Spooner on…a love letter to the humble direct mailshot

spooner newThis week’s St Valentine’s Day was, alas, another day that, as ever, cruelly and truthfully reinforced my endless solitude. Eheu!

As I luxuriated in my self-pity, the dark, bitter rain swept over the encircling Downs and rinsed the filthy squares and boulevards of Brighton as I watched the seemingly endless convoy of shiny, red Royal Mail vans (no doubt freshly polished and buffed by sycophantic area sales managers in awe of the handsome, fiercely intelligent, yet somehow, gratifyingly down-to-earth local aristocrat) snaking towards Shoreham to deliver, as they do year-upon-year, great bushels of Valentine’s cards to Lord McKelvey’s Palladian, nay, Vitruvian, palace of a thousand delights, trailing a great cloud of the variously heady and consistently exquisite perfumes with which his multitude of admirers of every sex, sprinkle the much-kissed and heart-breakingly tear-drenched envelopes in the which snuggle their scarlet yearnings, pleas and tributes.

“Bastard.” I muttered to myself, glancing nervously, yet defiantly around me to check for any of His Lordship’s many spies, narks, grasses and placemen, known to haunt the gaudy, quirky, “funky” (quunky and firky?) and frankly disappointing streets and stinking twittens of Brighton’s “tourist-friendly” North Laine.


“According to the official biography of the Diocese of Terni, Bishop Valentine was born and lived in Interamna and while on a temporary stay in Rome he was imprisoned, tortured, martyred and decapitated there on February 14, 269AD. His body was hastily buried at a nearby cemetery and a few nights later his disciples retrieved his body and returned him home.”

And yet, as ever, these sorry circumstances offer me a contrived yet, I trust, acceptable means by which to introduce a theme that is always close to my heart.

The dead, headless bishop has helped to prop up the rackety, walking corpse of Royal Mail every February for more than a hundred years. And it should serve as a reminder to us all of the value of the medium to our advertising and marketing endeavours over the coming year.

Only very recently this article appeared in the ever-informative pages of Decision Marketing (the premiere hot-news-fix for all those involved in pin-point-targeted one-to-one marketing, or whatever we’re calling it this week):

“Deluge of emails sees Brits long for return of direct mail”

The article is based on “new research from sales technology specialist Sopro, whose State of Prospecting 2024 report details an analysis of data from more than 75.2 million emails and insights from over 350 sales and marketing professionals.

“The study reveals that there was a 22% drop in success rates for email-only activity in 2023 compared to 2022, although 67% of shoppers still said they are happy to be contacted by email.

“Meanwhile, nearly one in five (18%) consumers want to be contacted by post, which is more than double the number in the previous year. This, the report maintains, shows that personalised direct mail is still highly valuable for intelligent prospecting.”

I thought we went through this during lockdown?

If I announced a new medium through which target audiences actively wished to be contacted, with a 95% engagement rate, 32% of which provoked commercial actions, which 70% of people said made them ‘feel valued’ –  (source: https://www.marketreach.co.uk/direct-mail) – agencies might be tremendously excited.

People hate most advertising, interrupting, as it does, the “content” they are eager to consume, they hate TV commercials and now have the power to expunge them, they hate advertising on commercial radio stations with its Texan cattle auctioneer, high speed terms and conditions, they feel most OOH is a blot on the landscape, they are indifferent to most (excepting directory) press advertising, they loathe unsolicited SMS and above all they despise and abhor email marketing of any kind whatsoever – and who can blame them?

Yet all of the research indicates that they really do like what used to be called “junk mail”.

And of course poorly targeted, unsolicited marketing communications are now almost exclusively the province of email campaigns. The overstuffed letterboxes crammed with ill-conceived, credit card mailings, terrible insurance offers, irrelevant catalogues and all of the stuff that used to make me money – are now a thing of the past. But, oh dear, the spam!

In fact, the hatred that people once had for “junk mail” has returned threefold when it comes to the emails that they receive.

Take a look at the MarketReach website and it will show you that adding direct mail to the marketing communications mix can increase response, interaction and sales by staggering amounts. “The Secret Life Of Mail” showed us that people retain, re-read and share mail that interests them. And then they act upon it.

So why, when Chapter 12 of the much cited, rarely read Ogilvy On Advertising is devoted entirely to the medium (and while his whole ethos is DIRECT), do clients of every kind continue to blindly eschew direct mail?

The answer, I think, is straightforward and depressingly English.


The medium and its expert practitioners are perceived as “grubby” – “a bunch of hairy-arsed print reps”.

I think it is Lidl that has heavily discounted its Valentine’s Sausage Plate. I don’t think it gets much grubbier than that. And no one turns their nose up the endearingly upbeat and consciously populist TV ad ‘I Sold My Car on We Sell Any Car’ by the excellent Brothers & Sisters – proud creators of truly viral activity ‘IRL’ in the playgrounds of Britain (have a look on YouTube).

And yet mail is still despised.

Clients seek “real brand engagement”, “stickiness” and accurate targeting of the audiences with the ideal profile – yet they continue to ignore the one medium that offers accuracy, is preferred by customers and prospects and gives them the time and intimacy that they need to build proper relationships with old and young.

Are they mad? No. They are snobs.

And counter-intuitively they are old-fashioned snobs. Millennials, Gen Z and Alphas have no collective memory of the egregious horrors of junk and respond with delight to carefully targeted, intelligent communications which address them directly in their homes with retainable stuff from brands they like (source: my ghastly children and their friends who all come round to drink my Aldi ‘Old Hopkins’ Rum).

The only junk mail these people receive now is of the digital variety. So the medium offers huge share of voice coupled (thanks to the vast strides made in the world of data in the last decade) with all but guaranteed saliency.

Millions of doormats and letterboxes will no doubt have been the source of laughter, joy and (like my own) despair this Valentine’s Day. This uniquely human location also represents a source of infinitely higher ROI for the clients and agencies of the land.

I know this, Lord McKelvey knows this, erudite and informed readers of Decision Marketing, the UK’s premier source of up-to-the-minute “content” for the post digital world of direct communications (or whatever we are calling it this week) know it.

If we can educate our clients and our agencies to appreciate the many benefits of mail, it will be happy days for us all – and, more specifically, for me. Onward!

Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Spoon Creative

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