Letter: We Need to Do Something to Improve the DM

I was an attendee and presenter at this year’s DM Days New York conference. I wish I could say I came away energized. Instead, I left more than a little concerned about the future of direct marketing.

I can recall several years ago, while working at one of the larger New York DM agencies, DMD was a hot ticket. You would vie with others in your agency for a shot at one of the daily passes. But judging from the sparsely attended presentations this year, it appears many of the tickets to DM Days either went unused or unsold. Granted, part of the reason may have been the economy. Over the past year, most of the big DM agencies have had at least one staff cut. Some have had two and three. So a lot of agencies may not have had room in their budgets for “conferences.” That raises a question: How did we get into this mess? Like many others, just a year ago I thought that DM was bulletproof. After all, we measure participation and response rates.

I think if we take a hard look in the mirror at the state of DM, we may find another reason our budgets have been slashed and many of our friends and colleagues are out of jobs: Maybe we’re not as good or as smart as we could be. After all, the DM field is not much older than the technology field. It was practically invented in the 1960s. But since the time of early pioneers, there have been few real improvements in our industry. Compare this with the tech industry, where the next big thing is discovered every few months. It seems to me that we are at risk, if we are not already there, of becoming a stale and stagnant industry, the kind that William Whyte described in his landmark book, “The Organization Man,” as “too interested in improving old ideas as opposed to seeking new ones.”

What we need are new ideas to propel our industry ahead. We need ideas that are so compelling – because they’re proven to acquire customers, retain customers or generate incremental sales – that our clients refuse to cut them out of their budget when times get tough. What we need is a “new and improved” DM.

There seemed to be a potential breakthrough a few years ago with the advent of “one-to-one marketing.” It offered a way to begin talking to customers as individuals, not as market segments. (As a few of you know, I spoke to using data and dialogue to achieve one-to-one communications at the DMD show.)

But with rare exception, the promise of one-to-one marketing was never fulfilled. In fact, these days the term is used almost exclusively by consultants and CRM people when talking about data profiling and process design and everything but the one thing that it is really all about – communications. Is the greater personalization that comes with one-to-one marketing the Holy Grail of direct marketing? Maybe. Maybe not. You might think it’s better strategy or improved creative or better mailing lists. Or all of the above. But the point is, if you work in DM, you need to have an opinion.

If you feel strongly about your opinion, you need to spread the word to the people in your company. Then, consider presenting your ideas at the next DMD conference. Or if you’re feeling stuck and looking for new ways to approach DM, why not attend a direct marketing conference and get exposed to other people’s ideas?

Whatever you do, do something. The sooner we do, the sooner we’ll be prepared to weather the next economic downturn and make it less painful for our companies, our colleagues and ourselves.

Tom Rapsas, Vice president, creative director, Frequency Marketing Inc., Princeton, NJ

[email protected]

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