DIRECT MARKETING: Putting direct mail through its paces - What distinguishes the effective piece of DM from the one filed in the bin? Holly Acland asks a range of recipients for their comments

Targeting is the cornerstone of any successful direct mail campaign, and never more so than in a business-to-business environment. According to research by Hewlett-Packard, the average manager has a backlog of around 12 hours’ work, so it’s little wonder that agencies attempting to grab the attention of busy marketers, or suppliers hoping to influence agency decision-makers, face an up-hill struggle in their DM activity.

Targeting is the cornerstone of any successful direct mail

campaign, and never more so than in a business-to-business environment.

According to research by Hewlett-Packard, the average manager has a

backlog of around 12 hours’ work, so it’s little wonder that agencies

attempting to grab the attention of busy marketers, or suppliers hoping

to influence agency decision-makers, face an up-hill struggle in their

DM activity.

So we asked a selection of client marketers and agency heads to comment

on the quality, volume and value of a typical week of direct mail in the

office. The results show what a demanding audience they can be.

Getting your message to cut through the deluge of direct mail that

swamps most people’s desks can be a costly and time-consuming exercise,

but it pays, insists Channel 4 head of agency sales, Matt Shreeve.

In July, Channel 4 sent 50 media buyers a hamper costing around pounds

160 each to celebrate its right to broad-cast live coverage of the test

series between England and New Zealand. Each hamper, sourced by

Swordfish, contained an indoor cricket set, a cricket guide and an

official Channel 4 cricket magazine.

’Our customers are smart. We know that simply bombarding them with dull

statistics quickly loses their attention. But enthusiasm is infectious,’

says Shreeve. ’The response from agencies has been marvellous. The

demand for airtime around cricket coverage has been way over our


But not every firm can afford to make such a splash - or needs to,

argues Cathy Newman, brand consultant at The Brandnaming Company. Last

month, it sent a pair of garden secateurs to the finance director and

marketing director at 50 of the UK’s largest companies.

At a cost of pounds 4 each, the mailing was designed to draw attention

to the company’s BrandCover service for trademark protection, and

carried the strapline ’Do your brands have room to flourish?’

Newman is confident that the initiative will generate a good response,

having picked up plenty of business after a closely targeted mailing

last year. ’We sent out about 30 letters to current clients from another

division and ended up getting a project from each worth around pounds


But for every piece of direct mail that does elicit a response, there is

plenty which travels swiftly from hand to bin with no more than a

fleeting glance. Research by FFwd Precision Marketing found that the

main criticism from clients about mailings from prospective DM agencies

was the lack of relevance to their business.

The use of case studies as a means of illustrating an agency’s

capability often fails to address the business needs of the company

being targeted.

’Prospective clients want to feel that agencies have the ability to

handle their business; what they don’t need to know are the specifics of

campaigns run for other clients - they want to know what you can do for

them,’ says research manager Tamsin Addison.

In fact, Addison maintains that most clients question the value of any

mailing, however relevant, carefully targeted and well executed. ’Client

companies believe that agencies waste time and money on expensive

brochures and promotional material. Word of mouth and recommendation are

the key to winning new business.’

Comments like this suggest that only a handful of business-to-business

mailings really work.


Susan Lazareff

Head of marketing, Packard Bell

The last thing you expect to see when wading through your mail on a

Monday morning is a used cricket box. Believe me, it’s not a welcome

sight - especially when you know it’s used only because you fear you

might have spotted a stray curly hair within.

This delight arrived with me courtesy of a radio station to promote its

World Cup coverage. An unpleasant item to send to anyone I would

imagine, but one wonders if they considered how a woman might feel on

receiving something like this. So troubled was I by this sight that I

decided to leave the rest of the direct mail items to one side.

More direct marketing delights await me on return to the office after a

morning full of meetings. This time it adds up to three items, plus a

couple left over from yesterday’s mail. The quality and ’taste’ factor

are slightly higher and one of the items really catches my eye -

lavender body massage oil. Great, except I don’t like lavender, and it

just serves to remind me I have no one in my life right now to do the


Much of the success of direct marketing lies with the timing. Something

can hit your desk at just the right time and you follow it up, whereas a

week earlier it might have ended up going straight into the bin. In

fact, I was so impressed by a very clever and witty mailing piece

wishing me ’Happy Easter’ earlier this year that we have since been in

touch with the design agency involved.

On average, I get between eight and ten pieces of direct mail each week,

but the ’pieces’ keep getting bigger and more obtrusive. I know it can’t

be easy for companies coming up with ideas to make their items stand out

from the crowd. However, making an impact is one thing and sending a

dirty old piece of footwear through the post is something else


Today I received an old, used man-sized boot through the post, with the

slogan ’Is it time to give your old agency the boot?’. I think not, plus

it took ages to get the mud out of the carpet.

Second-hand keyboard this morning. To the ’UK’s number one supplier of

PCs to the home’ - I think I have enough already. My tip would be ’keep

it simple’ and try to not go off the scale with the ’yuck’ factor. Also

buried in this morning’s Pandora’s Box of direct mail was a fish-hook,

complete with a note bearing the phrase ’Now we’ve got you hooked ...’.

Nice try, but I don’t think so.

It’s been a tough week and while the short piece of string (to do with

brand awareness?) wasn’t too bad, I just can’t face the other couple of

suspicious-looking packages that are currently sitting on my desk. Maybe

I should get my assistant to ’screen’ my mail in future.


Charlie Edelman

Head of advertising and publicity, London Transport

OK, so millennium fever is mounting with only a few months left on the

clock, but is this sufficient reason to jump the bandwagon and aimlessly

brand all your merchandise with a large ’M’? The millennium is a great

marketing hook, but as with all hooks it must be relevant, which is

definitely not what came across in the Marshall Cavendish mailing.

The obscurely branded manual mailing that landed on my desk carried a

Millennium 2000 design which begged the question ’Why?’. I have re-read

the letter and pack several times in a vain attempt to ascertain its

relevance to the year 2000 and have still not made the connection. There

may well be valid logic behind the pack, but I can’t make the link.

To be fair, the products look good and the letter is OK, with a fairly

good lead on the headline - ’Our limitation is your imagination’. But

even these aren’t explored or explained, something that always makes me

wonder whether the headline and the copy have separate authors.

Admittedly, communicating with those who also work in the communication

business is difficult. Your audience is not only hypercritical, but all

too ready to hit the ’I wouldn’t have done it like that’ button. But

sometimes companies get it right and Communicator did just that.

The pack was colourful and intriguing so it stood out. But more than

that, the artwork, design, copy and messages all tied together nicely,

adding substantially to its prominence in my 12-inch-high-and-rising

in-tray. My pet hate is creative and copy which don’t feed off each

other, but this was not the case here. The pack included examples of the

agency’s work linking Robinsons and A Bug’s Life, and all the copy

followed through, playing on related words - ’squash’, ’bug’, etc.

Most importantly, they kept the copy short, so in one quick read I got

everything I needed to know. After all, that’s the point of the exercise

isn’t it?

Still on the subject of knowing your audience and getting your message

across, here’s a word of warning to any companies out there planning to

mail me. Database companies and DM agencies often insist they really

understand targeting, and their direct mail shouts about getting it

right. However, one look at the addresses on many of the mailings I’ve

received shows they’ve clearly got it wrong, addressing and referring to

me as a man.

Okay, I know my name’s Charlie, and it’s an easy mistake, but while I

find it amusing rather than annoying, it does undermine their



Mark Smitheringale

Head of corporate communications, Skipton Building Society

I have often wondered whether direct mail is so called because it mostly

passes direct from the post pile into the grey plastic file we all keep

marked BIN.

So what makes me stop and pay more than a cursory glance at a


Grabbing the reader’s attention is the most fundamental point and it is

interesting how companies are going to ever greater lengths to make

their mailings even more glossy, more colourful and more attractive. But

while the visual impact is one issue, the focus and accuracy of the

mailing is, to my mind, equally important.

Direct mail, or junk mail, is instinctively ignored by many people.

While I don’t subscribe to the junk theory myself, there is nothing more

frustrating than receiving a ’to whom it may concern’ mailing, or one

addressed to my predecessor of three years ago.

However, a quality piece of direct mail is usually hard to resist. You

know when you are prospecting for gold that there’s the possibility of

one large nugget, waiting to be discovered. So how have I been grabbed

in recent weeks?

’Media disc saves so much time - it’s like having an extra pair of hands

in the office’ - what an attractive proposition! The mailing explained

that media disc provides cost-effective solutions to the practical,

everyday issues faced by virtually all PR professionals.

The sales message was clear and the letter was perfectly targeted at

just the right time. Excellent sales support resulted in one more happy

customer being signed up.

Interbrand Newell and Sorrell’s Utopian Nights programme - addressed to

my predecessor and at no particular abode. Mmmmmm. Loyd Grossman is

expected to reveal his driving passion to revolutionise the role of

museums in modern society. He will be talking about his mission to bring

museums to the heart of a movement to change and improve the quality of

our lives.

Fantastic, but how relevant will this be to the world of financial

services, I wonder?

Corporate Services Network with the offer of a free Waterford Crystal

golf prize table. Something free - now you’ve got me! Aimed at

organisations which buy corporate gifts, this promotion explains how I

can get products which are cheaper than UK retail prices. This is

appealing, especially with a tickbox reply with fax details for an

immediate response - one to pass on to my secretary.

Intrigue makes me look at a plain and lonely brochure which, when

opened, offers a copy of a vehicle advert which was placed in magazines

earlier this year. The slogan ’Creativity that makes a difference’ is

included on the reverse. Clever but confusing; no killing to be made

there for Osprey Advertising Agency.

Direct marketing is clearly a growing and innovative industry, with more

companies recognising the importance of targeted mailing campaigns.

However, unless the customer can easily perceive the benefits of

responding, the mailing will end up in the office bin, and another

golden nugget will remain unexposed.


Andy Law

Chairman, St Luke’s

I’m going to play the game properly. Here’s what I remember and think of

my direct mail.

It’s Wednesday. Last Monday I returned from two weeks in Sardinia (no

direct mail bar the one camped outside the au pair’s bedroom window), so

I had a nice fat stack to wade through.

You can spot them a mile away. Either A4 white envelopes with sticky

computer print-out labels, or the most bizarre of shapes and bright


Lots of office equipment brochures, some financial institutions offering

something or other and invitations to join clubs. Many pictures of

30-year-old suited executives shaking hands with each other. I think

they all wore glasses (boosts perceived IQ). The majority of this intake

falls under A4 white envelope. Message: Do your homework. Binned the

lot. No apologies.

Um. I remembered a little cardboard box. Inside was a catering pack of

one individual cream serving. ’Cream’ it said. ’Come and see the cream

of the new crop of creative talent’. I scanned the pigeon holes. Lots of

little boxes. Saturation bombing. Binned. (Sorry, but I did notice


Ah, I remember. How could I forget? The obligatory Big Buff IPA


Dutifully scanned and stored away. Honest, Rupert.

Er. Yes! The conferences. On everything. There was one about a creative

conference in Sheffield or Sunderland. It stands out because the nice Mr

Durden from PHD personalised it with a few bons mots. The rest


I loathe conferences. I don’t like being subjected to endless PowerPoint

presentations, while stuck in the same seat with only lime cordial and

boiled sweets to keep me going. Now they are big money-spinners there

are too many of them. Hence I instinctively question the value of them


However, Jonathan’s one (that’s how I describe it) deserved to be read,

and included John Hegarty among the speakers. It fluttered tentatively

in the balance of my mind. Unresolved it went into my locker, there to

form part of a multi-layered archaeological site which, when excavated

at Christmas, will provide a fine history of the things that didn’t

quite make it.

A couple of years ago two St Lukers opened each other’s direct mail for

a week to see if matters were improved by serendipity. No such luck. The

medium is the message, and the message is ’hold him tight while I force

him to hear what I’ve got to say. And this time

it’s ... biscuit-coloured carpets’.

It’s the printed-matter version of Yoko Ono’s 60s film Rape, in which

she persisted in forcing the innocent public to be projected through


In business you either add value or cost. Reading direct mail mostly

adds costs. Better to read properly all those CVs that drive you mad but

may be sent by the next Bill Gates. Business-to-business direct mail is

mostly uncreative, by which I mean it rarely delights and gives


Stop. Don’t Drayton Bird me to death. It’s a science that works. It just

doesn’t work for me, unless I’m at home and you are BT (I love their

leaflets and get all my info from them), Innovations magazine (top

loo-reading material) or my local church magazine (ace cartoons and

pleasingly self-deprecating).

As I have come to learn, direct mail is a percentage game. Most direct

mailers I know get very excited by rates of return in single percentage

figures. The delight of this business lies in the small margins of its

success, not in the bigger picture of its overall impact.

But hey, I’m not as prejudiced as I sound. I suppose I can live with all

of you who want to sell to me in this way (and just occasionally there

is something I’d like to buy). Except for YOU. You know who you are -

you who have written to me for ten years as Mr Lan.

I hide in the net nowadays, anyway.


Tony Mackness

Managing director, Euro RSCG Direct

Invited to comment on a typical week’s direct mail received at work, I

asked my staff to supply me with examples of mail they’d received. The

inevitable dross of poorly targeted, incorrectly addressed and

disastrously executed mailers arrived on my desk, along with the usual

seminar invitations on the essentials of direct marketing. Ploughing

through it I was astounded by the efficiency of some companies in

enticing business, and the apparent ineptitude of others.

One of the most striking pieces in my pile was a fulfilment pack from

James McNaughton Paper Group. The first thing that impressed me was the

sturdiness of the pack. The letter inside refers explicitly to the reply

card our production manager had returned - always a good idea to jog his

memory. A beautifully bound book provides paper samples with various

printing and perforation techniques. The most impressive feature,

however, is the functionality and durability of this, compared with so

many other outsized sample books that we receive.

Two other beautifully designed mailers were received by our creative

director and bound to catch attention. From Photonica and Corbis Images,

both are clear in what they’re promoting and offer web sites for


However, only Corbis offers the opportunity to request further

information in addition to asking some qualifying questions - let’s hope

it uses them.

The most innovative idea came in a tiny silver envelope which contained

a folding leaflet promoting ’One for the Road’ chauffeur service and

Z-Card’s PocketMedia concept. However, most of it simply lists sporting

events and good reliable restaurants. I’m always looking for a good

restaurant and inevitably regret driving. Hence I can assure you it will

always stay in my pocket, as well as being recommended to my account


I was initially attracted to a mailer from Kenco, thanks to the unusual

placing of a testimonial on the envelope, only then to be disappointed

by its content. I am managing director of a sizeable company and,

despite enjoying a good cup of coffee, I have little interest in the

specifications of a coffee machine. Extra time and money spent on

targeting would probably ensure better response.

Gift and incentive mailers are frequently well targeted, though seldom

effectively executed. An enticing box arrived with the teaser ’Here’s

where you can stick the millennium’. After a battle to get into the

excessively secure package I arrived at a china millennium tankard from

Churchill China. A scrappy leaflet invited me to ’Stick it here’ - the

millennium that is.

Frankly, why should its offer of personalised china be any more

appealing than any of the other millennium incentive offers I’ve

received? I’ve yet to find out.

Systema, on the other hand, went for the usual approach. A letter

informing me it has the solution with its innovative gifts and premium


On to the brochure. Hardly innovative and certainly not premium -


Looking at a week’s worth of mail, I can only say that I wish those

companies trying to get cash out of me made the same effort with their

targeting and creativity as the photographic libraries and paper

suppliers trying to win the hearts of my team.


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