SAN DIEGO — "Innovation" isn't typically the word that comes to mind for those trying to characterize the direct marketing industry, but the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is hoping to change that perception. The day before the start of its annual conference here this week, the DMA announced the 12 finalists for its first-ever DMA Future Innovators Award (FIA). Exhibitors at the show had been notified of the contest only in late July, and then had just three weeks to put together a proposal for the DMA's panel of 11 judges. According to Paul McDonough, the trade group's vice president of conferences and events, 54 submissions managed to navigate the process in that short time frame -- evidence, McDonough says, of a high level of excitement around innovative platforms and services, and cementing the DMA's determination to "make sure we acknowledge them," he adds.
Of the 12 finalists, eight were deemed deserving of the inaugural FIA, and were revealed in a modest ceremony on the exhibition floor Sunday evening. They were, in alphabetical order:
- BLI messaging — a provider of fax broadcasting, mass email, voice broadcasting, and SMS marketing solutions;
- Epsilon Sonar — the content decision engine (Sonar) developed by Epsilon, a marketing solutions provider;
- Fresh Address — an email-address solutions provider;
- Global-Z's Real Time service — an enhanced global address-cleansing service from the international data-processing service;
- Neustar — a provider of communication and Internet clearinghouse and directory services;
- NextMark Mailing List — a provider of mailing-list solutions;
- Portrait Software — a provider of insight-driven customer interaction software; and
- Unica — specifically, the Interactive Marketing offering from the vendor of enterprise marketing management.
[Editors' Note: Associate Editor Jessica Tsai's other coverage from the DMA '09 show can be found here, and her blogposts can be found on destinationCRMblog.com, under the #dma09 hashtag or keyword.]
"Every year, we try to add new elements to the show, especially for our marketing service provider community," McDonough says in an interview with CRM magazine. The FIA, he says, is intended to identify and recognize leaders in marketing who have new platforms or products that are either in the marketplace or in development within the next six to seven months. In other words, McDonough says, the DMA is looking for the "next big thing in marketing services and platforms that's going to come out in a huge way."
Bernice Grossman, principal consultant and founder of Direct Marketing Resource Services (DMRS) Group and one of the FIA judges, says the award is meant to spotlight innovation thriving in the face of a recession. "The economy was so stifling," she says. "This was a way that we could tell everybody else in the industry [that] there's a lot of wonderful stuff happening."
The 11 judges, who were selected from the DMA membership, took two rounds of evaluations to winnow the field of 54 down to the group of 12 finalists. Those evaluations were based on detailed explanations provided by each submission of:
- the innovative product or service, including whether the offering is entirely new or a new spin on an existing offering;
- the impact the product or service has on the end user and what benefits have been achieved or are anticipated; and
- the impact the product or service has had on the marketing community overall.
The challenge, says Joe Paulsen, senior vice president and general manager of marketing solutions provider Experian's integrated marketing services, is that marketers are often perceived as laggards in comparison to their online and digital counterparts. "Direct marketing is a pretty mature practice and the innovation comes into its application in unique ways," says Paulsen, whose firm was among the 12 FIA finalists. "We all just gotta be a little more like Chuck Yeager," he says, referring to the death-defying pilot who was the first to break the sound barrier.
Defining innovation was certainly a challenge for the DMA. McDonough, for one, generally characterizes innovation as the generation of "a wow moment," but admits that he doesn't know what the perfect answer is. What he does know, he says, is that "if you have an idea and have certain things in place that can measure results, that, to us, starts to lay the ground[work] for innovation."
Mike Coakley, a vice president of emerging technologies and partnerships at multichannel marketing service provider Epsilon, says that marketing doesn't have the benefits seen within more-stable systems such as accounting. "Marketing is constantly changing," he says. "Campaigns are changing. Now you've got real-time interaction, data coming in, and now social media."
Coakley and DMRS Group's Grossman are both a part of the DMA Marketing Technology Council (MTC), which was an FIA sponsor. Helping to establish the FIA, Coakley says, was particularly fitting for the MTC, which includes education as part of its overall mission. "[The MTC] is not just a bunch of people sitting around clapping hands," he says. "We want to bring knowledge to the people who are asking the DMA, ‘What should we do?' "
The drive to do something is certainly part of the definition of innovation advocated by Luke McKeever, the chief executive officer of Portrait Software. Typically, McKeever says, innovation has to come first, before any monetary benefits can be seen — but, he warns, if you're too far out in front of the customer, what good does it do? Any solution, he says, has to balance innovation while still "making it practically implementable" — that is, a process that a marketer is actually willing to use to connect with a customer. "The world is full of brilliant ideas," McKeever says. "I'm sure there are more brilliant ideas than analytics, but it's taking them to market and making them actually work that matters."
DMA executives say they are planning a much longer lead time for next year's FIA, with a vision for the awards that mirrors the trade group's International Echo Awards, which recognizes excellence in direct marketing campaigns. (This year's Echo Awards ceremony, hosted by comedian and television personality Jay Leno, is taking place Tuesday night.) McDonough says he doesn't yet know what to expect for next year's DMA event — or from the 2010 FIA in particular — but predicts the emergence of solutions revolving around social media and mobile capabilities. He says he's confident that direct-marketing providers will continue to innovate, a conviction he attributes to the rapid growth behind the digital space.
"There's so much one-to-one interaction," he says. "Direct marketing is in a transformation [period] because it's still thought of in that old, traditional, direct-mail way. There's a maturation process taking place right now."
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