Let’s be honest, direct marketing has always been overshadowed (if not dismissed) by its more glamorous older brother, Advertising. Building brands via great stories has defined our industry for years. So-called “junk mail” and “infomercials” are considered stepchildren. Forget how much revenue DM creates, our industry has always given the love to its darlings. Consider the Superbowl or Cannes. DM has nothing remotely like them in terms of sizzle and prestige. Even the trades favor advertising. After all, the prefix to Adweek and Adage is “ad.”

When agencies merged and got swallowed by holding companies, ad firms and DM shops were thrust together, often unsuccessfully. The battles waged between above and below line practitioners became legend in our industry. Many were and still are contentious, resembling class wars or high school shenanigans. The tumultuous marriage between Draft and FCB is perhaps the best-known example.

Not long ago a new baby came along. Colicky to the extreme, ‘Digital’ demanded everyone’s attention. Even advertising took a back seat. (Baby needs her momma!) Digital quickly grew into a demanding and sexy young woman. She was the bomb. And still is. During these last few years, one could argue direct marketing went from being a stepchild to the middle child. Not to mix metaphors, but never the bride’s maid…

Enter Social Media. Try as we must, social media cannot be “owned” by advertising or digital agencies. It’s as if word of mouth became viral. Call it “world of mouth.” Regardless of your definition, if marketers aspire getting into these conversations we’re going to need tactics and schemes resembling those used by direct marketers. For every commercial downloaded enough times to matter, there are countless millions of deeper connections capable of being monetized. Can you say Search?

As marketers scramble to “get social” I found the similarities between SM and DM irresistible to point out. I may have come from the advertising side but I’ve always respected the rest. Is SM the great equalizer, leveling the playing field between Direct, Digital, Data and Advertising? One thing is certain; the agency of the future must pay heed to them all.

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Every October, a strange and gruesome spectacle takes place along the banks of the boat channel in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Whether I’m riding into work via bike or car I can’t help but ogle the armies of bundled-up men “snagging” for salmon.

Snagging is a brutal (but legal) form of fishing, whereby the fisherman hoists a massive, weighted treble hook into the water and “rips” it back and forth trying to gaff a bewildered fish. From my car, it looks like the men are dragging for dead bodies.

Why is this vulgar form of fishing legal? Because the fish are doomed anyway. A sizable portion of Lake Michigan’s salmon is stocked by the DNR. Yet, these creatures are wired to swim upstream in the fall to spawn. Having no river to come home to, the fish choose the man-made channel instead. Only a half-mile long and a few feet deep, the waterway is a deathtrap. Even if eggs were produced, once dropped, the fish dies. Therefore, the city allows people to snag salmon until the run is over.

I understand it would be a shame to let these highly edible creatures die and rot but I still find “snagging” offensive. I love fishing. I must own 20 rods and reels. I have a cabin in Wisconsin. I grew up catching, cleaning and cooking Lake Michigan perch. On slow days, gouging the belly of an unsuspecting fish may have crossed my mind but we always considered it sleazy, something a tramp would do.

So, how does this all relate to advertising? Actually, very poetically. Think about it. Brand advertising in its highest form is like fly-fishing: sleek, urbane, wise. Think glorious anthems, the launch of new campaigns. Fishing with lures is one step down. It’s brand advertising, packaged and distilled. Though not a lavish opus, it still requires craftsmanship. Grinder TV, the churn and burn of most advertising, is like fishing with live bait –messy, very effective, yet still true fishing. And then you have snagging. Perhaps unfairly, direct marketing is accused of being equally vicious in terms of “catching” customers. Advocates will tell you, “Hell yes, we find swarms of consumers and hook boatloads!” It’s a good case. In fact, half my agency’s business is generated that way.

Even so, direct marketing still gives the consumer a choice to buy or to pass. Same as fishing with bait or lures.

Despite agency rhetoric about “proprietary tools” and “ROI” there is, as far as I know, no known form of marketing that can snag a customer from the general population. We still have to angle for consumers, attracting them with lures, hooking them with promises. That is why advertising, in its purist form, is an art, a lot like fly-fishing. Sadly, with a bleak holiday season inevitable for retailers I’m betting the snagging season seems like a wet dream.