Happy Xmas from <insert brand name here>! Is that the faint aroma of rotting pumpkin? Is that the haunting-yet-slightly-nauseating trilling of distant carol singers? Are sodding sleighbells a-jingling?
Whatever the reason, the postman and his many rivals in their gaily-contrasting uniforms are creeping timorously towards the rusty letterbox of my central-Brighton hovel ever-more-frequently. The clanking, grinding and hissing of my ancient laptop tells me that my inbox is full-to-bursting. And ever-and-anon as I ‘surf’ the Internet at the corner of my eye, nagging and hinting like an unquiet soul in an M R James ghost story, hovers an advertisement for a particular brand of shoe that I bought from Amazon in 2011, hangdog it shimmers, telling me that the thing I once bought is now cheaper.
What, apart from the incipient celebration of the birth of a doomed Palestinian, do all of these phenomena have in common?
They are functions of the triumph of personalised data in these last days.
And there’s the issue. ‘Personalised’. What the mountains of catalogues addressed to TheElegant&MysteriousMrsSpooner, the innumerable emails ‘especially for you’ (never in my life have I thought there might be a carpet-tile especially for me) and that niggling, ever-present, shoe-gazing, programmatic advertising have in common is that their perpetrators all believe that they have identified an aspect of my family’s behaviour that means we are likely to purchase something.
These aren’t algorithms predicated on intelligently thought-through, behavioural analysis, they are manifestations of that old marketing cliché that ‘it’s easier to push up the peaks than to pull up the troughs’. And the result is manifest in the posts of this most excellent of online publications, with MPs spotting an opportunity to earn kudos from their constituents by queuing up to attack the ‘direct marketing industry’.
The terribly sad thing if you are in this business, sadder than the final reel of Love Story or the death of Little Nell in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop, the sad thing is, that it needn’t be this way.
The data available to banks and utilities can and does enable the more enlightened of these organisations to tailor their communications and create hierarchies that ensure customers are sent only messages that are relevant and appropriate in carefully monitored rotation. Programmatic advertising can and does hover politely and nudge customers who are interested, And there are list buyers for catalogue publishers who use their research and experience to genuinely surprise and delight new customers every month.
So why, why, why the great mountains of irrelevant piffle?
In a shocking development I blame America in general, then Sears-Roebuck and innumeracy in particular.
The USA is a big country, a country where mail-order purchase makes absolute sense. “I live in rural Wisconsin, of course I want to buy a tractor from your catalogue.” The supply and demand calculations converge when there are enough people who want a tractor living in rural areas. The success of direct sales operations is assured when everything is just, well, so spread out.
Cue successful DM, cue a model that says a mailshot at Xp a pack need only achieve a response of 0.Y% in order to turn a profit, cue the birth of ‘direct response’ and a particular mindset which has coloured the development of our industry. But in a geographically small nation with a dramatically different topography direct selling has always been a case of ‘a mailshot at Xp a pack need only achieve a response of 0.Y% in order to turn a profit’ – it has only contingently addressed the needs of the consumer.
Which is why the algorithms keep cranking out the names of those whose infinitesimal propensity to purchase represents a marketing opportunity for those who care little about the consumer.
And of course that’s fine as long as the process is a one way process. Add the feedback loops of Twitter, and a thousand review sites and the result is the inevitable mess that we are dealing with today, where political points can be scored by sticking the boot in to the direct marketing industry. CAVEAT EMPTOR was a pre-Internet dictum, we should all have the words CAVEAT VENDOR above our desks.
And we are all guilty. Whether it’s the client who makes an assumption about the market predicated on tiny focus groups, whether it’s the agency that sees only the opportunity to mark-up its service, whether it’s the planner seeking an insight when she should be challenging the brief, whether it’s the creative team who see only the brand and how it will look in their book, or whether it’s the jaded vertical press columnist banging on about the same old shizzle WE ARE ALL GUILTY – and if we don’t raise our game and start considering the recipient of our mailpack, our email, our programmatic ad, they will put us out of business.
And yes that is ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ that you can hear in the background…
Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Cello Signal