Let’s Lose the Media Definition of DM

A strange thing happened to our agency a few months ago. We lost a client. Losing clients is always painful, but the circumstances under which we lost this one were a real eye-opener. We didn’t lose the client to another agency. We lost the client to a printer.

OK, maybe we had the wrong kind of client in the first place. But to understand the implications, you must realize that we’re structured like a typical agency in that we have account service and creative people on staff. We provide strategy, planning, management and all the kinds of business-oriented services that are supposed to make us value-added to clients and that are the currency in trade of advertising, public relations and direct marketing agencies everywhere. So how could a client trade us for a printer?

The answer is simple. To most general marketers (outside of a few specialty DM companies) direct marketing is the same thing as direct mail, Internet, telemarketing or database marketing. It’s not a strategy, it’s a bunch of tactics. So why not replace your direct marketing agency with a cheaper printer or lettershop? Direct marketing is just about printing and mailing, isn’t it?

No, it’s not. Direct marketing is one of the five strategic promotional disciplines usually listed under the Promotion column of E.J. McCarthy’s “4 Ps of Marketing” (price, place, product and promotion). Those five disciplines are face-to-face sales, advertising, public relations, sales promotion and direct marketing.

I called the Direct Marketing Association several months back to get a definition of direct marketing. I received the “media definition,” which essentially says that anything that gets produced and goes directly to a consumer is direct marketing. Under this approach, the DMA claims that about half of all media expenditures in this country are direct marketing and that business is booming.

But a media definition of direct marketing is damaging to a view of DM as a strategic equal with advertising and public relations. It reinforces the view that direct marketing is a service business like specialty advertising and mailing services, which is exactly where the advertising community lists us in publications like Advertising Age and AdWeek.

The DMA will participate in next week’s Advertising Week 2005 as a platinum sponsor to demonstrate the “essential role direct marketing plays in successful integrated marketing strategies.” There is a huge opportunity here. Will the DMA promote DM as an equal marketing strategy to advertising? Or will it promote the use of specific tactics and media like targeting, segmentation, Internet and mail for use by advertisers?

This is the critical question for the future of DM. Are we a bunch of people who effectively manage specific media and processes, or are we smart marketers with a direct marketing vision that needs to be an equal in the boardroom with advertising and PR?

A lot rides on this question. The broader media already are adopting many technologies that were once uniquely ours. The targeting, database marketing and segmentation arrows are already in the quiver of most advertising and PR professionals. So when they adopt all of our technologies, what will we be left with?

Our strategic approach, that’s what. To survive, direct marketers must be viewed as more than the sum of their media. We must shout loud and clear that if you just want your ad agency to put your advertising materials in the mail, you can go to a lettershop and do that, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing direct marketing. If you want a DM strategy that helps your business grow profitably, you need to go to a direct marketer.

Otherwise, in the future, we may all lose our business to a printer. And then we won’t be direct marketers anymore. We’ll just be a bunch of service companies.

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