I’m in the office, it’s 10.03am. Mat walks in, tosses my mail at me, walks on doing the same for the rest of the crew. Some people get half a dozen letters and A4 brochure things. Others get one or two. Somebody in Creative gets a thing that flies around the room when you open the envelope. This happens every day. Someone from the office goes down to the Australia Post branch and gets our mail. Same thing is happening in every office in Australia, every working day.

I open mine. Of my three A4 things, two are ‘real estate for sale’ notices. There is also a big brochure from a mailing list company, three direct mail letters with a DL and letter in them, one thankyou note for something I shouldn’t have done and finally one cheque from a very nice, but slightly old-fashioned client whose system spits out cheques instead of direct debits – our only client who still uses them.

All paper. All could have been done electronically. All, except for the cheque, basically unwanted. The whole office’s lot weighs about half a kilo. Not much of a tree – hardly a sapling really. Plus a few ounces of phosphorous and chlorine to bleach the paper white. A few ounces of nickel and cadmium and ferrous oxide to colour the pages. Some kilos of greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide etc. – to generate the power to smash that little tree up and crush it into paper, to power the Mac that did the graphic work, to power the mobile phone of the agency suit who talked to the marketing managers for two hours about the strategy…

What strategy? It’s direct. You just send out enough of them and some suckers will buy, you’ll maybe even crack over the magical one percent effectiveness mark, to justify you doing it again three months later.

I bleat on in this column about strategy all the time. About the Big Idea. About changing the mindset of an industry to have impact. To get results. But I waste my time when I talk to direct mailers because they don’t work on that wavelength. They are happy to do the mediocre, just because it works, just.

I’m kind of pleased to say that the tacky end of direct is slowly dying. And it’s dying because the public wants it to. The public sees the writing on the wall.

Still, some direct is really taking off. Direct emails are booming. So are direct phone calls (as long as the caller is not Indian). Direct TV is doing nicely. Direct from the-website-to-you is booming. But direct where the wastage is high, where volumes are sent instead of clever ideas, where segments are too large or where ratios of return aren’t high? The way of the dodo.

And, yes, we always read about the doom of an industry in these types of magazines. People are always predicting the demise of outdoor or the ruination of TV because of ‘fragmentation’, whatever the F that is, but I can feel the mood swing against poor quality direct mail more than I’ve ever felt any predicted demise before. People bristle on the neck when they see wads of paper being delivered to their homes. Does it show yet in the DM industry figures? I doubt it, but smart marketers are adjusting their use – demanding way more from their suppliers, particularly their creatives.

Sheer waste

This is because, as grown-ups on a crowded planet, we need to be able to put aside ‘in balance’ sheer business arguments and look at things in a mature fashion. We cannot in all seriousness condone huge waste for the sake of a few short-term dollars. (Well, the public can’t and that’s your biggest problem – doing something the public doesn’t approve of is death. Think of what sheer waste says about your brand, your attitude to the future…)

But in the long-term, as with the use of nuclear fuel, the pros for continuing along the established direct path do not outweigh the cons. We need ‘value adding’ like we’ve never seen it before. Where are the true thinkers in direct? Why aren’t they doing more?

I liken it to the nuclear debate because it is such a strong example of similar short-term dumb, accountant-style thinking. Run, like many Australian political arguments, by people who have a vested interest in the outcome, rather than by someone who’s taking an objective view of the issues.

Nuclear fuel could power us as a planet-load of people for a few years in total – maybe 10. As a percentage of our total fuel needs, maybe for about 30 to 40. (Ziggy Switkowski’s figures – I was at a lunch recently where he spoke about it.) For those 30 years we would benefit from slightly fewer carbon emissions. But for the next million years-plus someone would have to look after that spent fuel (uranium has a half-life of 300,000 years. Its nasty bit shrinks by half each 300K, meaning for a tonne to shrink to a kilo – which is still dangerous enough to kill everyone in Sydney – it would take around three million years).

Let’s look at human history a bit to get this into rock solid perspective. We do not know why the pyramids were built. We don’t know much about their secrets, even how they were built. We only started to be able to read the hieroglyphics on their walls in the 1920s because an Italian called Stefan Rossini managed to translate them by luckily connecting them with a dead language, Sanskrit. The point is, they were built only five to seven thousand years ago. And we know nothing. How can we expect people to look after some concrete bunkers in 200 years let alone 200,000 years, if they’re getting no benefit from doing it? As if they would? “Oh, we’ll just make sure no one goes in here, because an ancient God called Ziggy Stardust told us it would be bad juju”. Imagine trying to get that past a parliamentary expense committee? And keep in mind, the pyramids don’t leak into the ground water and kill everything on the planet.

You can’t justify shit direct mail anymore than you can justify 30 selfish years of easy, brain-dead power to the timeless infinity of being. Make no mistake, we will be judged as those who killed off our entire species, should we get the next couple of years wrong.

So I’m not going to waste more paper on the subject. I’m going to concentrate on those aspects of direct we can comfortably gravitate towards.


Becoming the groovy environment-conscious directee’s weapon of choice, emails are cheap to send out – normally free, got to love that. Can be cheap to put together, will often generate better returns, faster than any other method. You can literally have an idea this morning, brief the creative team, get some artwork up inside of an hour or three, send them out and get sales back the same day. And you can measure what category of customers responded to what creative, so you can change the story/emphasis regularly to do a better job. I challenge you to think of anything that comes close to being that effective dollar for dollar.

It will really boom when the Federal Government changes and/or Telstra or a consortium decides to spend the four to five billion dollars needed to upgrade our lines to optical fibre, like any country worth noting. But, there are the interests of TV to take into consideration and who would want our people having another viable media option? Certainly not the Packers or the Murdochs.

  • To do emails well, stay very flexible. Be prepared to adjust your creative according to what is going on in the world market at the time – topical is very powerful – if there’s been a big bombing or Peter Costello has just resigned, or whatever, use the news of the day for maximum effect.
  • Be right for the time. It is an instant medium. If you’re sending out to Australia at 8am, mention coffee or cereal, not wine and roast dinners.
  • Be cyber-oriented. It’s not a stuffy old letter typed on a manual typewriter in 1956 by Elmer G Letterman (ask your 60-year-old direct agency copywriter, or look it up on Google). Use short words, SMS shorthand.
  • Use original pictures. Anyone using obvious stock shots gets a much lower response than real shots. Think MySpace. Moving footage of real people doing silly things gets huge results. It’s good now to hit high-income customers or business, and will be very popular for the masses when we get real broadband.
  • Don’t use jargon. I know you corporate marketing types out there can’t help yourselves. God knows jargon is your only defence against the accountants in corporate land, but the public doesn’t respond well to jargon. They have too much going on in their lives to worry what you’re on about, so they just move their short concentration span eyes to another less painful subject and you lose sales.
  • Customise campaigns – make sure the gender is correct, the prizes worth winning, the tone of the note right for that audience, the fact you’ve contacted them before, it’s been on this subject etc. Your IT/database people can tell you these things, but you have to be nice to them. Try buying them a cup of coffee and not sniggering at their haircut.
  • Rejig things if they are not working. Don’t run hundreds of thousands out to people, you’ll only piss them off if you’ve got it wrong – do a 1000-person exercise, wait a few hours, check responses, change it, change it again, eventually get a good level of response, then roll it out.

Permission marketing is the only way to go, especially in Oz where we have privacy laws, which I have to say are an abomination in their current state. But that’s another whole article, and overdue I’m sure.

A recent Kingston University (UK) study found the following ‘amazing’ results: higher response rates correlate with more appealing subject lines, more images, a higher monetary offer, more appealing incentives and, shock horror, are inversely affected by the length of the email. In other words, make it topical, offer lots, keep it short.

The same study, which covered 371,072 individuals and their responses, found a click-through rate of only three percent in outbound emails. So don’t feel so bad if yours aren’t getting a much better return than that.


My favourite direct. Worked with decent creative, a well-designed, easily navigated, heavy-selling website and a room full of telemarketers to close the deal, damn near nothing can beat it as a way to get vast volumes of sales at full margin. (Never forget – retail is invariably a discounting medium today.) We have a client called iSelect, which does this so successfully that the Libs, who want to float off Medibank Private for a mint, have established a government department to try to kill it off. iSelect has grown 100 percent per annum, week on week, for the last three to four years using this approach, and now accounts for some 10 percent of the private health market.

Traditionalists use long ads – late night TV is full of them. The ab slicer. The butt shrinker. The big-breasted blonde with the perfect white teeth and the vacant eyes. Sitting next to the meaty guy with the perfect hair (they always remind me of Fabio, I don’t know why…) who makes her look like Einstein. This is because they are normally Americans pushing these products and Americans are really bog stupid. (Anyone who lets George Bush Jnr run their country into the ground over two terms deserves the world’s ridicule.)

If you hire a decent ad agency and use a bit of creativity, you can have the same effect over far less time, so you can afford to run ads in higher rating shows. This gets heaps more sales than the traditionalist approach because there are only so many deadbeats that are up at 4am in the morning. And they are all stoned or whacked sideways from party drugs and very few of them have any money left.


Run some decent Google to get ‘em there. Or even mainstream ads if you can afford it. Make it simple to navigate. Nice big buttons for dummies. Make the deals seem wonderful. (Understand that we are all time-strapped except on Sunday arvos, so they don’t have to be the best deals, just the easiest to buy.) Throw in a set of steak knives. Organise delivery. Make sure you have a team of telemarketers for anything complicated. And Bob’s your grand-daddy, this is how direct works today.

Yes, slower than the full-on TV version. More manageable, cheaper to adjust, but more expensive per hit/sale than TV-powered. Much faster than direct snail mail and works intimately with outbound emails and other fuelling media. If you’re still going via retailers who stick it up your bum faster than look at you, then kick you in the head for wanting to be paid, think web.

Party plans

Yes, fun on a Thursday night. Yes, I want to buy strap-on everything. Yes, it’s as old-fashioned as black and white TV and very expensive per sale, but it costs bugger-all to set up and works a treat with the right product. And you have to be able to deal with all sorts of people, all of the time. But fun. Did I mention it was fun?

Quality direct mail

Direct post is still booming, but I feel it’s reaching a plateau. It certainly isn’t dead. It is, however, getting a rude shock and that’s good for any component of our society. It needs a few adjustments and to be able to justify itself to the community by regular demonstration of its own worth. To do this, it must strive for more flexibility. For sensible recycling uses for householders, like a cat food ad doubling as cat litter “Pissed off with expensive cat food?”. For much more use of die-cuts/post-backs/clever creative. For more integration of campaigns across websites, TV and radio. If you work things together properly, results skyrocket. And it needs much more customer involvement – for better returns, with less paper.

Phone calls: telemarketing

Still works in industrial sales. You don’t have much choice really; if you can’t ring potential customers, what’s the world coming to? Tricky to get past some receptionists who believe their only role in life is to kill commerce off at its grass roots, but this is where flirtation is king, where patience is a virtue and where good research beats dumb blundering every time.

Not so bad in domestic, as long as the offer is right, the punter has not put their name on the Do Not Call list, you are not working to set scripts, but prepared to ebb and flow the conversation according to the person’s mood on the other end of the line, and you are using Australians with normal Ozzie accents.


Apparently the way of the future. Audio and/or video live over the internet. The growth of webcast traffic has roughly doubled, year on year, since 1995 and is directly linked to broadband penetration. As broadband can deliver high-speed media offerings including on-demand video, Flash and video streaming, advertisers have also started to take notice, at least overseas where you can get it. With events like Live 8 and the 2005 London bombings, claiming 170,000-plus concurrent viewers, the opportunity for uptake is huge. As a new mass communications medium, webcasting is presenting both consumers and advertisers with fab opportunities to influence. You can have direct communication with your potential buyer, while they are motivated, paying attention and interacting with the commercial. Price is also another advantage; web streaming is considerably cheaper than television per hit.


Advertisers sending customers little messages that are fun. Great way to build up CRM with few downsides as long as it’s a two-way street and people enjoy them. With the growth of 3G and 4G comes a wonderful new resource – being able to send a picture-based message to a person when they are near your shops. I love the idea of hitting people at the right time with the right message. May be a bit annoying on occasion to the punter, unless they have opted in, but humour and topicality? Hot day, you get a note from 7/11, say 500 metres before you pass one, with a really fat, sweaty guy, dancing in a tutu, saying that it’s got ice cream/drink combos for $5? Not exactly direct, but send a rock video with a ticket message to a music lover? That is.

I’m sorry I’m so negative about direct post, but with sperm the worst of all pollutants and the globe dying under the weight of the virus we call humanity, I think we need to grow millions more trees, regardless of why they were planted. Nothing sucks up carbon like mature trees – a big gum or pine will put on tonnes a year, a newly planted sapling will only put on ounces. You do the maths. We should stop logging old-growth forests immediately. We should pay the paper companies to leave more of the farmed trees in the ground. And plant millions of hectares of new ones. Get the loggers off their chainsaws and onto some shovels. Probably go some way to fixing the obesity problem in the bush…

Next month I’m writing about marketing in the digital age, like I haven’t covered it enough in the stuff above. If you’re a ninemsn, a Yahoo!, a Google or somebody like that who could shout lunch, let’s do it. The editor and I are hanging for a good sushi, two bottles of saki or a new Honda.