Frankly I'd like to be direct – The rules of Direct Marketing

Some people get half a dozen letters and A4 brochure things. Others get one or two. Somebody in Creative gets a thing that flies around the room when you open the envelope. This happens every day. Someone from the office goes down to the Australia Post and gets our mail. Same thing is happening in every office in Australia, every working day.

I open mine. Of my three A4 things, two are Real Estate For Sales notices, one a big brochure from a mailing list company called The Impact Advantage, a joke of a name, three direct mail letters with a DL in them, one thank-you note for something I shouldn’t have done and finally one cheque from a very nice, but slightly old-fashioned client whose system spits out checks instead of direct debits – our only client which still uses them.

All paper. All could have been done electronically. All, except for the cheque, basically unwanted. Weigh? The whole office’s lot weighs about 1/2 a kilo. Not much of a tree – hardly a sapling really. Plus a few ounces of phosphorous and chlorine to bleach the paper white. A few ounces of nickel and cadmium and ferrous oxide to colour the pages. Some kilo’s of green-house gases; carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide etc. to generate the power to smash that little tree up and crush it into paper to power the mac that did the graphic work, to power the mobile phone of the agency suit who talked to the marketing managers for two hours about the strategy…….

What strategy? It’s direct. You just send out enough of them and some suckers will buy, you’ll may-be even crack over the magical 1% effectiveness mark, to justify you doing it again three months later.

I bleat on in this column about strategy all the time. About the big idea. About changing the mind-set of an industry to have (real) IMPACT, to get results. But I waste my time when I talk to direct mailers because they don’t work on that wave-length. They are happy to do the mediocre, just because it works, just.

I’m kind of pleased to say, direct is slowly dying. And it’s dying because the public want it to. The public see the writing on the wall.

This is not to say all Direct is doomed. Just the undeserving, wasteful, paper-based bit.

Direct emails are booming. So are direct phone calls, direct walk-in-off-the-street-and-ask-for-the-order is booming. Direct TV does nicely. Direct from the-website-to-you is booming. But Direct in a letter, with a DL, a return envelope and a couple of little cute snappy things that fall out and get your attention? The way of the dodo.

And yes, we always read about the doom of an industry in these types of magazines. People are always predicting the demise of Outdoor or the ruination of TV because of ‘fragmentation’, whatever the F that is, but I can feel the mood swing against direct mail more than I’ve ever felt any predicted demise before. People bristle on the neck when they see wads of paper being delivered to their homes. Clients don’t brief us on direct mail much anymore, and if they do, they do it feeling guilty. Creatives are leaving direct in droves – they phone mainstream agencies like us looking for gigs – saying the business is stale, work is slow. Does it show yet in the DM industry figures? I doubt it, but it’s there.

Sheer Waste Part One

This is because, as grown ups on a crowded planet, we need to be able to put aside ‘in-balance’ sheer business arguments and look at things in a mature fashion.

We cannot in all seriousness condone the huge level of waste for the sake of a few short-term dollars. (Well, the public can’t and that’s your biggest problem – doing something the public doesn’t approve of is death) Yes, for the next few years you will be able to put a business case forward for the use of direct mail, like you could for Uranium mining. But in the long term, like with the use of nuclear fuel, the pros do not outweigh the cons.

I’m using the nuclear debate because it is such a strong example of similar short-term dumb, accountant-style thinking. Run, like many Australian political arguments, by people who have a vested interest in the outcome, rather than taking an objective view of the issues. I point the finger firmly at Ziggy Switkowski, a man with a PHD in Nuclear Physics, who was appointed by John Howard, (who’s parties income in turn comes from groups like Rio Tinto, the largest Uranium and (and Coal) miner in the world, “Hey guys, looks like they caught us out on the coal front, whoops, let’s just shift our cash-flow to Uranium – we won’t even have to skip a beat”. What a decent group of chaps don’t you think?) appointed by Johnny as the task force leader on the Uranium debate – like he’d be objective – a Nuclear physicist! What kind of society do I live in?

Nuclear fuel could power us as a planet-load of people for a few years in total – may-be 10. As a percentage of our total fuel needs, may-be for about 30-40. (Ziggy’s figures – I was at a lunch recently where he spoke about it.) For that 30 years we would benefit from slightly less carbon emissions. But for the next million years plus (Uranium has a half-life of 300,000 years – it’s nasty bit shrinks by half each 300K – meaning for a tonne to shrink to a kilo, which is still dangerous enough to kill everyone in Sydney, it would take around 3 million years and there’s how many tonnes being made for the kind of power we need?) someone would have to look after that spent fuel. Let’s look at human history a bit to get this into rock-solid perspective. We do not know what the Pyramids were built for. We don’t know much about their secrets, even how they were built. We only started to be able to read the hieroglyphics on their walls in the 1920’s because an Italian called Stefan Rossini managed to translate them by luckily connecting them with a dead language, Sanskrit. The point is, they were built only 5-7,000 years ago. And we know nothing. How can we expect people to look after some concrete bunkers in 200 years let alone 200,000 years, if they’re getting no benefit from doing it? As if they would? ‘Oh, we’ll just make sure no-one goes in here, because an ancient God called Ziggy Stardust told us it would be bad JuJu’. Imagine trying to get that past a parliamentary expense committee? And keep in mind, the pyramids don’t leak into the ground water and kill everything on the planet.

The Sheer Waste, Part Two

You cannot justify wasting 99 items for one to work. It’s lunacy. I know direct mail is a guaranteed certain return and can be rolled out across similar segments for similar results and that makes it nice for the accountants to justify to the board because they can’t stand things that take a little more sophistication of mind.

And I’m a big believer in mail. So I feel sad writing this stuff. It’s like loosing a friend to cancer; watching them slowly die. I like getting a letter. Xmas cards are one of my favourite ways to be reassured that printers still love me. I’m happy to open a brochure that’s relevant to me. I might even buy something in it. But justify to my kids why we waste forests every day to sell a few extra cars? Nup, can’t do it.

So I’m not going to waste more paper on the subject. I’m going to concentrate on those aspects of direct we can justify at Starship and leave the other forms for your conscious and your children’s.


Becoming the groovy environment-conscious directee’s weapon of choice, emails are cheap to send out – normally free, got to love that. Can be cheap to put together, will often generate better returns, faster than any other method. You can literally have an idea this morning, brief the creative team, get some art work up inside of an hour or three, send them out and get sales back the same day. And you can measure what category of customers responded to what creative, so you can change the story/emphasis regularly to do a better job. I challenge you to think of anything that comes close to being that effective dollar for dollar.

It will really boom when the Federal Government changes and/or Telstra or a consortium decides to spend the 4-5 billion needed to up-grade our lines to optical fibre, like any country worth noting. But, there’s the interests of TV to take into consideration and who would want our people having another viable media option, certainly not the Packers or the Murdochs?

To do emails well, stay very flexible. Be prepared to adjust your creative according to what is going on in the world market at the time – topical is very powerful – if there’s been a good bombing or Peter Costello has just resigned, Nicole Kidman’s won an Oscar or whatever that day, use the news of the day for maximum effect.

Be right for the time. It is an instant medium. If you’re sending out to Australia at 8am, mention coffee or cereal, not wine and roast dinners.

Be cyber-oriented. It’s not a stuffy old letter typed on a manual type-writer in 1956 by Edward G Letterman (ask your 60 year old direct agency copy-writer, or look it up on Google). Use short words, SMS short-hand.

Use original pictures. Anyone using obvious stock shots gets a much lower response than real shots. Does the word cut-through mean anything 2 U?

Think Tumblr. Moving footage of real people doing silly things gets huge results. It’s good now to hi-income customers or business, and will be very popular for the masses when we get real broadband.

Don’t over-jargon. I know you corporate marketing types out there can’t help yourselves, God knows jargon is your only defence against the accountants in corporate land, but the public doesn’t respond to jargon. They have too much going on in their lives to worry what you’re on about, so they just move their short-concentration span eyes to another less painful subject and you loose sales.

Customise campaigns – make sure the gender is correct, the prizes worth winning, the tone of the note right for that audience, the fact you’ve contacted them before, it’s been on this subject etc. Your I.T./data base people can tell you these things, but you have to be nice to them.

Re-gig things if they are not working – don’t run hundreds of thousands out to people, you’ll only piss them off if you’ve got it wrong – do a 1,000 person exercise, wait a few hours, check responses, change it, change it again, eventually get a good level of response, then roll it out.

Permission marketing is the only way to go, especially in OZ where we have Privacy Laws, which I have to say are an abomination in their current state. But that’s another whole article, and over-due I’m sure.

A recent Kinston Uni (U.K.) study found the following ‘amazing’ results –  higher response rates correlate with more appealing subject lines, with more images, with a higher monetary offer, more appealing incentives and, shock horror, are inversely affected by the length of the email. In other words, make it topical, offer lots, keep it short.

The same study, which covered 371,072 individuals and their responses, found a click-through rate of only 3% in outbound emails. So don’t feel so bad if yours aren’t getting much better than that.


My favourite direct. Worked with decent creative, a well–designed, easily navigated, heavy selling web site and a room full of telemarketers to close the deal, damn near nothing can beat it as a way to get vast volumes of sales at full margin. (Never forget – retail is invariably a discounting medium today) We have a client called I-Select, who do this so successfully the Libs, who want to float off Medibank Private for a mint, have established a government department to try to kill them off. I-Select has grown 100% per annum, week on week, the last 3-4 years using this approach.

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