Digital? Direct? Or just Marketing?



(This post first appeared on the UK Institute of Direct Marketing Blog: http://www.theidm.com/blog/ .) 


Maggie. Dallas. Durannies. Lunch may have been for wimps, but there were plenty tucking in.

The 1980s. It was an exciting time. A combination of factors meant that Direct Marketing (a term which was coined around this time to include ‘direct mail marketing’ and ‘direct response advertising’) became ‘respectable’ and was even acknowledged for its creativity. In the UK, The Royal Mail sponsored awards and there was an annual beano in Montreux to celebrate ‘the best of direct’. Of course, the Ad agencies still tended to look down on these ‘snake-oil salesmen’; their clients, however, were attracted by the promise of accountability and measurability. Since you could count responses, it followed that you could determine with certainty whether it was working: “accountable advertising”. Hmmmm.

By the late 1980s, Sales Promotion too could lay claim to having become an industry (nay even a ‘profession’) in its own right. Indeed as proof of this, ‘pure sales promotion’ agencies sprang up. Moreover, increasing numbers of the exponents of DM and SP did not wear ‘shiny suits’ (unless they were silk) and indeed many of them wore something Italian like their above-the-line brethren. Suddenly, below-the-line was cool, a valid career choice and in those days of Maggie Thatcher, the Pet Shop Boys and Wall Street (1), brands like Triangle, FKB, KLP, WWAV, MSW, HLY and THB&W were launched and thrived. Red yuppie braces were twanged amidst an intoxicating atmospheric mix of creativity, excitement and avarice; “let’s make lots of money”, indeed.

As the ’90s dawned, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was doing clever things at CERN which exploited the US Military/ Academic network of computers called the Internet and would contribute to the launch of the ‘world wide web’. Bill Gates was busy putting a (beige) Windows PC on every desk (with Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office helpfully and intimately bundled) and Steve Jobs at Apple was doing something similar but including design. Suddenly there was a branch of marketing called ‘Interactive’ which embraced the ‘new media’. Most marketers expected it to remain the province of ‘geeks and losers’ and never to amount to much, but it did attract some attention. It was even mentioned in Campaign Magazine (albeit in the sarcastic tone of voice then normally reserved for sniggering about a list management error in a piece of Direct Mail mistakenly sent to the Diary Editor).

Gradually at first then rapidly the ‘world wide web’ took off and soon the ad industry took a lively interest- in taking the dotcoms’ money. Since these companies were intent on burning through as much VC dosh as humanly possible, the old-media New Biz Directors welcomed them with open arms and for a while it was a very happy marriage. Soon we had ad breaks stuffed with dotcoms and everything was lowercase, with THAT suffix. (aol.com, boo.com, lastminute.com, yahoo.com and err… CompuServe). The ad agencies smirked a little when these ‘new media’ guys used good old TV and posters to build their ‘online communities’ (although mainly they weren’t actually selling anything to those people or indeed building any revenue at all) but not too obviously since they really liked their VC money. They also watched the Nasdaq rising like a rocket and sometimes even accepted stock instead of cash for services rendered. After all, they observed how those rock-solid, long-established Wall Street and City of London investment banks were funding these new enterprises; they surely knew what they were doing. Then in 2000, the bubble burst.

But of course the internet itself wasn’t discredited; just unsound business practices and the rash investors who were seduced by those heady times. Sure, the emperor’s new clothes fell down like house of cards (or something) but the web kept growing, powering thorough Cyberspace on the Information Superhighway. By the mid-nineties, “Shall we have a website?” became a non-question. As broadband took off, consumers started spending more and more time online and the web became worthy of consideration not just as somewhere to sell, but as somewhere to advertise; as a medium where Target Audiences hung out. ‘New Media’ gave way to e-marketing, ‘Online’ and finally ‘Digital’. Agencies like AKQA, Dare, Glue London, Profero and LBi become the new hot shops. Suddenly it became apparent that the world had changed. Direct Marketing looked increasingly middle-aged and untrendy. In the 21st Century, nobody launches a ‘pure’ DM agency any more; it’s direct and digital or pure(play) digital. And as for Sales Promotion, that’s a term that belongs firmly in the era of free plastic daffodils, Green Shield Stamps and petrol station free glasses promotions; soooo last century.

Times change. Precision Marketing magazine has gone.Promotions and Incentives and Marketing Direct first went online, and were then ‘eaten’ by Brand Republic. The ISP is busy rebranding itself as The Institute of Promotional Marketing. The big ad agencies have done what they always do; restructure to meet changing client demands (as far as they can divine what these actually are); the latest trend is to fire the Head of Digital (“that position perpetuates unhelpful silos”) and instead to “put digital at the heart of everything they do”.

So where does that leave Direct Marketing? When I studied for the IDM Diploma in Direct Marketing, I learned that DM was
 an interactive system of marketing generating a measurable response/transaction at any location and dependent on data. That would certainly include some digital marketing (email marketing, affiliate marketing). Other digital marketing could be deemed to be awareness/ attitude changing (eg display, publisher websites) ie part of advertising. Social Media strategy might be viewed as a subset of PR (Online Reputation management, anybody?) and Mobile might just be a way of doing all of this while walking down the street (or on the Underground with an ‘always-on’ signal of course).

Today I find it amazing to recall that as a young account director I had numerous fights with art directors when I asked them to put coupons on press ads and 0800 phone numbers on posters. “NO- I won’t let you spoil the design- it’s an AWARENESS ad.” Times have certainly changed. Today all advertising is “brand response” (‘like’).

A few years ago I wrote a book in which I dared to predict that, one day soon, “Marketing communications will at last be viewed holistically, as a planned system of activities establishing, developing and controlling a set of relationships with consumers…all marketing will be direct marketing.


I suggest that day is here. Moreover, nothing is new forever, even DIGITAL. And of course, TV didn’t kill Radio or Cinema; and neither of these killed Press and Posters. As has always been the case, the new media are talking their places alongside the old. Meanwhile, communications and entertainment technology continues to advance at a bewildering pace. I found Avatar in 3D a memorable cinematic experience but apparently we ‘ain’t seen nothing yet’. Someone called me yesterday to sell me on the need to ‘get ready for 3DTV’. A mate of mine is really excited about the next generation iPads. The prospect of Super-Fast Broadband is my excuse for avoiding thinking about Blu-Ray. Now that all my music is on MP3, is it time to get rid of those CDs? Actually, now I have Spotify Premium, do I even need the MP3s? We are living in interesting times.

So when ‘Digital’ starts to sound a bit mainstream and ‘noughties’, what will be the next new kid on the block? Mobile? Virtual? Augmented? Something we haven’t heard of yet? The web (via desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile) offers marketing tools which ‘Direct’ practitioners have been craving since the great Drayton Bird himself was a whippersnapper. Masses of behavioural and purchase data, ample targeting and testing opportunities, instant response, instant results.

These days, we’re all in Direct Marketing. Yes: even, and indeed especially, the digerati. Tell that to the trendy Flash Designers in Shoreditch. (And by the way, Steve Jobs really hates Flash and HTML5 is on the way so they’d better get themselves on a training course: super-fast!).
2011-09-02T13:33:31+00:00 May 30th, 2010|Integration|10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Julian Clayton June 14, 2010 at 10:43 am - Reply

    Great post Mike BUT:

    We're only playing with words, as your headline seems to suggest you really believe. The magazine 'precision marketing' (RIP) was launched to capitalise on the DM boom and as Digital grew, it tried to stretch out into that space too. Why doesn't the IDM call itself the IDDM? The IPA claims that "it's all advertising anyway".

    As the BeeGees once said: "It's only words, but words are all we have…"

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