Irrelevant. Annoying. Inappropriate. Junk. Spam. It’s fair to say that direct mail has had its share of critics over the years; none more so than in adland, which actually coined the phrase “shit that folds”.
But all that could be about to change if the former agency boss charged with leading the medium’s revival – Royal Mail MarketReach managing director Jonathan Harman – gets his strategy right.
Originally launched as Royal Mail Media Centre nearly 15 years ago, the unit rebranded MarketReach in July 2012, and Harman was appointed three months later.
Having spent his entire career in client-facing roles at agencies, including spells at Rapp, Claydon Heeley, RMG and Carlson, it seems Harman fitted perfectly into Royal Mail boss Moya Greene’s desire to woo brand owners and agencies back to the market.
Since his appointment, Harman has launched a major recruitment drive, introduced price incentives for first-time mail users and forged closer links with the DMA, the IDM, the Advertising Association, and even jumped into bed with the creative industry’s hallowed D&AD.
The latest initiative – which has been nearly two years in the making – has been visible for all to see online and on poster sites across London, with the launch of the Mailmen marketing campaign, devised by Publicis Chemistry and supported by a new website.
Fronted by leading “Madmen” figures from adland, including Saatchi & Saatchi boss Robert Senior, MediaCom chief Karen Blackett and Poke founder Nik Roope, the campaign promotes an 18-month research project, “The Private Life of Mail”.
The study, described by Tangible executive creative Jonathan Spooner as “420 grammes of crunchy goodness”, is based on more than 800 hours of video footage of consumers interacting with the medium. Key findings include “golden nuggets” such as most people keep mailshots for nearly three weeks, while nearly three-fifths of people believe receiving mail makes them feel valued. It also shows that when used in conjunction with email, 21% more consumers made purchases and 35% redeemed vouchers or coupons.
Harman explains: “We wanted to inspire a reappraisal of mail so it was important that it was advocated by unexpected people. Our salience with non-mail users needs to rise and little is understood about it by this group. The research is set up to describe mail in familiar ways and from familiar sources to aid comparison with other media.”
So, does Harman fear direct mail is being viewed as outdated by many of the new generation of agency chiefs and client-side marketers?
“Rather than being seen as old fashioned by the new generation, we are more likely to not even be seen as a media option by some in that group. And that gives us such a wonderful opportunity. We have invested heavily in insight. Everything we do today is driven by a desire to help people get the best possible returns from their investment in mail.”
Research is one thing, hiring the right talent to back it up has often been more of a challenge for Royal Mail’s business unit. But, says Harman, this has also been addressed.
“We have hired mail and media experts from companies including Proximity, OgilvyOne, MRM, Aegis and Mindshare. Their arrival has beefed up our planning, data and insight offering and complements the existing strengths within the team. We have also added external support from Publicis Chemistry, Mike Colling & Company and Media Native, all of whom have been great for us.
“We have also been working with both TGI and IPA Touchpoints to improve the insight planners can get into mail and we will continue to refine both surveys over time. Royal Mail Door to Door is now on MediaTel and we are working to get advertising mail on there too in the next few months.”
But, ultimately, given digital media’s cost and flexibility advantages over direct mail, can the medium really compete for budgets?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harman believes so. “I don’t think it’s a case of mail or digital. To me, the question is how much of each. We do have a job to do to tell people how much modern direct mail has changed. It’s never going to be the cheapest on a per item basis but it does work very hard at driving ROI. An analysis by Brand Science found that total communications ROI increased by 12% when mail was included within the mix.
“And, as for speed, look no further than Homebase or Ikea to see how brands can use mail at scale in a very short time. It can be two or three days from pushing go or the customer trigger to the mail landing, if you are set up to work in that way (and any good mail producer can do this for you). Brands are triggering customer mailings based on web behaviour and I think we will see cold programmatic (automatically bought) mail within a few months.
“As so much mail is digitally printed onto white paper, it’s possible to make changes mid-campaign and brands working with leading mail producers like DST or GI do this today. If you made a change by 9am, it’s realistic to have over 1,000,000 mailings with personalised content and outers in the post by the close of business that day from a single press. A lot has changed in the past few years.”
One thing that has definitely changed is the role direct mail is playing in marketing strategies, with many seeing the medium in more of a CRM role, building customer relationships rather than as a tool to acquire new ones.
Harman has certainly seen the proportion of CRM mailings increasing but believes it is driven by a number of factors, including the lower cost of digital print putting mass customised communications within reach of many budgets.
He adds: “There will always be a role for mail as an acquisition channel but there are no hard and fast rules. It’s all about the numbers and understanding what it costs to recruit a customer and what that customer is worth when recruited via each channel.”
So, which are the sectors from which the growth in direct mail is coming and which are the ones MarketReach is targeting for the future?
“The numbers are pretty robust across the board but I can see a couple of opportunities for growth. The first is telcos. As the market consolidates, shareholder value will be driven by retaining and cross-selling services across fixed line, mobile broadband and TV. Mail is great at enabling customers to understand complex messages, being highly customisable and at making customers feel valued, so it’s a very good fit.
“I also look at the loyalty sector and see the downward pressure on the financial value of points evidenced by Sainsbury’s and BA’s recent changes to their programmes and pressure on card interchange rates etc. With potentially less financial value on offer, the communications strategy and media mix is important. For similar reasons to telcos, mail has absolutely got an important role to play.”
Ironically, the stampede towards digital marketing is also fuelling a direct mail revival, with Next’s chairman Lord Wolfe recently citing the less crowded market as the reason the retailer has returned to the medium.
And it could even be argued that the words “irrelevant”, “annoying”, “inappropriate”, “junk” and “spam” are now far more likely to be used against digital media than direct mail these days.
“Eighteen months of research have proved that consumers engage and value mail more than ever – and this has given us a fantastic story to provoke a re-appraisal,” says Harman.
The Madmen may be on board, but it is now down to the Mailmen to deliver.
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