Web Reaffirms Role of List Brokers

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Always the advocate of extraordinary customer service, I was inspired this summer by a dinner at a famous French restaurant in Manhattan.


What an experience. Besides the four-star food, which many count among the country's finest, its wait staff was world-class.


Classical French cuisine is an ageless elixir that soothes the senses. As much a treat for the eyes as for the nose and palate, the table service is notoriously complex. Serving it properly not only demands an in-depth understanding of etiquette, recipes and preparation techniques - complete with the correct French terminology - it also requires timing and coordination that flow like clockwork.


In such a gracious setting we were glad to tip the dining room staff generously. Great service deserves to be recognized and rewarded - with a tip of 20 percent or more.


It's a proven system that works efficiently. And everyone wins. Superior service providers are attracted to these finer restaurants by the promise of larger tips. It is by this merit system that the nation's leading restaurateurs are able to tap a self-sustaining pool of seasoned staffers.


It makes me think about the list business. In a shifting economy in which list brokers are required to function as business consultants who understand both traditional direct mail and Web-based marketing, we are seeing increasing pressure to reduce commissions.


When brokers command a typical 20 percent commission for their exemplary service, what is the logic behind reducing it now?


Would you punish a skilled waiter in a similar situation, even when the service you received was impeccable?


As list brokers' roles grow increasingly complex with the advent of e-mail lists and cross-channel strategies, the commissions seem to be shrinking. My concern is that while list brokerage will demand higher-functioning professionals to fill these roles, we may find it increasingly difficult to attract top-flight talent to the field.


As we enter a new era in direct marketing, brokers should not be asked to discount. As the editor of a leading trade publication recently wrote, "Commissions should be inviolable."


Ordering a list over the Internet is one thing. But a significant amount of work must take place behind the scenes for a marketing initiative to be successful.


The service aspect relies on both a traditional knowledge base and an ever-evolving appreciation of today's electronic techniques that must be mixed and matched properly for a balanced campaign.


That's just the beginning. The promise of real-time interaction on the Web is compressing turnaround requirements. Today's customers want what they want - and they want it now.


E-mail lists are not the fast food of direct marketing. Before a list can be delivered, brokers must adhere to a painstaking series of details.


First and foremost, people still need to be involved at all levels of the list brokerage and campaign management process. No amount of technology can replace the professional experience and personal guidance of a proficient broker/consultant.


This experience is particularly significant given the increasingly complex nature of today's direct marketing initiatives.


Where the typical mail campaign of years past was driven primarily by postal addresses, today's campaigns are typically a mix of data drawn from a variety of sources. Today's campaigns also cross a variety of media that include traditional and electronic channels as well as Web sites and brick-and-mortar storefronts.


Add elements of market globalization to this mix, and it also becomes important to include cross-border initiatives in campaigns in ways that just a few years earlier would have been unmanageable and cost-prohibitive.


Given an expertise in these emerging areas, brokers must process list orders in ways that require greater levels of technological savvy and marketing prowess.


At the operational end, the ability to do online counts, for example, means that brokers must be versed in a variety of systems used by different service bureaus.


And new technology continues to emerge at a frenzied pace. Today we can do online counts. Soon it will be possible to do online merge/purge.


Technology aside, however, the process will remain time-consuming and labor- intensive. And it will require quality human interaction.


Along with routine and emerging list processing functions, there remain the critical responsibilities to do credit checks and manage approval processes with the timely generation of sample pieces - electronic or otherwise.


The broker's role is becoming more and more important to managing and integrating all these elements.


And while mailers may see automation as a way to reduce costs, they face the increasing risk of running campaigns that ultimately cost more if they squeeze the broker - with the existing commission structure - out of the equation.


In these changing times, we are the experienced players. We bridge the old and the new - the postal and the electronic. We focus on the details and the big picture that mailers need to succeed.


We are not the best thing since French bread. But we're not exactly chopped liver, either.


Leland Kroll is president of Kroll Direct Marketing brokerage and list management services, Compiled Solutions and Kroll International Marketing, Plainsboro, NJ.
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