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Google may rule the world, but is its direct mail a banana republic?

Direct mail, as is so often the case with the established and the tried-and-true, continues to get a bad rap for being tired, uncreative and yesterday’s news.

Try telling that to Hearst Magazines president Michael Clinton, who recently told us that not only is print his company’s core business, it remains an integral part of its direct marketing strategy, with an estimated 70 million pieces of direct mail slated to go out in 2012 – and that’s only for new customer solicitations.

As Brian Fetherstonhaugh, chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne Worldwide, points out in a column in Direct Marketing News this month, $56 billion is spent on direct mail in the U.S. while less than $40 billion is spent on search, display, email and mobile advertising combined. OgilvyOne’s top 20 clients all use direct mail in their marketing mix, he notes.

Even the biggest players in the digital sphere understand the power of print. This month, Google executed a direct mail promotion in England inviting the recipient to try out Google AdWords and including an incentive worth £75 for executing a campaign using the platform. It’s also made use of direct mail offers in other markets, including the U.S.

Still, one agency dude who got the U.K. mailer couldn’t have been less impressed if somebody had sent him a day-old scone.

Taking to the marketing and media news site The Drum, Simon Robinson, integrated creative director for agency Kitcatt Nohr Digitas, wrote an opinion piece ridiculing Google’s mailer for failing to elicit that all-important “wow” factor. He writes that “there is something fundamentally amazing about Google using the least fashionable of all marketing media to promote itself,” arguing that while the mailer possesses many hallmarks of a worthy direct campaign – it’s targeted, it’s personalized, it’s designed to drive a response – “it just isn’t creative.”

Which brings us back to that age-old question of direct marketing: Is it the creative or the deal that drives response?

In a recent conversation, Tim Suther, CMO of marketing services firm Acxiom Corp., had plenty to say about the power of direct mail as both a creative medium and an awareness and response vehicle – and on a global scale.

“As much grief as direct mail sometimes gets in the U.S., in emerging geographies it works quite well. It has a richness in creative you cannot get in Internet advertising and it does not have the expense of TV,” he explains. “If your goal is awareness and having something that is a little durable in its call-to-action, mail is an effective technique.”

Let’s face it. While its image may be less than sexy, direct mail is no different than any other marketing vehicle: Some creatives get it right, while others lack inspiration, or the power to inspire. And size doesn’t necessarily matter. As no less than Google illustrates, sometimes the bigger they come, the harder they fail.

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