A 20-Year Retrospective, and 20 Years into the Future
Published in Direct Marketing Magazine
Twenty years ago, I had never heard the term “direct marketing,” and
candidly, never thought of it as a career. But in April 1978, only one
month before my graduation from Fort Hays State University, in Hays,
Kansas, I had the privilege of attending a Direct Marketing Collegiate
Institute sponsored by the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation (DMEF).
It was a career-changing experience. My mind was opened after five
days at the DMEF Collegiate Institute. Since then, the scope of direct
marketing has evolved profoundly, and there has been marked evolution
in how direct marketing is viewed by a diverse group of marketing organizations.
The change has been gradual, but the 20-year milestone of my introduction
to direct marketing, and an invitation from the DMEF to speak to a Direct
Marketing Seminar for Graduate Students in February (1998) in Los Angeles,
created an opportune time to examine the changes and reflect not only
about the past 20 years, but gaze into the future about what the next
20 years may bring.
The program outline from my Collegiate Institute in 1978 and the program
outline from the Graduate Student Seminar in 1998 are revealing about
how direct marketing has evolved. The profound change can be summarized
in a single word: strategy. Direct marketing has become a strategy for
marketing companies of all types. For years, direct marketing was tactically
focused. And indeed, if the tactics aren’t right the strategy
will fail. Today, the successful marketers are those who use direct
marketing as a strategic method of marketing and who also understand
every direct marketing tactic and rule.
1978 Collegiate Program Compared to the 1998 Program
Twenty years ago about the only place the direct marketing was being
taught was by the then named Direct Mail/Marketing Educational Foundation.
In the early 1980s, the name was changed to the Direct Marketing Educational
The presentation titles made by 1978’s direct marketing pioneers
are telling about where direct marketing was at that time. And credit
must be given to those leaders who inspired so many of us to make direct
marketing our career of choice. The leaders of the 1978 program included
Paul Sampson, who chaired Collegiate Institutes for about 20 years before
retiring a couple of years ago, Elliot Abrams, Steve Allen, Bob DeLay,
Dick Hodgson, Pete Hoke, Roy Ljungren, Mike Manzari, Bob Stone, and
John Yeck. John had been the guiding light of the Direct Marketing Educational
Foundation since it was established in 1965.
The speech titles in 1978 included:
- What Is Direct Mail?
- Direct Mail ... Fact and Mythology
- Research By Mail
- Major Trends in the Medium Today & Seven Cardinal Principles for Direct Mail Success
- Effectively Using Direct Mail In Industrial Advertising
- The World of Catalogues
- The Multi-Media Marriage
- The World of Production
- Envelopes, Letters and Other Forms of Direct Mail
- Mailing Lists and the List Broker
- Mailing Lists and the List Compiler
- Developing Effective Offers and Propositions
- What You Should Know About Testing
- Creativity in Copywriting How to Compel Action from Prospects, Sweepstakes, 3-Dimensional Formats, and Other Unusual Techniques Direct Mail Town Hall ... What Lies Ahead?
The 1998 Program
Compare and contrast the 1978 program with the 1998 program and you
can quickly see how our world of direct marketing has changed and grown
as strategy. Today’s topics included:
- Database Marketing
- Internet Direct Marketing
- Entrepreneurial Direct Marketing
- Non-Traditional Direct Marketer
- Circulation Strategies
- Retail Strategies
Direct marketing has earned a strategic place in today’s marketing
mix. Multinational companies to entrepreneurs, catalogers to retailers,
packaged goods to manufacturing, and more employ direct marketing as
In the words of Dorothy from the Wizard Of Oz: “Toto, I don’t
think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Direct marketing is embraced by multitudes of companies as strategy
with a triumvirate of applications: First, sell direct to the end-user
without any intermediary channel of distribution. Second, generate leads
for sales organizations, and third create traffic in retail stores.
And as one considers the many elements of direct marketing’s strategic
lure, it’s worthwhile to review the strategies of each element.
- Database Marketing. Twenty years ago, the word “database” probably
wasn’t uttered in a Collegiate Institute class. There were mailing lists
which were computerized and Census data could be used to better understand
targeting on a neighborhood level. But today it’s possible for every
marketing organization to take what was once a simple rolodex with sales receipts,
and energize it into a tool that can define a business’ model and strategy.
Take for example a long-time client of mine, The Dow Chemical Company. Who
would think of Dow, a commodity chemicals company, as a database marketer?
In some businesses they are indeed database marketers, creating detailed information
about customers, and prospective customers, through detailed qualification
processes that focus on marketing to the needs of customers, or what they call
needs-based segmentation marketing communications strategy. And with the marketing
database, we have developed communications that use customized selling messages
based on the prospective customer’s need. Smart database marketing
is clearly a strategy that may indeed be the initiative that allowed direct
marketing to spring from being viewed as a tactic to a strategy.
- Internet Direct Marketing. Pete Hoke, Chairman of Direct Marketing
Magazine, wrote for many years about how electronic systems would
link us as a worldwide community and become a powerful selling vehicle.
During my class in 1978, Pete was truly a visionary. Who would have
dreamed, for example, that we could send rolls of film to a photo
finishing organization in Austin, Texas, and within hours of receipt
find our pictures posted to our email address. That’s exactly what my client Skrudland
Photo, under it’s brand Signature Color, does for thousands of
its customers. Within minutes, you can email pictures of a newborn child
to family and friends around the globe. It’s a perfect marriage
of direct marketing, technology, and commerce.
- Entrepreneurial Direct Marketing. Some of direct marketing’s
greatest companies began on the kitchen tables of their founders.
A great thrill today for me is contributing as a partner with start-up
companies who begin as nothing more than a vision or dream. Of course,
the difference today is that finance costs and finding funds are
not for the faint heart or unpersistent soul. But some do make it.
- Creative. Twenty years gone by and use of direct marketing use
by a myriad of organizations have also changed the face of direct
marketing creative. While it’s usually the media and offer that influence
one’s success, the tie-breaker is often the creative. Here, I
suggest that timeless principles taught by many of direct marketing’s
greats be adhered to for true success. I’m reminded of when
a general advertising agency called me in to look at the direct mail
package a client of theirs tested with poor results. The agency was
about to lose the account. After making significant changes to make
it a direct response oriented package, it was retested with great
success. The agency kept the account and learned there may be room
to occasionally break the rules, but reinventing the wheel can be
- Business-to-Business. Twenty years ago my class instructor referred to the massive area of business-to-business as industrial advertising. With the cost of a personal sales call estimated to be over $300 today, and the number of calls required to close a sale, it’s no wonder b-to-b is growing exponentially year after year. Advanced Cleaning Systems, a Dow unit, took a hard look at the costs of sales people, and through a strategically targeted direct marketing program, calculated the average annual savings on sales calls to be over $200,000 by using direct marketing as a strategy to generate qualified leads.
- Non-Traditional Direct Marketer. Who would have thought that
a manufacturer of clothes selling to retail stores would someday find
the need to find a complimentary distribution strategy to the store
environment? That’s what happened to Williamson-Dickie, maker
of Dickies brand clothes. In 1991, my client tested their first
catalog. And instead of mailing it to prospect lists, its distribution
has been limited to only those who request a catalog by seeing it
offered via the toll-free number on back of inspection stickers
in every garment Dickies manufacturers. The catalog is a strategic
tool, promoting to customers the wide variety of clothing made by
Dickies such as hard-to-find sizes and colors, and the convenience
of ordering direct from the manufacturer. Today the catalog is a
strategic marketing and new product test vehicle to Williamson-Dickie,
and its innovative and courageous solution to the problem of customer
prospecting won the 1994 Henry Hoke Award given by Direct Marketing
- Catalogs. Another application of direct marketing as a strategy
for member services and merchandise sales comes from SPEBSQSA, Inc.,
otherwise known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement
of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. SPEBSQSA is not a direct
marketing company. They are a non-profit organization made up of about
35,000 men in the U.S., including myself, who love to sing. Their
catalog is a strategic method of communicating with members, selling
apparel, music, gifts, as well as tools to build the membership levels
of its hundreds of chapters nationwide.
- Circulation Strategies. What’s keeps the heartbeat going
for many direct marketing companies are sound circulation strategies
that ensure a company will maintain its profitability. In an environment
where millions of pieces of mail are dropped monthly, vital circulation
planning is a strategic focus. For client U.S. Marketing, a provider
of turnkey direct mail for bank credit card issuers, circulation
plans which integrate a proper balance of frequency and new offers
to a massive house file and rented names is a vital focus of day-to-day
- Retail Strategies. In a nation that is over-stored, the fittest
survive knowing their best customers. As retail store customers, we
receive birthday greetings, discount offers, private sale notices
and much more. As a strategy to drive store traffic, direct marketing
delivers customers when they are needed. Loyalty, or frequent buyer
programs, like the Hallmark Gold Crown Program or Neiman Marcus InCircle
program, encourage repeat business.
- Privacy. We must address the growing concern of privacy among
our customers and prospective customers. Self-regulation among direct
marketers hasn’t been consistent, forcing the Direct Marketing
Association to impose rules on its members regarding use of a customer’s
name. The Internet changes our world of privacy in ways we have yet
to imagine. Privacy may be our greatest strategic challenge as we
look forward the next twenty years, to 2018.
The Year 2018
So what else will change in our world by 2018? That question was posed
to this year’s crop of graduate students from schools around the
country. This is what they said:
- Linked Technology, Easier, Faster and Cheaper. Computers, televisions,
cars, home appliances and more will become nothing more than a simple
extension of our lives.
- Personalization. In our technology world, personalization will be standard.
But again the issue of privacy takes center stage.
- The Bar Raised for Education. Once upon a time, a high school diploma
was standard to make it in the world. Then it was a Bachelor’s
degree. Today it’s a Master’s Degree (an understandable
bias coming from graduate students). Tomorrow they think the bar will
be raised and doctorate degrees will be the norm. Certainly, as technology
becomes an increasing part of our lives, education will be all-important.
They also recognize our world will be more culturally diverse and choices
are likely to grow. And hopefully, after a few days in the DMEF Graduate
Program, these college students will recognize the strategic place for
direct marketing and become excellent stewards of a message we’ve
known for years.