“Good grief, it’s you!”: A case of mistaken identity

Posted: March 30th, 2022

Words: Gus Chalmers

A lot of people confuse direct marketing with direct mail – maybe even some marketers commit that heinous crime. Sadly, I find this quite annoying!

Even in the dim and distant past, direct marketing was a lot more than ‘just’ direct mail; inserts, DRTV, telemarketing (to name just a few channels) all played their part. But nevertheless, in our relentlessly digital world, it’s fair to ask what the term ‘direct marketing’ actually means in the 2020s. (We’ll come to the Wallace and Gromit reference shortly.)

A good starting point is the DMA’s most recent definition:

“Direct marketing describes a data-led, personal and highly targeted approach that uses multiple channels, both old and new, to deliver a targeted message to a specific audience in order to achieve a particular goal.” 

DMA (Data and Marketing Association, Sept 2018)

One key aspect of this is the reference to “old and new”. So not just mail (and other tried and tested traditional channels) but also email, social, search, digital display etc, etc, etc, etc. Anything in fact that uses data for targeting, allows creative to be tailored to a specific audience segment, allows creative, format and offer to be tested in a controlled way, and for which response/impact can be accurately attributed and measured.

So, the reality is that pretty much all digital marketing is in fact (drum roll)... direct marketing. This may not be news to many of you but for some it might come as a surprise.

I am reminded of the Wallace and Gromit animation, ‘The Wrong Trousers’, when the baddy, a chicken called Feathers McGraw, removes his meagre disguise (a rubber glove serving as a rooster’s red ‘comb’) to reveal his true identity. The penguin who had been lodging with Wallace and Gromit. Shocked, Wallace exclaims, “Good grief, it’s you!”.

So where does that leave some of the traditional media? And in particular, direct mail?  

Well, generally, they are alive and kicking if, perhaps, somewhat diminished in volume. With direct mail spend down 25% between 2014 and 2019, for example.2 And insert volumes down 25% in a single year (2017-18).3

And their role has changed. Generally, they’re part of a wider digital strategy, often used for driving new customers online. But they still have their place and will do for the foreseeable future. They have haptics on their side!

People still love the physical, and touch to stimulate their senses, and perhaps always will, whatever age group they’re in. A 2018 study by the DMA showed that while 52% of those 65+ preferred reading in print than on screen, this only declined to 48% for 18 to 34-year-olds.4

So, the message is that direct marketing is definitely still a relevant description of much of our marketing activity and communications. It just encompasses a far wider set of channels and techniques than it once did.

The trick is to know which suit your audience and strategy and not to get caught wearing ‘the wrong trousers’. Groan. Sorry.


Image courtesy of elliejackdesign.com

1 Wallace and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, Aardman Animations, 1993
2 Source: Statista.com
3 Source: DMA, 25th July 2018
4 Source: DMA, 25th September 2018, ‘Correlation Between Age and Direct Mail Interaction’


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