There was a time, not long ago, when direct marketing was an incentive-driven numbers game. Volume plus offer equalled results. Discounts delivered up front had a certain interruptive appeal, and if you could add value through imaginative, engaging creative, that was a bonus.
Now the equation has changed. The incentive is seen for what it is: a bribe. And you can no longer talk about delivering volume when there's a long line of consumers out there who seek gratification through increasingly individualised experiences via technologies that accommodate their every whim, who find overt selling messages presumptuous and who, instead, want to see their personal interests and values reflected back at them.
No longer are consumers saying: "Persuade me, and then I'll buy from you." They are saying: "Entertain me, then I'll engage with you." Data can help us know which type of person responds to which punchline. And, as with every successful punchline, it's all about timing.
So here's the new equation for direct marketing: entertainment plus data equals results.
The direct marketing industry needs to wake up to the fact that it is in the business of entertaining consumers. And engaging them by embracing the moving image.
Through broadband, mobile, DVD mailings, lenticular, Bluetooth, ambient, and at point-of-sale - at every conceivable touchpoint - the moving image can be deployed to stimulate the neural pathways of an audience and gain their engagement.
While business dynamics run on rational lines, the decision-making process is emotional. That's to say, we make decisions instantaneously and emotionally, yet justify them rationally.
The direct marketing industry has forgotten that visceral decision-making comes throughout the customer journey and it has adopted a formulaic mentality towards customer relationship management and the processing of consumers from prospects to advocates. We load messages with attributes and benefits, and edge out gut feeling.
This explains the somewhat laboured lists of key attributes and features that continue to pepper most mailing packs - and the unsubtle corralling of product or service benefits into panels and boxes as a heavy-handed means of reinforcement.
It's my contention that the arrival of high-speed broadband will gather an unstoppable momentum over the next two years.
It's already happening. Virgin is busy upgrading the cable network to reach 52 per cent of the population with 50Mbps of speed by the end of this year. And 100Mbps high-speed networks will surely follow soon.
But it's not the technology per se that is interesting. It's consumers' attitude towards what it delivers.
Of all the future broadband services that net users want, it's the ability to watch TV and download videos that most excites them. And those are precisely the services they are using the internet for the least at the moment.
This signals a paradigm shift in users' online habits which direct marketers have to heed. High-speed broadband will only serve to increase the appetite for entertainment.
We are on the verge of a fast-download entertainment culture. And direct marketing had better be prepared.
Putting aside user-generated content, what's really interesting is the way that marketers of all stripes and colours are embracing the creative possibilities of faster broadband. In creative terms, entertainment through broadband is king.
I know about the "big ad" for Carlton Draught - an Australian brand in the Fosters stable - because the campaign launched on the net, whereas two years ago, it would have premiered on TV. Within 12 hours, it was global web currency - showing in 46 countries - and within its first week it had netted 20 million hits. Viral marketing. One-to-one. And measurable. That's our game, and we should be playing it. TV alone simply doesn't have that sort of influence or reach.
As Matt Keen, the general manager of Fosters Australia, says: "Where people are sitting at their computers, we know they've taken time to see the ad. They've engaged with it. Entertainment rather than interruption."
Likewise, Eurostar. What started as a 20-minute Shane Meadows-directed promotional film about the Eurostar terminal's move from Waterloo to St Pancras has turned into Somers Town, the 75-minute movie, shot on 16mm in black and white. And it was unveiled not with a press junket on a high-speed train to Paris, but at the Berlin Film Festival - a premier cultural event.
Somers Town is set in the area behind St Pancras. Released this summer, it features plenty of Eurostar trains, shots of the station and even Eurostar hoardings. It's not traditional product placement. The dramatic narrative - the entertainment - is contextualised by Eurostar. This is a powerful and sophisticated communication that started as a straight promotional brief.
It is this sort of imaginative thinking around the moving image as entertainment that the more purist direct marketers need to embrace.
There's evidence of it in pockets. The Guinness "pub landlord" work, the Prostate Cancer Charity "Bob Monkhouse" campaign and Argos Giant Jar are three of the most entertaining, interactive and powerful direct response campaigns that have surfaced within the past year. They work because they deploy the moving image and lead with the idea - and the starting point for the creative is the desire to entertain.
Despite these standout campaigns and given the trend, why is the direct marketing industry making little headway against its advertising cousins?
The fact is that, currently, we're not geared up for the moving image. We're not structured that way. How many DM agencies have in-house agency TV production skills that link into the creative department? How many can produce a reel of their work? We know the answer - not many.
Our time is now. But we're unwilling to invest in entertainment because accountability is everything. Yet, the longer we leave the moving image, the less confident clients will be that we can handle it. The truth is, it's there for the taking and we have a precious commodity that they lack - the ability to track a response and justify the investment in the first place.
- Dan Douglass is the executive creative director of Meteorite.
This article was first published on Campaign