Direct Marketing ‘Discovered,’ at Last

After years of being the poor relative to brand advertising, our direct discipline has finally been discovered by the big brand purveyors — all of those Mad Men who traditionally looked down their noses at any marketing efforts that demanded some form of response and were driven more by results than ego-polishing.

Perhaps we should all now breathe a welcome sigh of relief.

After years of being the poor relative to brand advertising, our direct discipline has finally been discovered by the big brand purveyors — all of those Mad Men who traditionally looked down their noses at any marketing efforts that demanded some form of response and were driven more by results than ego-polishing.

MediaPost’s’ editor Joe Mandese recently wrote an article with the intriguing, if slightly confusing title, “Excuse Me For Being Direct, But So Will You.”

“The most disruptive challenge to conventional media-based, brand-building advertising happened during the earliest days of Internet advertising, when agencies and brand marketers failed to define emerging digital platforms like the Internet — and ultimately, mobile — as a branding medium.

“Instead, direct-response marketers embraced the medium because of its real-time immediacy, access to data to track and ability to modify conversions and sales on-the-fly, and pure ROI efficiency.

“According to some experts, that trend is about to accelerate — as conventional brand marketers throw in the towel altogether and begin leveraging digital media to become direct sellers themselves.”

Conventional brand marketers throwing in the towel … becoming direct sellers themselves: That’s big news for those of us who have spent the better part of our careers trying to explain to those brand giants (and capturing some of all that money they seem to throw around) that while metrics like ‘reach’ and ‘frequency’ certainly have their value, nothing beats affordably capturing the business of new and returning customers and knowing their ROMI, the return on the marketing investment in each one of them. It is surprising they didn’t discover it years ago.

That expression “branding medium” suggests that those marketing initiatives which include a call to action and urge the consumer to “act now” do little or nothing to enhance the brand and often drive general agency art directors berserk, because those calls to action get in the way of their elegant designs.

Some years ago, before there was any significant “subscription” advertising in Brazil, where I now live, the small group who controlled newsstand distribution forbid publishers from advertising for subscriptions on pain of having their publications banned from the newsstands. They reasoned that this advertising would lure magazine buyers away. But when presented with the indisputable fact that offering subscriptions would allow a much greater advertising spend and in the best of all possible worlds, only 5 to 7 percent of the people who saw an ad would reply, while the rest would be positively exposed to the brand and many would purchase at the newsstand, they gave the publishers the go-ahead. Brand and subscription have gone hand-in-hand ever since, to their mutual benefit.

Quoting Publicis Groupe Chief Growth Officer, Rishad Tobaccowala on the reason for the “direct” discovery, Mandese wrote:

“… conventional brand-building media models aren’t working as well as they used to. It’s because big brands are realizing that the only way to have a relationship with and understand their consumers, is to cut out the middlemen and have a relationship with them directly.”

Wow! That’s a quantum leap from the historic paradigm that “direc”’ was, if not a strategy of last resort, well down the list of priorities. Working in big general agencies, how many of us have been asked to prepare 30-minute presentations to be an integral part of the same pitch with the agency’s brand campaign, only to see the time for it reduced to 20 and then 10 minutes or even — as time ran out — being asked to mention the “direct” recommendation while taking the client to the elevator?

Two important factors have principally changed the game:

  1. The emergence of vast amounts of data, the machines to process it and the ability of marketers to creatively use this data for their marketing initiatives;
  2. The growing understanding of CRM, the essential proactive relationship between brand and known customer.

Of course this hasn’t happened overnight. Data-driven marketing gurus have been planting and nourishing these seeds for decades and, as a result, the industry has grown and grown. Lester Wunderman said famously: “Data is an expense. Knowledge is a bargain.” As knowledge has grown and become more widely accessible, brand marketers are being increasingly drawn to it.

Poor relatives no more, “direct” practitioners have finally been “discovered” and have emerged from the shadows.

It feels great in the sunlight.