They used to say that when budgets are tight, clients instinctively turn to direct marketing. If that is still the case – and no-one is arguing against it yet – then the past few years should have seen a stampede of new agencies, eager to exploit the economic downturn.
Back in the late Nineties, the last time the economy was in the doldrums, start-ups were emerging quicker than you could ask “what the hell’s a Johnson Box?”
Barraclough Hall Woolston Gray (now Proximity), Archibald Ingall Stretton, Partners Andrews Aldridge, Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw, Chemistry Communications… All made no secret of the fact that they were founded on classic direct marketing principles and WPP, Havas, Omnicom and Publicis soon came knocking.
But, these days, where everyone is bamboozled by digital, saying you are a DM agency could be seen as akin to admitting you have a nasty disease.
That was until former Lida creative director Shaun Moran, ex-Elvis managing partner Mike Cullis and former CMW planning director Ben Rachel launched their agency, Soul, late last year. Refreshingly, they make no bones about being a DM business.
PPHN and the formulative years
Ten months in the making, the seeds for the agency were first sown back in 1994, when Rachel and Cullis first worked together at Pearson Paul Haworth Nolan, the legendary DM business whose eight-year history is now industry lore. Even Campaign magazine – hardly known for its love of “shit that folds” – conceded it was way ahead of its day, although by 1997 it had crashed out of sight.
By this time Cullis was working at Wunderman, where he first met Moran. Over the years, and over a period of awards judging, pitching against each other and consuming pints, the trio’s conversation regularly and increasingly turned to the industry and the agency world. Aside from PPHN and Wunderman, between them they have worked at some of the most successful agencies in the UK, including Partners Andrews Aldridge, Claydon Heeley, Ogilvy, Lida, Elvis, Kitcatt Nohr, and CMW.
It soon became clear they held a shared belief in the continued, growing relevance and potential of direct marketing, coupled with a shared ambition to do their own thing.
Moran explains: “We took a bit of time to explore and develop a proposition, making sure that the dynamic between the three of us was a good one, ensuring that we could stand spending more time together!”
Eventually the plan was hatched and, with a helping hand from design firm Tag, they moved into offices in Farringdon at the tail end of last year. Founding clients include Superdrug (below, right), Liberty and Licx.
The ‘not-so risky’ business model
But did they ever think they were taking a risk by declaring themselves a DM agency?
Cullis thinks not. “Back in 1954, [business guru] Peter Drucker said ‘the aim of business is to create and keep customers’, and I don’t see anything has changed since. This is what direct marketing is about. The principles are the same as they always were, but the opportunities and the tools at our disposal have moved on.
He also cites Obama’s tech whizz Harper Lee, who recently claimed that “all marketing is direct”, although Cullis stresses: “We would say ‘most’, but it is going that way.”
He reckons that many DM agencies are now claiming to be all things to all men, because they are trying desperately to reinvent themselves in a digital world – and trying to tick boxes, rather than stand by the principles on which they were founded.
The founders strengthen this case by citing the list of priorities and challenges that clients have given in recent surveys for IBM, Forrester et al. Some 8 out of 10 relate squarely to direct marketing – whether that is a quest for customer intimacy and creating a better customer experience, making sense of big data and the right tools to analyse it, responding to the multichannel challenge or delivering measurable return on investment.
Moran adds: “Given all that, we would argue that clients need direct marketing agencies now, more than ever. It does mean that the DM agency of today is a different beast in terms of what it can deliver, but the principles by which we operate are the same. Yet agencies need to balance their IQ with their EQ – because people still buy people.”
The art of good marketing communication
Which takes us neatly onto Soul’s premise of “people first, channel second”. It sounds common-sense but how does it actually work?
Rachel gives us the lowdown. “Our premise starts with ‘moving people’. While we know it makes for a good line in the removals business, it is also what we believe good marketing communication needs to do.
“Our job is to influence how people feel and how people act. If you’re in the business of selling (which we are by the way), people’s buying decisions are shaped by how you make them feel. So, that’s why we start with people. Because, you need to understand what you’re trying to get people to do first and the context in which you’re doing this, before you jump to channel.”
Although this may sound obvious, it is not being practised, Rachel maintains. “As channels and technology have proliferated and moved on, agencies and clients have become easily distracted – thinking ‘we have to be doing something in this channel or with that technology’ because it’s the latest thing or because our competitors are doing it. They don’t seem to spare a thought for the purpose, the desired outcome and how it will be measured or tracked through.”
Moran adds: “Our world will continue to develop and change. What’s most important is to keep up with people and their path to purchase, understanding the context in which purchase decisions are made. Then look to the best mix of technology and channels available – and of course, test and experiment along the way as all good direct marketing should.
“But it’s critical that creativity remains focused on outcome. If we focus on creative that delivers the commercial benefits we won’t go too wrong.”
What’s in it for their clients?
Ultimately, all three founders are keen to stress that the Soul’s sole purpose is to solve problems and open up opportunities for clients.
Cullis explains: “The clients that get it right are the ones who have a vision for their brand and the customer’s experience of it, as well as an attitude of honesty, openness and a sense of shared ambition and goals. This is all the more important now, because the procurement process can put distance between clients and agencies. An inclusive, honest relationship creates the perfect environment for great work and successful campaigns.”
When pressed on why clients should choose Soul, Cullis is clear: “We help our clients sell. We know how to unpick consumers’ decision-making process and we know how to leverage our clients’ brands in that process.”