Direct marketing should be louder and prouder
This week it emerged that Steve Stretton, the charming, twinkle-eyed co-founder of AIS, is stepping down from the front line. The news marks the end of an era: all three AIS founders have now stepped back from the business since its acquisition by Havas in 2008. Jon Ingall is enjoying life in Corsica, Stuart Archibald has launched a new agency in Sydney while Stretton is working on other projects such as running a posh bric-a-brac shop in Thame that sells only locally-sourced products.
Stretton’s departure, though he will continue to be involved as non-executive chairman, marks something of an end of an era. It might be pushing it a bit to describe the late 90s (AIS launched in 1999) as a rock n roll period for DM but it was a time when confidence in the discipline and the talents of its operators (many of whom came from the fertile training grounds of Evans Hunt Scott, Ogilvy or Wunderman) knew no bounds. AIS, alongside the other great start-up of that time Partners Andrews Aldridge, combined an instinct for great work with a faith in the principles of direct marketing (crudely put – customers and selling stuff) that was, in its early years, unwavering.
These days its hard to find direct marketing agencies who have similar courage in their convictions. While many are keen to talk about the latest fancy app or website they’ve built for a client, hard-working data-driven campaigns that sell products to customers are too frequently brushed under the carpet as agencies look to push their “integrated” credentials.
The great shame is that, if only they realised it, many are in a better place than the traditional ad agencies or web-focused shops that they try to ape. Understanding of data and customers together with the craft skills to hit them with a well designed message at exactly the right time seems to be the perfect agency positioning in light of recent technology advances.
There is hope on the horizon. Recent start-up Soul, for instance, is proud to call itself a direct agency and revels in its ability to understand customers and, wait for it, actually sell them things. It would be great to see more established agencies adopting this sort of stance and displaying greater pride in what they exist to do.