Can Direct Be Cool?

If you’ve read Augusten Burroughs’ book Dry, you might remember this passage. Among the various demons that Burroughs, a copywriter, confronts, he holds a particularly cold place in his heart for his former creative director, Rick.

Burroughs writes (and I’m not giving anything away if you haven’t read the book): “Rick is now in direct marketing, the lowest of the low. His life will be about getting people to open their envelopes and send back the SASE. If ad people are bottom-feeders, Rick is now a catfish with no dorsal fin and an extra eye. I drink to Rick.”

Was that really necessary? I was enjoying the book, minding my business, and then—wham! To a guy who has built his career as a creative director in direct marketing, it felt like a low blow.

Then again, I’m used to it.

The fact is, a lot of direct marketers have brought this on themselves. They have done all they could to maximize response and lower costs regardless of what that meant to the brand position. In too many cases it has meant incredibly low production values. It has meant hiring creatives with poor conceptual skills and a not-so-nuanced sense of design. It has meant copy that feels like a used-car sales pitch.

But then things began to change. As we went through a recession during the reign of the elder Bush, traditional ad spending dropped and direct marketing spending went up. When times improved, our business continued to rise. Clients loved the accountability, but they rightly began to expect more. They didn’t believe the age-old notion that you couldn’t simultaneously drive response in direct marketing and “build the brand.”

In fact, I would argue that the world began to change for all of us. Wasn’t it about then that you began to see 800 numbers popping up at the end of TV spots? Then Web addresses?

I would argue that world of direct marketing and brand advertising are coming closer together. There has been pressure on those who practice traditional advertising to become more measurable and accountable. Welcome to my world.

In my world, clients increasingly expect better conceptual thinking and brand-cognizant work from their direct-marketing agency. So we have had to become more like our cousins who do the beauty work of television and print. In many respects, our worlds are not that different.

I have a vision for what our future holds. There will be a point where we look at people as experts not in media but in mission. There will always be those people who are better suited to telling stories to a broader audience in an attempt to further brand awareness and consideration for their clients. And then there will be those people who are really good at getting people to do something, to respond to a message—to get people to take some predetermined action.

When we get to that point, the choice of media will become less of a focus, because we’ll all be using a wider variety of tactics. We’ll recognize people for their ability to craft messages that best achieve a particular marketing goal. The only “hacks” we’ll be talking about are those people who suck, regardless of the medium at which they happen to suck. And if we’re smart, we’ll bounce those folks out of our organizations, because there’s no room in our business for anything but the most capable, persuasive people, regardless of discipline.

It’s time for people to open their minds about how we define our jobs. Narrow-mindedness makes you a dinosaur—if not a bottom-feeder.

For the Record: The story “Shades of Grey” [Nov. 8] incorrectly described the ownership of Unigraphic Inc., a print shop based in Woburn, Mass. Zane Tankel was the owner of Collier New England in Cambridge, Mass. Tankel liquidated Collier in 1996, and its sales contracts were bought by Unigraphic. Tankel remained manager of Unigraphic’s sales in New York and received commission on them until about 2001, according to the company, but Tankel was never an owner of Unigraphic. The company cooperated fully with the Justice Department in its investigation of Grey Global Group. Due to an editing error, the story also incorrectly described the dollar values of American Express gift certificates given to staffers at Grey and BBDO by a salesman at Unigraphic, according to a list created by federal prosecutors. Those gifts ranged from $25 to $500, not from $300 to $500. Neither BBDO nor Unigraphic has been accused of any wrongdoing.