30 years of remarkable change

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Illustrated by Jason Schneider
Illustrated by Jason Schneider

Brands that used traditional direct in the late 1970s were sending direct offers with a strong call to action to entice consumers to pick up the phone or fill out a business reply card.

"Branding was largely an outbound exercise in the 20th century," says George Wiedemann, CEO of UMarketing, an integrated ad agency. "The fundamental difference in brands between 30 years ago and today is the difference of defining the brand in terms of outbound communications."

Wiedemann, who founded Grey Direct, has been a direct marketer for more than 30 years.

Wiedemann was director of client services at Wunderman in 1979. "It was so simple then. You needed to figure out what idea do you want to put into whose mind in the face of what competition," he says. "It was all about how you were going to use the outbound media. Often, you would just roadblock the three [TV] networks at 9 o'clock on a Tuesday," that is, commercial time on the major TV networks during primetime.

Steve Dapper, chairman and founder of integrated agency Hawkeye, also logged time at Wunderman back then. Dapper later went on to be CEO of Rapp Collins Worldwide.

"We were talking about ROI and whether media work 30 years ago," Dapper says.

Wunderman produced about 100 different commercials for Columbia House and Time-Life Books in three or four years. "We were always testing premiums, dayparts and pricing," he says. "We tested with and without Judy," the Time-Life operator, he continues, because "she tested well; people trusted her."

Dapper said the agency also came up with the idea of giving Sports Illustrated as a Christmas gift. "We had Dick Butkus as Santa Claus, and the first time we tried it, we sold 300,000 subscriptions," he says.

In-bound calling, data technology advances, personal computers and the Internet have had the greatest effect on the discipline.

"Technology has been the driver of change," says Ed Mallin, president, Services Group for direct marketer InfoGroup. "Database tools and technology have changed the face of direct marketing, making it more granular and immediate."

The ability to aggregate data and use sophisticated CRM systems, Mallin adds, have drastically impacted how marketers and service providers process and manage information. What used to take days and weeks "now gets done in a matter of hours," he says.

In the list and database industry specifically, the advent of cooperative databases has been another significant development for marketers. And the Internet, Mallin continues, "is a defining moment" in how companies sell products, and one that continues to change direct marketing.

The Web has come a long way. "In 1994, you would actually get press just for having a Web site," says Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Omnicom Digital, the digital agency unit of Omnicom. Nelson founded Organic, a digital agency, in 1993; it was acquired by Omnicom ten years later.

"Most of them were 'brochure-ware,'" he says. "We did a Web site for Volvo in 1994. There were models, options and an overview for why Volvo was a great car. It was pretty simple, rudimentary stuff."

Today, he says, his agency is "a lot better at conveying information and tailoring information to consumers."

The shopping experience has shifted particularly because of the Internet. As Nelson explains, "Formerly, you would see an ad for a computer in the pullout section of the Sunday New York Times, and then you might read about it in PC Magazine and look at various models and brands, and then you'd go to a local retailer like CompUSA and you'd buy it. But today, the whole process is online. People rely on research, blog comments, social media for product recommendations, and then they configure the computer online and purchase it online. The whole transaction which was completely analog ten years ago is completely digital today."

Publisher Boardroom Inc. has a direct mail heritage, but it too needed to adapt to an increasingly digital environment. In the past 30 years, Boardroom has mailed anywhere from 30 million to 120 million pieces of direct mail per year to promote its products, which focus on dispensing health advice from experts.

It currently has four print and two e-mail newsletters and compendium books. While it still mails a significant amount, Boardroom uses e-mail marketing to reach its database of 7 million customers, as well as long-form DRTV for its book products.

Brian Kurtz, EVP at Boardroom, says, "We had to be multichannel, so now we're doing direct mail, TV and e-mail."

Kurtz notes his products strive to build trust with customers, particularly at a time when there is a proliferation of information consumers can find online and off.

Finding the right customers and developing relationships is crucial for direct marketers. Jeremy Sanchez, co-founder of Global Strategies International, a search marketer owned by OgilvyOne Worldwide, said search has mostly been an afterthought supporting branding, but its strength is its ability to find relevant customers. That is why Sanchez is working with companies like Nestle and DuPont to use search as a way to understand consumers. He calls it "consumer intent modeling."

"We're turning search into a research tool," he says. "Every day, people are putting search phrases into Google."

Sanchez explains that the data is mined for semantics and linguistics which signal the user's intent. "It's starting to inform marketing and creative" and what CRM campaigns should look like, he says.

In the online environment, the sales funnel is completely different. Instead of a limited set of traditional advertising and direct marketing channels, Nelson said the aperture is wide, and marketers might include print, audio, video, database strategy, banner ads, paid search, e-mail, microsites, and social media in marketing campaigns.

"We're trying to figure out how all these work together," Nelson says.

Wiedemann agrees marketers and agencies are challenged with that task.

"We're trying to harmonize the traditional outbound media with the new inbound and interactive media," he says. "The real difference today is the shift in balance. The money is shifting. There's this sloshing sound as dollars come out of traditional media and flow into new media."

John Greco, president and CEO of the Direct Marketing Association, puts it this way: "Direct marketing must continuously explore new ground, while simultaneously continuing to maximize what's worked effectively." Dapper says direct marketers are well-positioned to create new opportunities in the digital realm, even if they don't have the answers yet.

"Digital is direct. We don't understand how to get the ROI out of [social media] yet, and we have to be careful of the brand when we jump into social networking so that we don't impose ourselves on the consumer," he says. "But direct marketers are good at relevance and they've always been testers. It's not something new."

Wiedemann agrees brands need to be careful not to scramble into new media for its own sake, but rather find ways to use targeting and measurement to make sure communications are relevant and accountable.

"No matter how far away from pure direct the expenditure of the budget gets, we're still trying to make it accountable and relate it back to response and sales," Wiedemann says. "It's all based on direct response principles."

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