My biggest mistake

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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake was something for which I am still doing penance. It began when I started a direct marketing business in 1976, and I thought we could grow the business off the backs of a few self-taught and fairly gifted professionals and a spot of on-the-job training.

I'd always prided myself on never reading a marketing textbook and I had never seen the need for any formal education. And this is where I went wrong.

Now, there must be at least 30,000 people with knowledge of direct marketing, from practitioners in it to small businesses. But at about that time there must have been fewer than 500 people engaged in direct marketing of any kind. To give an idea of the kind of environment we operated in, it would have taken a room full of mainframe computers to do what a desktop can do now.

All this was going on around me when I had my head down and was trying to get the business going. I didn't realise the industry had a massive training problem, like other emergent businesses. Anyway, with some scary moments we managed to expand the business, and in 1983 I sold it to a US advertising agency that made its name with the Volkswagen Beetle and subsequently became part of Omnicom. And in the 1980s it grew like crazy.

It got to the point where even quite senior people had less than three years' experience. Because direct marketing works by testing things, rolling them out carefully and then measuring the results, this meant that we had many people who had never been through the complete cycle. As a result, I could be held as responsible as anybody for us getting a junk-mail image.

Sending out masses of mail is not really what it's all about. Direct marketing is, in fact, about trying to anticipate people's needs and wants, and serving them on an individual basis. We all benefitted from the changes in technology, but I for one didn't really understand them and their effect.

When I completed my earn-out arrangement with the US agency that bought the business, one of the first things that I did was to write one of those despised marketing textbooks - the kind I never read. I also started working for the Direct Marketing Centre, which had been started in 1981 by Derek Holder and Caroline Owen- Jones at Kingston Business School to offer recognised courses in the field.

In 1990 I was talked into becoming chairman of the organisation, which has helped promote best practice in a rapidly growing field. Having been granted institute status by the Department of Trade and Industry last year, it was officially launched as the Institute of Direct Marketing last week, with Derek as managing director.

The reason I am still doing penance is that I now spend a lot of my time on training - which it took me until 1983 or '84 to recognise the need for. So far, the organisation has given some form of training to 11,000 people, which is more people than I ever thought would be involved in the industry.

Things have developed so quickly that the whole concept of marketing is changing. What many business school lecturers are trained in is really mass marketing, which is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

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