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Is the term ‘direct marketing’ antiquated?

As marketing becomes more integrated and digitally focused, is the term ‘direct marketing’ too old school to describe the breadth of DMers’ work? Our experts debate the topic


Gene Silverman
VP of marketing services and account management, Hawthorne Direct
More than 20 years of DM experience

No. Call me old-fashioned, but the term “direct marketing” still sits well with me. It openly and honestly describes what we do every day in our efforts to educate and persuade consumers to call, click or text – to respond – immediately and directly to our clients’ marketing messages.

To avoid being associated with the negative connotations of the term, some direct agencies adopt “smoke screen” terminology such as “brand response,” “direct to consumer” or “b-to-c” marketing. These companies are poltroons. Instead of educating their prospects, they throw a veil over the face of direct marketing and do a seductive dance.

“Direct marketing” undoubtedly remains the unglamorous, formulaic, unsophisticated marketing tool that any brand-building marketer resorts to only when the CFO says “bring me sales.” We get that. But neither the methodology nor the term is obsolete and antiquated. Communicating directly and honestly to consumers about product features and benefits, then asking for the order now, may push your “don’t sell me” button and disengage you, but millions find it candid and refreshing.

In fact, direct marketing has never been more au courant, useful and powerful. Only industry veterans over age 50 think direct marketing means just mail and print. Direct marketing today is all about four digital screens: TV, computer, mobile and out-of-doors. They are everywhere and their users beg for direct communications from marketers


Antony Lee
CEO, WeShop
More than 14 years of e-commerce and direct experience

No. Briefly, I don’t believe the term is antiquated at all. If anything, it has never been more meaningful or relevant than it is today.

Direct marketing refers to marketing a product or service directly to a prospective consumer. It was coined to contrast with mass marketing, where messages are broadcast to large groups or audiences, as opposed to targeted at individual users.

However, until recently, even with the purest forms of direct marketing, it was impossible for any message to be targeted at a single individual. Marketers would buy specially prepared lists of particular types of consumers to target, or divide a mass audience into discreet segments in order to deliver different types of messages to each group. Though we applied the term “direct marketing” to these activities, they were really not “direct” at all, just “less mass.”

However, today we have the Internet and web 2.0 and perhaps even web 3.0 applications, and the key outcome of marketing with these new tools is that marketing truly can be “direct.”  The Internet provides marketers the capability to market to an audience of one a million times over, with every message tailored specifically to the individual. Web 2.0 has enabled us to think of markets comprised of a single individual and to create an offer for her and her alone – truly, “direct” marketing.


Jenn Mundahl
VP of resourcing and creative services, Carlson Marketing
13 years of direct and interactive experience

Yes. The term “direct marketing” needs a makeover.

Historically, the terms “direct marketing” and “direct mail” have been interchangeable, both meaning a method of communicating directly with consumers through acquired lists. Direct marketing gained a broader meaning as a way to deliver more targeted messages to a segmented audience by choosing from demographic and household information.

Today, we see personalized messaging reaching new levels and broadening the meaning of direct marketing. This messaging allows marketers to choose not only the demographics, social attributes and lifestyle elements for targeted offers, but also how their messages are delivered.

Given the relatively low cost of electronic delivery, and the increasing popularity of laptops, smartphones and now iPads, online avenues such as e-mail, mobile, search and social networking offer opportunities for marketers to provide strong ROI on campaigns in these economic times. Direct mail still plays a role in the mix, because it increases the response and revenue of campaigns aimed at driving traffic to Web sites, toll-free numbers and stores.

While marketing directly to consumers is at the highest level ever – due to electronic channels and an emphasis on “customer relationships” – “direct marketing” hasn’t benefitted. The old name carries old baggage. There should be a new term that encompasses the “direct strategy” that uses myriad channels and integrated tactics to communicate with customers


Gunther Schumacher
COO, OgilvyOne Worldwide
More than two decades of direct marketing experience

Yes. The term “direct marketing” is antiquated, but this is a symptom of a larger, underlying issue.

‘Direct marketing’ is not just a term, it is an industry, a category that is contributing billions of dollars of value to our society. In that sense, being antiquated is not all that important, being relevant is.

I believe that direct marketing is highly relevant, probably more than ever. However, we as direct marketers have allowed the reputation of our industry to wither on the vine. We’ve failed to associate the category in people’s minds with all of the innovative and exciting things we actually do.

Direct marketing is highly targeted, personalized and at its core, interactive. It is all about data and knowledge-based marketing. The rise of digital channels and platforms has enabled direct marketing to come into its own and move closer to achieving its full potential. Direct has the potential to be a C-level conversation. There’s never been a more exciting time to be in this industry.

Yet unfortunately, the talent we need to attract doesn’t know, and instead of being seen as pioneers, we’re often associated with the worst form of direct marketing – unsolicited, cheesy and cheap direct.

Instead of trying to address the symptom and talk about labels, let’s tackle the real issue. Direct marketing needs to undergo a brand transformation.  We need to focus on breathing new life into our industry – it needs to be revitalized and re-imagined for a new age, fresh, exciting, forward looking and aspirational.


The term “direct marketing” remains relevant because it describes the full gamut of strategies and tactics that brands use to interact with consumers. “Digital,” “b-to-c” and other terms don’t yet fully describe the complete spectrum of what direct marketers do to reach consumers.

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