The industry has undergone fundamental changes. The Direct Marketing Association signed an agreement with the government, setting ambitious targets to recycle direct mail, and tied up with environmental body Planet Ark to drive consumer awareness of the issue.
Royal Mail hit the headlines on several occasions. Aside from a marketing restructure, wildcat strikes, Postcomm's outlining of how competing companies can access Royal Mail systems and the upcoming issue of size-based pricing, the organisation reviewed its entire marketing roster.
Agency performance as a whole has been anything but consistent, and 2003 was arguably the year of the small shop.
"The focus from a client perspective has been on cost - looking for value for money and asking whether things can be done in a different way," says Julie Constable, head of direct marketing at the AAR.
"As a result, the smaller agencies have benefited. Clients are working with smaller, hungrier agencies with the flexibility to turn around great work quickly," she adds.
Falling neatly into that category is Archibald Ingall Stretton (AIS). It has had an outstanding year, maintaining its creative profile, as well as being financially bolstered by some impressive wins. The most significant of these was O2. It also picked up Planet Ark and an integrated brief to rebrand Austin Reed. And its work for BMW continued to impress.
Creatively, AIS has set itself high standards. This year's awards included a Creative Circle silver for work on Skoda. The challenge now is to maintain high levels of creativity with this volume of business.
Another strong contender for the DM crown was Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw. Major wins this year included Jazz FM, with which it won top radio campaign of the year at the Radio Academy Awards; VSO and the Times Educational Supplement.
Most noteworthy was that Friends Reunited marketing director Tim Ward appointed it as sole marketing agency for DM, branding and sponsorship.
Sales promotion and direct agency Liquid Communications is only in its third year, but continues to grow. After a slow first half, business picked up. It won News International (The Times and Sunday Times), a chunk of Heinz work, Lever Faberge's Sure and Timberland. Liquid has doubled its accounts over the year and scooped the ISP gold for best integrated campaign.
Partners Andrews Aldridge's profits grew by about 23% and it picked up business for Oral B, bmi and the Video Arts Group. Most impressive was the account for Lloyds TSB's utilities and telephony division, Ideals.
Creative highlights included prospect marketing for Lexus and its 'Wallpaper' work for The Art Fund, which won three DMA awards.
Partners demonstrated its stra-tegic flair with an anti-smoking campaign for the Department of Health, which used a behavioural model for a CRM programme.
The UK's biggest DM independent, Tullo Marshall Warren, was undoubtedly relieved when it filled the gap left by the loss of O2 with T-Mobile. Other wins included Fish4, database consultancy Expedia and a place on the Unilever Bestfoods roster. At the Direct Response Smart Awards, it won a Gold for its RAF 'Pills' campaign.
Joshua is an integrated agency. Its TV advertising work for Zurich, which featured flying pigs, is a case in point. Its profits increased 30% and it has acquired a number of new business wins. It pitched together with sister agency Grey London to win the Visa International account in February, as well as the Air Miles business. In June, it gained the £3m integrated business for Norwich & Peterborough building society and, later in the year, Mars Delight.
Draft was another agency that exceeded expectations. Following the merger of Draft and LoweLive in 2002, many anticipated it would start haemorrhaging business. But under managing director Sez Maxted, it didn't. Despite losing Norwich Union, it picked up accounts including Electrolux, Camelot and VisitBritain. Its direct strategy for MTV Europe Music Awards so impressed the client, that the agency was asked to use the concept to create the TV advertising.
Of 50 Royal Mail roster agencies, Claydon Heeley Jones Mason was one of just three that kept a hold on the account. Creatively, it has excelled.
A campaign for The Guardian Weekly achieved response rates of up to 6% and generated the highest subscriber numbers in four years. It achieved 13 wins, including Virgin Holidays, Goodyear and 118 118. It also scooped the ISP Platinum Innovation Award and European ISP gold for its Royal Mail work.
TBWA\GGT had a mixed year. NatWest terminated a five-year relationship when it pulled its £20m account. But the agency made up for the loss by securing Abbey's DM business.
Proximity London saw two of its key executives leave the agency. Chairman, former creative director and co-founder Chris Barraclough left in March to set up his own agency, and was followed out of the door by chief executive and co-founder Simon Hall in October. But the agency managed to pick up the massive Royal Mail below-the-line business, previously handled by OgilvyOne.
The blow to the latter was somewhat softened by winning BT's business-to-business account. It was also appointed by the Jigsaw Consortium as a partner to exploit the potential of its database.
This year has seen a number of start-ups. Barraclough founded Barraclough Edwards Chamberlain, Simon Kershaw and Phil Keevil set up Keevil Lee Kershaw, and Mark Leversedge and Martin Semmens created Elvis.
So, what's in store for 2004? DMA managing director James Kelly says: "There are signs the industry is emerging from the cloud of 2003. But they are not yet substantiated, so it will continue to be hard."