There was a time when direct marketing was worlds away from `real' advertising. But all that is changing, as Richard Cook reports.

It used to be so much simpler. Back in the good old days direct marketing seemed, to the uninitiated at least, to be a shorthand for one thing and one thing only. It hinted at all that unwanted clutter that fills out- houses, back-yards and spare rooms up and down the country: those piles of often tacky trinkets that were palmed off on an unsuspecting populace in those far off days. You know the sort of thing: LPs of Engelbert Humperdink Does Disco or ingenious plastic devices for sculpting ornamental cucumbers. Things that had appealed in a moment of devastating and expensive weakness, and then quickly were revealed in their tragi-comic true light as eminently expendable gee-gaws.

And that was just the telemarketing side of the business. There were also the serried ranks of poorly typed junk mail drops. These might occasionally be addressed to you by name, in which case your name would generally be typed askew or else scribbled in pen. More commonly the correspondence would be addressed simply to the householder, and would usually tell that person two things before they even opened it. First, that it would be poorly targeted, and second, that the production values were as distant from a "real" ad as it is possible to imagine. There was direct marketing, it seemed, and then there was the glamourous world of the "real" advertising agency - and precious little comparison between the two.

But no longer. Last year the single most valuable piece of new business for advertising agencies was a pounds 100m account for the telecoms giant Cable & Wireless. C&W assembled together some of the most creative agencies to tender for the work. The cream of British advertising was invited to pitch - the likes of Saatchi and Saatchi, the Levi's agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and Howell Henry, which has won a series of awards for its work for Tango. In the end C&W thought long and hard and then awarded the business to a company called Rapier Stead and Bowden, the only direct marketing agency it saw. Rapier's creative ideas, the client said, "just blew them away".

It's a decision that is being reflected all over the advertising world. The Direct Marketing industry was worth pounds 6.1bn in 1996, up 11 per cent on the previous year and a staggering 35 per cent over the last two years, according to figures prepared by the industry body, the Direct Marketing Association. Direct Mail alone might still be a smaller advertising medium than its glamorous siblings TV and press, but it's now bigger than radio, outdoor and cinema advertising put together.

And while yes, the direct mail industry is now run with the sort of precision that puts much of the rest of advertising to shame, the fact is that direct marketing now has its tentacles throughout the whole advertising process. Many conventional TV and press ads, for example, now build in some sort of response element as a matter of course.

According to DMA research only 12 per cent of all press ads are nowadays content to rely on image alone: the rest have a phone number or a coupon or, increasingly, a web site address at the bottom - a direct response mechanism that lets the advertiser know just who is out there and what they want.

And, as technological improvements continue to influence media thinking, direct marketing has an especially good claim to be thought of as the medium of the future.

"Direct marketing is everywhere these days, because everyone is talking about one-to-one communication," explains Simon Hall, chairman of the direct marketing agency Barraclough Hall Woolston Gray. "Right now, for example, direct marketers are looking hard at digital TV because that is one new development that seems likely to allow us to refine our message still further, target people even more effectively and present people with an attractive message. For me that's the whole attraction of direct marketing as a career. It's the only sector that really requires you to be both creative - in the type of communication you come up with - and logical - in the planning of how best that message should be disseminated. Most careers ask for one or the other skill."

And as direct marketing has grown up as an industry, so too have the demands for top quality, graduate staff who can combine numeracy with creativity. But then the rewards are not merely to be found in the fact that you get to use both sides of your brain. Graduates can expect to start on a competitive pounds 16,000, the training is excellent and progression from there on can be dizzyingly quick. Most of the top agencies, for example, support the Institute of Direct Marketing's comprehensive training programmes. It organises a series of two-year courses based on day release and evening study for new entrants to the industry, and now also runs the first MBA course in direct marketing at Kingston University.

Art colleges tend to supply the industry with its new generation of art directors but copywriters, account handlers and media planners come from a wide range of disciplines. The best of them can look forward to rapid progression through the ranks and certainly by the age of 30 a title such as client services director and a salary package pushing pounds 100,000.

"We're always looking for bright people and we welcome approaches from them," says Leslie Mair, managing director of the biggest direct marketing agency, WWAV Rapp Collins. "And it's true that direct marketing figures much more prominently in career plans than used to be the case. We now handle those car, airline and charity accounts that people find especially attractive and fun to work on. And because the industry has grown, agencies are now of a size to be able to offer proper, structured career development.

"We employ over 300 people here. And while it used to be the case in the agency world that people were paid more because job security was not as good as in some other industries - if your agency lost an account, for example, then you might well be made redundant - nowadays the job security is just as good. And the pay levels are still better."