Everywhere you look there’s a new type of marketing technique and buzzword being invented – experiential, digital, e-mail, collaborative, user-generated, social, word-of-mouse, whisper, interactive, out-of-home, out-of-car, out-of-mind, etc.

But the reality is different. There really are only two ways of marketing.

The easiest way of marketing is what has traditionally been called, mass marketing. It’s been taught at universities and tertiary institutions and is the basis for much of our marketing theory. I teach some of this at university.

The formula is simple and one with which you’re no doubt familiar – create a brand proposition (there are many to choose from for every product or service) and develop advertising executions for mass media channels.

Put a media budget behind the advertising campaign and repeat the advertising as often as possible in mass media, at the lowest cost to reach each thousand members of the audience. The objective is to get the consumers to remember the message and choose the advertised brand when they go shopping.

This was the dominant way of marketing, particularly in western economies after the Great Depression and it grew dramatically after WWII as it became easier to reach audiences in their homes via a handful of television channels.

In the 1980s mass marketing started to decline as an effective way of marketing, as database technology emerged and manufacturers, as well as retailers, started to communicate more directly with consumers.

With the expansion of the internet in the early part of the 21st century, it has become even harder for mass marketing to generate a profitable ROI. Media is fragmenting and the ability to reach mass audiences cost-effectively, in a handful of media channels, is now more difficult. The purpose of advertisements in mass media has changed – directing people to respond to websites and phone numbers, rather than just positioning brands in the minds of customers.

The other way of marketing is direct marketing, where the marketer deals directly with the customers and prospects or where the customers and prospects respond directly to the marketer – in any media. There is always an exchange of either data and/or money in the process and all activities are rigorously measured.

You’ll note a subtle language difference here – mass marketers talk about consumers, while direct marketers talk about customers and prospects. That’s because if you don’t know anything about your individual customers or prospects, you have to address them as broad segments, using terms such as “consumers”.

In 2007, Shelly Lazarus, the Global CEO of international brand advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, made a significant statement to a conference of over 15,000 of her closest marketing colleagues.

In summary, her presentation said:

“There is now only one way of marketing… 

it is direct marketing and it’s being driven by the digital channels.” 

At the time this was a seismic shift in marketing thinking at the top end of traditional mass marketing land – from someone whose career was built in brand advertising. It is even more remarkable when you consider the following:

“Direct marketing is the hardest thing you can do in marketing” 

The reason is this: You are trying to get the customer or prospect to do what you want them to do, when you want them to do it. And it often involves parting with money as soon as they consume your marketing message. This requires specialist skills, not usually found in traditional or digital agencies.

Now that the digital channels are dominating the growth in marketing media, these direct marketing skills are at a premium. Yet “digi-experts” keep trying to persuade marketers that the skills needed to succeed with online marketing are related to binary code – something only alleged digital agencies possess. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider this question for a minute: What is a digital agency? 

Does that mean all other agencies are analogue agencies? Should advertising agencies be renamed ‘cathode-ray tube’, or ‘pressed-metal type’ agencies? It appears many digital agencies are simply art studios that use Dreamweaver, instead of InDesign software – technologists, not marketers. And most have never created marketing campaigns in a recession – they’ve only known the good times in a rapidly growing naïve market, awash with online budgets.

Even Stan Rapp, global marketing educator and practitioner says in his recent seminars, “…there is no such thing as a digital agency. Digital is technology, it is not marketing”.

Interestingly, while the marketing world is fascinated with the internet and related digital media, human behaviour isn’t changing as quickly as the digi-experts would have us believe. We’re reading more books than ever before, watching television on large flat screens in home theatres, breaking box-office attendance records at the movies and filling stadiums to watch live bands. Direct mail and printed catalogue volumes continue to rise, yet e-mail open-rates are declining in many categories. 

Drayton Bird, named by Campaign magazine as one of the 50 most important individuals in UK advertising during the previous 25 years says “online marketing is just accelerated direct marketing” – and he’s absolutely right.

If you really want to succeed in the era of digital marketing, you’ll need direct marketing skills, not binary or mass marketing skills. While technology changes, the way we market doesn’t. We either talk directly to our customers and prospects – even get them to talk about us – or we talk with masses of consumers to try to elicit a direct response, in all media.

Understanding how to get people to respond in an increasingly advertising-cluttered time-poor world, is the challenge – after all, if it was simple to do, we’d all just open a digital agency.

Malcolm Auld