Fertilizer company Potash Corp. turned to its agency Gyro to help it sell more product to farmers.
“Every year, a farmer has the opportunity to decide how much of their budget is spent on sexy gear such as tractors and how much they get to invest in fertilizer,” explains Patrick O’Hara, Gyro chief strategy officer. “Our client said, ‘Can you help us sell more potash?’”
The obvious path, O’Hara notes, is to create an ad campaign that you mail directly to the list of farmers that says, “Dear farmer — buy potash so your crops will grow.”
But O’Hara had heard about this guy called Dr. Dirt, an agronomist, who talked to farmers about getting the most out of their soil. The Gyro team pondered: “What if we could gamify Dr. Dirt?”
So they created digital calculators called Ekonomics — K for potassium in the fertilizer — and created a community site that allowed farmers to go out in their field and play with the prices of futures and talk to fellow farmers.
“It was getting them to figure out the benefits of putting potash on the field,” O’Hara explains. “Dr. Dirt was the inspiration and figured out how to do it right.”
O’Hara adds this is the essence of direct marketing.
“Where the customer and the business interact,” he explains.
Providing interactive tools and marketing campaigns that people can tailor to their unique interests is a core element of today’s marketing landscape. But is it direct marketing? And does that term help or hurt an agency looking to bolster its business in a world of shiny new toys? We asked a number of agency leaders about the rise and fall of the phrase direct marketing.
What does it really mean?
“Direct marketing connotes a different thing if you grew up in direct marketing versus if you didn’t,” explains Jessie Kernan, EVP applied data and strategy at RAPP. “Those who have grown up in the industry know it is the focus on individual consumers and using data effectively to know who they are and what they may want.
“For the rest of the world, it means direct mail and, if they’re generous, email and direct TV response,” Kernan adds.
“Do we use direct marketing often in our agency brochure? Probably not,” says O’Hara. “In our case, we’re a specialist agency; we deal in B2B clients. That’s an interesting term, too — we have said in the past that B2B is dead, and we’re reinventing it.”
The agencies that spoke to DMN asserted the value of even the most traditional means of direct marketing, including mail and email. But they also talked about how the term could be limiting to clients and the next generation of marketers.
“The world still revolves around the discipline of direct marketing, but the term itself is still a little old and crusty,” Kernan says. “I would not say I’ve heard the term direct marketing to describe our work — internally at least — for the past seven years.”
According to Google News, the term is trending downward. Even the organization formerly known as the Direct Marketers Association has dropped the name for DMA. The branding is front and center on the site, and there is barely a mention of its former name.
The boilerplate accompanying press releases states, “Founded in 1917, DMA is the community that champions deeper consumer engagement and business value through the innovative and responsible use of data-driven marketing.”
DMA CEO Tom Benton was asked whether the phrase still held meaning in today’s world.
“The phrase has run its course. What is timeless is the integration of the responsible use of data, technology, and media to deliver content to consumers that is relevant and timely to them,” Benton says, via email. “In short, combining data and marketing to build lasting relationships based on truth, results, and trust is the timeless formula for customer satisfaction and marketing success.
“The pace of change continues to increase and it all focuses on transforming data into actionable insight,” Benton adds. “Today’s marketer more than ever focuses on the responsible use of such data-driven insight to build lasting relationships with customers based on truth, results, and trust.”
To hear agencies speak about the subject is to describe a world that still finds value in the key tenets.
“The approach of direct marketing has never been more vibrant and necessary than it is now,” says Craig Heimbuch, content strategist, associate director of insights and planning at Barefoot Proximity/BBDO. “Direct marketing is modern marketing. It’s more efficient to find non-direct approaches than direct. The word is an unfortunate victim of its own success.”
Where it began
Direct marketing has many beginnings and a couple of fathers, but the first campaign attributed to direct marketing was on behalf of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1835. By mailing anti-slavery newspapers and printed materials to religious and civic leaders in the South, they were behind the first recorded use of the postal service to influence opinion on a one-to-one basis.
As the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum puts it: “The reception for these unordered and mostly unwelcomed publications was swift, widespread, and hostile.”
When the typewriter became a widespread item in the 1860s, per the Smithsonian, a new wave of direct mail took off. The term “direct mail” originated somewhere in the first decade of the 20th century. That led to the professionalization, organization, and creation of the Direct Mail Association — now the DMA — in 1917.
While direct mail and email is still a huge business, today’s direct marketers have many different avenues to interact with customers. The industry has evolved, a fact many still don’t see.
Heimbuch says the term is still too often associated with junk mail and the mail process in general. But the reason why they’re linked is when the pioneers of direct mail pursued a one-to-one marketing channel, the mailbox was the most obvious and perhaps only avenue.
“I don’t think it was ever going to be, ‘We’re going to own the mailbox.’ It was going to understand what people want and spend their money on,” Heimbuch explains. “The word is falsely associated with mail versus the concept of ‘We’re going to start with behavioral data.’”
While it may seem a little peculiar to have an industry without a name, Benton asks, “Perhaps the more important question is ‘What should the industry not call itself?’ Definitely not a name that ties to a channel or a technology. Marketing is, and will continue to become, ubiquitous, especially when you consider how much relevant content is contained in marketing today.”
RAPP has likewise gravitated toward customer-centricity as a catchall. And, of course, data-driven.
“We made a very conscious evolution away from direct toward customer-centricity and relationship as opposed to the channel,” Kernan says. “It’s been more about data-driven marketing.”
For Gyro, digital also resonates.
“Everything we try to do for our clients is to create a human-relevant relationship,” O’Hara explains. “What we’re doing with some of our own clients is redefining the relationships customers have with them and putting a human face on what is normally seen as a transactional relationship.”
So what does this mean for agencies that have traditionally answered to the term direct marketing?
“We work with other firms on big clients, and where we stand apart is always starting with the who and why, and understanding what problems they are trying to solve,” Heimbuch says.
“Proximity’s roots are indirect, and we are finding that background and experience has never been more valuable to a client,” he adds. “We’re changing the nomenclature, but we’re not shying away from the approach.”
Clients often strive for simplicity in today’s complicated modern world. When they want direct mail, direct response TV, or email, they want to find a direct marketing or direct response agency.
But as those firms broaden their expertise — or take more steps to promote their broad portfolio — how does that impact talks with clients?
Kernan feels new clients that don’t necessarily associate RAPP with direct marketing tend to give them a broader range of work.
“They are attracted by the promise of applying that discipline and measurement focus to new channels, such as social and traditional channels such as TV,” Kernan explains.
Kernan says evolution is paying more dividends than just how the agency is perceived.
“Historically, the lead agency was usually the one that controlled the TV budget,” Kernan adds. “The new definition of the lead firm is the one that is closest to the customer and that gets intimate with the customer and consumer base, both known and unknown.”
Barefoot Proximity/BBDO’s Heimbuch says a CMO who has worked for 25 years may think about just coupons when they hear the term direct.
“In reality, we do a hell of a lot of coupons for our clients, we just don’t always do it through the mail,” he notes.
Heimbuch engages in a lot of new business, and concedes that sometimes in pitches, he will see a prospect look like they bit into something sour when he mentions direct marketing.
“And I’ll say, ‘No, this is a good thing for you,’” he adds. “Once you can have the conversation, they come back to it and say, ‘That’s a smarter way of doing my marketing.’”
But if you lead everything with the term direct marketing, Heimbuch explains, “you probably do miss some opportunities.”
“Our best growth channels are with existing clients,” he adds. “When we can deliver a report that says ‘Here’s where you started and here’s where we ended up,’ we’re often given more work.”
For its part, the DMA’s Benton says the organization sees huge growth in leading the charge on cross-device identification.
“Cross-device technology has the potential to revolutionize the modern marketing campaign,” Benton explains. “With 60% of digital interaction time on smartphones or tablets and 40% on a PC, you can’t really understand the consumer unless you can make that connection across different devices. We’re introducing our first tools and solutions this fall.”
Gyro’s O’Hara agrees.
“Agencies in control of the direct relationships are gaining in estimation with clients,” O’Hara says. “The agencies being most valued are what I call thought-leadership agencies.”
While it seems direct marketing as a term is in the process of being retired, not everyone agrees.
“Digital is becoming a very strong word in agencies to describe ourselves. I still like the direct part of direct marketing,” O’Hara says.
“I disagree that we’re sunsetting that term,” Heimbuch adds.
“It’s in this weird transition time. Everything is cyclical. I imagine a day where we’re saying direct, and it becomes shorthand for data-driven, objective oriented.”