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Report from Belgium’s Direct Marketing Congress: Waffling about Language

I’m in an international mood. Three weeks ago, I judged the Caples International Awards, and this past Thursday attended the Belgium Direct Marketing Association Congress (BDMA) as a guest speaker. Very cool honor. Even this posting I’m writing on a bullet train from Brussels to Paris. It’s super luxe and the picturesque countryside goes by too fast. The countries are small and, even within them, there are so many languages and regions. Belgium is sharply divided by French and Flemish (Dutch). I keep hearing about the strife between the cultures, but what I saw were people genuinely getting along. Then again, I’m globally illiterate — raised in a country which doesn’t prioritize multiple languages, although I did take Hebrew for one year and French for eight. My grammar is good so I sound like a schoolboy.

Direct is evolving here too. The theme of the BDMA congress this year was “(B)reaching Boundaries” and much of the conversation was around social media, privacy issues, how audiences are changing, how customers are driving the truck. I was one of four keynotes throughout the day — technology (by Robert Cailliau, an engineer and a founder of the WWW), data (Luc Demeulenare), ethics (Professor Jo Pierson) and creativity (me). Either as punishment for our politics or to help wrap up the day, I got the worst time slot at the conference — last. After a full day of presentations and case studies, the only thing between the crowd of 200+ and cocktail hour was me.

My speech, “Reaching, Breaching —and Burning— Boundaries” first apologized for the recession and then explained how I’ve been trying to rethink direct marketing for the digital age and reassert creativity at its center. I showed a video from our re:direct platform which captures where we started. To a shocked audience, though, who thought I was going to brag about the United States, I said direct creative in the US is actually stuck — how we’ve been so for more than a decade with a perfected machine which cares more about optimization than about ideas. We do what we know works, and don’t take risks beyond that. I labelled it prison of the proven. This isn’t true in other areas of marketing taking bigger risks or in smaller markets like Belgium, UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand where there’s exciting work, often blurring areas such as advertising, direct, digital and experiential.

At one point, I put on screen the classic chart of successful ingredients for a direct marketing campaign. It’s been around for decades in various formats. It goes something like this: 40% of your success is how good your targeting/list is; 40% is how good your offer is; 20% is your creative or your idea. I told the audience how I really hated this chart. Instead, I showed a chart I liked — a heart beat. Creative, to me, is far more important than 20%, and if we have any hope of getting young people into the industry, we all better start to agree on that.

The examples of heart-thumping work I then showed were ones I believe embodies modern direct, including some from my agency but mostly campaigns from others. After each one, I shared lessons I thought we could learn from each. There was, for example, Cisco’s turning the NYT home page into video, which says a lot about media, technology and content working together to prove a product benefit rather than just describe it. I showed the before and after of Samsung’s YouTube HD Camera Trick Challenge which was a great way to introduce and demonstrate a product without a traditional offer but with participation. And a wild card was Arcade Fire’s “The Wilderness Downtown.” Tapping technology and a great video experience, the band’s Google Chrome and Google Earth experiment was a way to find new customers through their existing ones. Not because it’s direct but because it’s timely, I shared the recent Old Spice work; first one of the TV spots, then the customized Facebook video responses and ended on Sesame Street’s parody. Then we had drinks.

The language thing does get to me. I know Canada has figured it out, but when I saw how the other presentations rotated among French and Dutch and all slides were in English, I didn’t think exotic internationalism as I clapped or laughed when others did. I didn’t think modern Europe all thin with small portions, sophisticated literature and generous lifestyle. I thought: What a total pain. The production budgets alone must get eaten up by translation or unique approaches for each distinct culture. I’ve done many global campaigns over the years so I know what it takes, but to have to do it every single day on every project? One attendee I befriended pointed out a positive:”More languages opens you up to more things. You don’t take so much for granted.” He’s right, of course, and I am embarrassed we Americans can barely speak or write English, much less another two or three. And I am envious how so many Europeans such as Belgians can switch back and forth plus speak fluent English. But even among the boozy accents and a Middle Ages town out the window with a shimmering canal, I took a bite of the most delicious smoked salmon crudite and silently cringed: this language thing is a chore.

Mat Zucker is Chief Creative Officer of OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York. He is a recognized leader in digital and direct marketing and creative management, working across industries including auto, cons …read more

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