Marc Michaels has spoken of his pride in championing direct, data and digital marketing techniques – and the resultant successful campaigns – in his first interview since stepping down as director of direct marketing and evaluation at the
Michaels spent over 25 years at the government agency – which closed on March 31 – and was charged with creating a centre for “direct marketing excellence”.
He oversaw hundreds of campaigns, as well as a £60m budget, but Michaels still views his biggest single achievement as “getting direct on the agenda for Government, and for it to be a constantly growing part of the integrated whole”.
He added: “Over the years, the direct teams at the COI have championed the cause for direct in government and grown the professionalism and standards.”
Citing the expansion from direct mail to email, door-drops, inserts, SMS, field/experiential marketing, contact centres, fulfilment and CRM, Michaels added: “We also made major strides in improving creativity and in the use of data for profiling, segmentation, personalisation and individualisation – and in evaluation.”
First days at the COI
Of course, the direct marketing industry has also moved on considerably from the day Michaels walked into the COI offices, ripped down the sign that said ‘distribution’ and set about building a direct communications team.
As he explained: “Over the years the direct budgets grew because the departments saw that it worked and the evaluation reinforced this.”
During this time, he built a team of up to 40 professionals – at its highest – within government, with many people coming in over the years and leaving as fully rounded direct marketers. And Michaels, who also saw spend soar from zero to £60m, maintains it was very much a team effort – and one of which he is very proud.
He said: “When we started out we were basically using direct mail and door drops. That was pretty much it. In fact, when I was introducing telemarketing, contact centres and CRM, face to face, email, SMS, inserts etc into the direct mix for the COI, I remember having charts that said: ‘DM – it’s not just direct mail’.
“Sadly direct marketing was often just used interchangeably and we spent a lot of time convincing people to broaden their horizons.
“Digital clearly had a huge impact on activity, both on acquisition and response mechanisms that were employed. Though given that a large proportion of the people who are in the government’s target audiences who are not online or light users of the Internet it is key that this is remembered and we were always making this point.”
This was evidenced back in 1989 – long before the Internet became mainstream – when the department set up the Publicity Register, a membership database of intermediaries on the high street (libraries, CABs, GPs surgeries etc) which was used 20 to 30 times a year as a ‘safety-net’ to target difficult to reach people with government material.
The rise of data strategy
Michaels also pinpoints the growing appreciation of the role of data (often now referred to as the ‘new oil’) over the years. “When people spoke about data in the very old days they were probably talking about a mailing list. Now it is econometrics, segmentation, predictive modelling and using data to create individualised communications with variable content.”
His department was instrumental in setting up response and conversion analysis system Artemis, as well as re-introducing evaluation into the government space.
Michaels also witnessed the rise of creativity among DM agencies, to a point where ad agencies and direct agencies were on the same pitches and the DM agencies would be giving them a run for their money.
“Of course, just about everyone positions themselves as integrated now,” Michaels concluded, “but the rigour of direct in terms of accountability has started to be applied in the other sectors and evaluation has become much more important in the industry.”
COI CAMPAIGNS – MARC MICHAELS’ PERSONAL VIEW
Department of Health: ‘Back to Sleep’
In an effort to reduce the incidence of cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), this DoH campaign advised new mothers, grandmothers and midwives to put the baby on its side or back to sleep.
Fronted by Anna Ford (who had a child die of SIDS), it was highly successful at changing what had been ingrained behaviour. The initiative resulted in a halving of the infant mortality rate in a year and eventually down by 70%.
Michaels: “The best campaign ever and worth my entire 25-year career alone. My wife Avielah calls me a ‘superhero’ because I was involved with it.”
Department of Health: ‘Aids – Don’t Die of Ignorance’
Michaels’ first ever project at the COI as a new recruit in 1986, he was thrown into this major activity involving TV, a nationwide door-drop and a national helpline to all households.
Widely credited as breaking the taboo of the condom (previously it was one of those words you just didn’t hear in public) and encouraging use/safe sex.
Michaels: “The generation who experienced that campaign all remember it, even 25 years on and the message sunk in. Although the target of the campaign was HIV, it actually had a profound effect on all sexually transmitted infections – which fell exponentially.
“New diagnoses of HIV, which were over 3,000 in 1985, dropped by a third in three years. There was some other activity afterwards for several years and the number of new diagnoses stayed relatively stable until 1999.
“HIV has since more than doubled to 7,000 new diagnoses each year and oddly enough a recent discussion suggested that the campaign was not effective. But the critique missed the rather obvious point that anyone born or entering the age of consent after that time would not have been exposed to it, hence the increase. These things need to be in the public’s minds on a continuous basis. You have to sustain the message for the new generations.”
Department of Transport: ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’
First launched more than 30 years ago, successive governments have continued drink drive education. Around 100,000 people are still caught drink driving every year, but most observers believe the campaigns have triggered a cultural shift.
Michaels: “A sustained long-term approach targets specific times of the year (Christmas in particular) and has concentrated the message. Although not personally involved I believe this strategy has successfully led to people seeing drinking and driving as wrong and not the social norm anymore.”
The Army: Camouflage CRM scheme
Set up in 2000, from an idea Michaels had to get youngsters interested in nursing, Camouflage is designed to target ‘pre-eligibles’ – the 13- to 16-year-olds who are interested in and considering a career in the Army. Developed by Cramm Francis Woolf, this multi-award winning CRM programme (it scooped four DMA golds and a Precision Marketing Grand Prix), complemented the advertising campaign and kept youngsters engaged until they were eligible to join up. At one stage, the Army claimed to have more than 120,000 members in the programme. The strategy has also been adopted by the RAF, for its Altitude scheme.
Home Office: ‘Preparing for Emergencies’
Launched in July 2004, this £8m government campaign was designed to help the public prepare for terror attacks and other emergencies. A 22-page booklet offered first aid advice, contact numbers and practical tips such as keeping supplies of tinned food, bottled water and batteries. The Home Office said the campaign was in response to research showing the public wanted more practical advice.
Michaels: “A difficult campaign also involving TV and household drop that struck a balance between giving people the information they needed and not panicking them and which I think helped prepare people for 7/7.”
Department for Work & Pensions: ‘What are you doing after work’
This radio and direct marketing campaign targeting youngsters was designed to encourage people to start saving for a pension at a young age, rather than wait until they would have to pay more into a scheme.
Michaels: “John Major referred to this as ‘the smutty campaign’ because we looked at ‘fun’ and why it doesn’t need to ever stop if youngsters started saving for a pension early.
“Very tame by today’s standards but one mailing cell had a 19% response rate – remember this is pensions for youngsters – and very high awareness for a direct campaign.”
Department of Health: FAST
Launched in February 2009 with hard-hitting imagery to highlight the visible signs of stroke, the Act FAST campaign is designed to inform the public about FAST – Face, Arm, Speech, Time to call 999. FAST is a simple test to help people to recognise the signs of stroke and understand the importance of emergency treatment. The faster a stroke patient receives treatment, the better their chances are of surviving and reducing long-term disability.
Michaels: “Good results for an amazingly impactful commercial. I had nothing personally to do with it but it is a fantastic piece of work.”