Creative leaders from six direct agencies took the stage to thump their individual tubs for campaigns (not their own) that showed the best of direct creative.
The IPA-organised event seemed to be partly intended as a collective pick-me-up in the wake of a poor showing at Cannes – where no UK agency was among names such as JWT New York and Wieden & Kennedy Portland on the roster of Direct Lions winners.
Many of the panel’s choices acknowledged their above the line competition have clearly rather got the hang of combining response with a big idea.
Among them were Saatchis’ T-Mobile Parking Ticket work, W&K’s Chalkbot and McCann Erickson Bucharest’s Cannes Direct Grand Prix winning Rom campaign (also the winner on the night).
Purer examples of direct marketing craft unfortunately but perhaps tellingly attracted the fewest audience votes.
One was Impiric’s brutally simple AA mailer doubling as a personalised hitch-hiking sign to encourage people to think what might happen if they didn’t renew their membership, while Proximity’s Caitlin Ryan sought to link Proximity Canada’s recent campaign - using TV programming to demonstrate how an HP e-printer works - with the totems of forerunners such as David Ogilvy and Steve Harrison.
The well-split vote suggested there was no single flag people wanted to rally round while in the lively debate that followed agencies accepted their territory was hard to defend.
"There has been a landgrab for the type of brand engagement work that we have seen tonight … direct has become what everybody is having a piece of," said Ryan.
So how should agencies react? Having the balls to sell more daring work was a popular view, which was expressed in tribal terms by the event’s chair Patrick Collister.
"It’s amazing how quiet people in direct marketing are," he said. "We can either do new and exciting work or we will get crushed – the above the liners will take it from us."
Not everyone bought into the ‘them and us’ attitude. One anonymous audience member observed: "What unites all of the best work that all you guys showed this evening was that it was grounded in a really profound knowledge of human emotion and what motivates people to do things.
"Whether you sit down to write a TV script or whether you’re writing a DM piece, or any channel, where we’ve moved forward as an industry I think is we now share that tool with the above the line agencies, that they base every piece of work they do in what is a human motivation or emotion and that we all share irrespective of channel."
Is creativity enough?
But if anyone can have a big idea, direct agencies need a USP in addition to creativity.
Yes, digital has made it easier for other agencies to do engagement (and make a spectacle of it), but do they have the discipline to grow response into a relationship and customer knowledge?
Those who spoke up for data included Lida’s Nicky Bullard and Rapp’s Rik Haslam, who said: "The bit where we can hammer [other agencies] is measurable effectiveness. Creatively we’re actually interested in the data, in the story, in the segmentation."
Data may not be the most glamorous pitch to clients, but is increasingly in vogue with some sections of the marketer community. With that in mind, it’s worth mentioning the answer the AAR’s Tony Spong gave when asked what clients are looking for.
"Direct marketing started by acquiring customers for brands," he said. "Now most brands have got stacks and stacks and stacks of customers. So it’s about sustainability. How does a brand stay alive?
"We’re at a different part of the marketing textbook now and I think a lot of it hasn’t been written."
The nub of his argument was clients often don’t know what exactly they need so direct agencies must sell themselves much harder.
"Four years ago at the AAR it was a piece of cake to go here’s your five direct marketing agencies … now it’s way more difficult. We’re almost triangulating on the client’s behalf so we can look at the problem this way, this way or this way … along the journey they find out what they are comfortable with based on the business challenges they’ve got."
The ‘direct must sell as well as above-the-line agencies do’ message came out of the event loud and clear, but there’s plenty to debate about exactly what to sell.
This article was first published on brandrepublic.com