The lender that likes to say yes, yes, yes, yes

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The Independent Culture
From 26 to 30 May, you couldn't move on the terrestrial channels for the Direct Line Challenge. Breaks on ITV, C4 and C5 were full of this curious telethon-like series of commercials. It was almost live - new stages were filmed on a 24-hour turnaround; it was sort of participative - rivals who responded to The Challenge appeared in the next episode; and it was a bit of a cliff-hanger because people watched in the expectation that it might misfire.

The Challenge consisted of a distinctly Michael Portillo-like presenter walking to camera in a boxy blue studio set and asking if other mortgage providers and savings companies could offer particular benefits. (Yes, yes, yes and yes lit up from Direct Line in the quiz-show boxes.)

Everyone's initial response will have been: "They're over-confident; several people will be able to match them and then they'll look silly." And when First Direct appeared two days later, responding to the mortgage challenge, it looked as if they might have miscalculated. But when the Portillo type said, "Thanks for taking up our challenge, First Direct. You shouldn't draw any adverse conclusions as to why none of the other banks and building societies have responded," you realised what they were doing, that it was actually very clever and they'd thought it through.

Direct Line revolutionised motor insurance by using the new technologies to give fast, competitive telephone quotes on basic risks, looking like the People's Friend and very unlike an insurance company. And they advertised the hell out of the proposition with a jumping four-wheeled red telephone that said it all. They took a great chunk of the mainstream car insurance market, forcing competitors into unprofitable imitation.

Now they're entering other mass financial-services markets. And The Challenge took them from zero to hero in a week, first choice among their "new generation" peers -only First Direct, Sainsbury's Bank and Scottish Widows answered the challenge.