James Ashton: Junking junk mail may not be such a good idea

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The Independent Online

Lunch with an advertising executive on Tuesday persuaded me that all was mostly well in the land of black rollnecks.

True, the boozy lunches seem to have declined in parallel with the industry's creative flair over the last two decades, but at least its labours are still largely self-regulated, unlike the new scrutiny proposed for newspapers post-Leveson.

So thank goodness for Viviane Reding for creating a bit of tension in the drinking dens of Soho. Europe's doughty Justice Commissioner has battled for lower mobile phone charges and greater female representation in boardrooms in her long Brussels career. Now she has turned her attention to data protection, which has got direct marketers up in arms. Ms Reding wants to update rules for the digital age which require consumers to give their explicit consent before personal data can be used to bombard them with emails or mailshots.

A world without junk mail sounds like paradise, unless you subscribe to the idea that targeted advertising, including the stuff BSkyB will start sending down its internet pipes this summer, could actually be useful. The direct approach is also worth billions to advertisers.

The European Parliament committee looking into this has 3,000 amendments to wade through, so hopes that any new measures could reach the statute books before Brussels' long summer break are receding.

That will be a relief to the Royal Mail, whose chief postmistress, Moya Greene, is trying to dress the bloated business for a sale or flotation this autumn and views direct mail as a useful area of growth.

The Canadian boss reports that half of all letters delivered are marketing mailshots already, with that proportion on the rise. If Ms Reding stymies her plan, Ms Greene might have to become even more creative to persuade potential buyers and shareholders that her much-vaunted turnaround hasn't been lost in the post.