What Happened to Direct Marketing?

This week I ventured 90 miles south to check out the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) trade show at Chicago’s sprawling McCormick Place.  While I am a Chicago native, it has been quite a few years since I’ve been south of the Loop and much has changed, notably the alien space ship that is now Soldier Field and the mass development around McCormick Place, including an on-site hotel.  However, the biggest change was the DMA itself.

In the DMA’s heyday the show would pull upwards of 35,000 attendees and it would take two full days to walk the show floor.  This year I’m guessing that attendance was in the area of 3,500 and I easily made my way through the floor in two hours.  Is this the last gasp of an old dinosaur or is the direct marketing business evolving into a new and dynamic segment of the advertising business?  The answer depends on how we define “direct marketing.”

The traditional definition of direct marketing is basically direct mail, phone solicitation and more recently e-mail marketing.  There was still a small presence at the DMA from printers, personalized letter houses, fulfillment houses, list brokers and “trash ‘n trinket”, but, it is very clear that the big players are those that have applied lists, big data and purchase history to digital marketing.

The largest and most successful companies are those that utilize powerful technology to merge data coming from traditional direct marketing with digital and other sources of customer information into highly effective and targeted sales and marketing communications.  Arguably the largest agency (yes, among all advertising agencies) is Acxiom.  The firm provides clients a variety of data driven platforms to communicate the right message to the right consumer and the right time in the sales continuum.  The other big players in the big data, real-time, personalized, multi-channel, cloud marketing business who were present at the DMA included: InfoGroup, Experiture, SmartFocus, SMS, FIT, Selligent, Adobe, Relevate and Eventful.  To say that these firms dwarfed the presence of the old-line, traditional direct marketing companies would be a vast understatement.

In discussing the current status of the DMA with some associates at dinner, one of my buddies who has an extensive history with both traditional advertising and direct marketing made a prophetic statement, “I’ll give the traditional advertising business three to five years maximum until it follows in the path of direct marketing.”  I would not bet against him.  Just like the dinosaurs, we must evolve or die.  While others may feel threatened, I only see opportunity.