and formulae, and it’s not about spreadsheets, though it can fill them up with big fat ROIs.

It’s about action. If ever we needed that attitude, it’s now.

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