But direct marketing is becoming increasingly sophisticated and spans everything from direct mail to telemarketing and direct response television advertisements. It is no longer the preserve of mail order outfits offering limited edition figurines or holiday firms selling "once in a lifetime" trips down the Nile, but is used by major companies such as British Airways, Tesco and Ford.
"The smart companies of the future are those that will explore new methods of reaching customers and markets and direct marketing is a key factor in this equation," says Lawrence Balfe, marketing director for Heinz.
Andrew McGregor, director of marketing for The Economist, adds: "Our business depends on direct marketing. Through it we grow our circulation amongst our target audience and we build our brand."
But despite its growing importance, the industry still cannot attract enough high-calibre graduates. "The industry needs about 1,000 graduates a year, so unless we convince the next generation of high-flyers that serious career opportunities exist the profession will miss out," says Derek Holder, managing director of the industry's trade body, the Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM).
One of the problems is that direct marketing does not have the same perceived glamour as advertising. "It has been viewed as a bit lower down the food chain than advertising in terms of intellectual content although we have more planners, statisticians and econometrists than in a conventional advertising agency," says Nigel Howlett, managing director of direct marketing agency Ogilvy0ne.
Because of its image, it is therefore easier to get a job with a direct marketing agency than it is with an ad agency such as Saatchi & Saatchi. The rewards in direct marketing can also be high. "If you are good then promotion comes quicker. You can expect to be on board by the time of your early thirties with the salary, car and all the other perks to match," says a spokeswoman for the IDM.
The size of a direct marketing agency will have some bearing on your progress up the career ladder. A large agency with over 60 staff is likely to offer good, structured training and give you a thorough grounding as well as looking good on your CV. However, there is less opportunity for variety and it can be harder to make your mark, says the IDM. A medium- sized agency of between 25 and 60 staff is likely to mean that graduates will have to spend more time "mucking in", although this does provide a wide range of experience and the chance to learn on the job. A smaller agency is likely to be less hierarchical and you will be exposed to all elements of the job, giving you a chance to learn different skills.
There are various different jobs available across all agencies and some require specialist knowledge. Because computer databases are fundamental to the way direct marketing works, IT graduates are always in demand to collate and analyse millions of customer records. Applicants will need a degree in computing, maths or statistics and ideally some working experience, although a good placement is also acceptable.
However, most other roles require a degree in any subject coupled with intelligence and attitude.
Account management is the link between the agency and a client such as Ford or Tesco and an account handler has to act as the "guardian" of the client's business and ensure tight budget control and on time delivery of quality work. There are no fixed periods for promotion but most start as an account executive and within 18 months rise to account manager. An account director generally needs around five years experience.
Planners have to determine the target market and understand the needs, perceptions and behaviour of consumers and then recommend a strategic approach to reach these potential customers. The IDM says that planners have to be bright, curious, analytical and possess the ability to think laterally. A typical day might involve brainstorming a client's new campaign, commissioning research for a new product and working with a creative to interpret a brief.
Creatives generally work as a pair - an art director and a copywriter together. They both have to be able to see how words and pictures can work together to get a client's message across. Rory Sutherland, creative director of Ogilvy0ne, says: "In the past the creative profile of direct marketing has been lower than in above the line ad agencies but we are working to change that perception." Ogilvy0ne has teamed up with a number of other agencies to raise the profile of direct marketing among art college graduates through a series of creative workshops.
And for those who want a career in direct marketing but are uncertain which role they are best suited to, Kingston University is launching the world's first MA in direct marketing in September. Derek Holder says: "Direct marketing is still a fairly young and evolving profession. This new qualification will enable staff to make a far more effective contribution to the business and benefit the profession of direct marketing overall."
For more information about careers in direct marketing, call the IDM on 0181 977 5705Reuse content