By Paul Barbagallo
Like any successful marriage, even one with cyclical doses of quarreling and reconciling, a sound mailer-list broker partnership is founded on trust.
Fostering a relationship of open data exchange and healthy communication is the key to realizing the potential of this mailer-broker union, list gurus attest.
"We view our vendors as partners in our business," shares Bill Buchler, vice president of marketing for home maintenance catalog HSN Improvements. "A strong partnership allows for trust, and because of that partnership, I trust [my list broker] with my data. If you're in a situation where you don't have that level of trust, then maybe you're going to hold back from disclosing that vital information."
To explore this direct marketing one-two punch, I interviewed three mailer-list broker duos:
>Derek Glass, former marketing director and current consultant for telecommunications firm Working Assets, and Steve Kehrli, senior account executive at Names in the News;
>Buchler and Steve Bogner, president of NRL Direct; and
>Julie Chapman, marketing manager for The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and Bob Portner, senior account executive for Kroll Direct Marketing.
They each shared nuances of their relationships, list brokering best practices and what it takes to keep the union intact.
For list brokers to make adequate selections and recommendations—commonly referred to as list recos—they obviously need their clients to trust them enough to disclose needed information, i.e., past results, rate of response and changes in products and services.
"It's vital for a list broker to have a global perspective of the mailer and what their goals are," asserts Steve Kehrli, Names in the News. "If I'm able to know what's going on within the organization—if they're making a turn, or discounting a product or service—I will have some direction so I can move ahead and make plans."
Working Assets' Derek Glass believes if you relay to your broker the lifetime value of your customer and cost per sale, you'll double response rates right off the bat.
"As a mailer, you have to trust that the information you give your broker will make your mailing better," says Glass, who has known Kehrli since the mid-1990s when the pair worked for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as mailer and broker, respectively.
To really use your brokers, you want to give them as much information as possible, Kehrli says.
"I hate working in a vacuum—when I'm only given the bare minimum and expected to develop a plan," he says. "By doing this, you're really handicapping yourself as a mailer."
When asked why mailers would withhold certain data from their list broker, Glass said it could be based on fear, hubris or lack of trust.
"The mailer often thinks they know more than the list broker does," Glass laments. "You often hear: 'The list broker is just someone selling me stuff,' or 'I'm afraid they're going to tell my competitor.'"
Entrepreneurial and novice direct marketers often are the ones that are unnecessarily protective of their projects and ideas, says Kroll Direct Marketing's Bob Portner, who works primarily with business-to-business mailers.
"They're afraid where their information is going and who's getting it," he says, "which is understandable. But they're really doing themselves a disservice."
What brokers should do in these situations, Portner advises, is explain to the mailer why having that information is so critical.
Julie Chapman, AIChE, says she feels comfortable providing the necessary data to her broker because "the more information you give them, the more targeted the list selection will be."
What List Brokers Need
Among the types of information Kehrli says he hopes to receive from his clients: live, real-time updates on how a campaign is doing; package and production costs; past response rate results; ROI data; and lifetime value.
"I'd like to know on a weekly, if not daily, basis, 'How is that April mailing doing?' It's a luxury, but having that data allows me to be a strong ally," Kehrli says.
That may be a good deal to cough up for some marketers, but Glass says he has no reservations when it comes to supplying Kehrli with the information he needs.
"There was a time in our mail plan when [Kehrli] had more decision power than most list brokers traditionally have," says Glass, commenting on their collective tenure at PETA. "But during the two years I was there, the mailings got better and better."
NRL Direct's Steve Bogner says a mailer's prior list results and changes in merchandise and price points also are needed to formulate a solid plan.
"Some mailers feel comfortable sharing actual spreadsheets with their brokers," Bogner says, "and some might disclose percent response, number of orders, average order, cost of goods, cost of return, etc. Other mailers don't want to share any of that. It's whatever they're comfortable with."
A list broker might only be given the results of "A" list versus "B" list, he points out.
Bogner says that since HSN Improvements is an established and mature company—with a vice president of marketing, a circulation director and a circulation analyst—a list broker would not be involved very deeply in the list plan. "You do everything else," he says, "the negotiations, you get the net names, the exchange commitments, list selects …"
HSN Improvement's Buchler says you have to give your list broker all the data required to make these decisions.
"As a mailer you need to communicate not only your goal—whether you're going to invest a dollar a name or $5 a name—but also how each individual list segment did against that goal previously," Buchler says.
Portner finds past campaign information to be crucial in determining the right lists for a client.
"The more a mailer can give me in terms of a road map as to how campaigns have done in the past, be it successes or failures, I'll have a better handle on where to go from there," he says. "When a campaign fails, there are other factors involved that the list brokers need to know about."
What Mailers Need
Regardless of how heavily entrenched a list broker is in his clients' campaigns, one service he renders is extremely vital: monitoring industry trends.
"A list broker, as well as a manager, gives me a clear picture of what's going on in the list business," says Buchler. "They're one of my tools for gauging whether my list activity is meeting the trend or behind the trend."
Aside from bringing his industry knowledge to the table, Portner says he likes getting inside the heads of his clients to provide what they need.
"When I give my clients a list reco, I want there then to be a give-and-take dialogue so we can discuss why I think they should be using a certain list," he says. "What I try to give back to my mailers is not only information on a list, but also the creative thoughts and ideas behind it."
Chapman says two other ways a broker can be a staunch ally to a mailer is paying attention to details and double-checking to make sure lists have arrived either to the mailer or at the mail house.
"If they're working on multiple campaigns within a company, see if they can get volume discounts on the most-used lists," she adds.
For list brokers to have optimum success, they have to be emotionally involved with their clients, says Bogner.
"You have to live and die with their successes and failures, and do everything in your power to help them meet their end goals," he says.
Buchler says that HSN Improvements works with only one broker (Bogner)—a strategy some industry experts may advise against—but the trust and vision the cataloger and Bogner share gives them an edge, they say.
"[Bogner] knows what lists we've tried in the past, the ones that succeeded and the ones that failed, and he could take that somewhere," says Buchler. "Whereas, if you've got multiple brokers, it may be difficult to have a focused, shared effort."
Bogner likens a good list broker to a street fighter, and the mailer to a little brother or sister. "A good list broker has been around the block, and has gained that hard-earned experience in a multitude of ways," he says. "They know the list and database landscape, and can get into a company and show them the lay of the land."
List brokers should navigate the rough terrain of the list business for their clients, but also be able to subscribe to their values as well.
Glass says one of the important factors in his relationship with Kehrli is that his broker understands what kind of customer Working Assets is looking for. If you are a list broker working for a nonprofit and do not believe in the issue, you're not going to do a very good job, Glass says.
Working Assets is a long distance company that donates a portion of its revenue to nonprofit groups working for peace, human rights, equality, education and the environment.
"I could really get behind [Working Assets'] product because of my beliefs," says Kehrli. "They are a socially conscious company that gives back, and [Names in the News'] mission has always been to help the nonprofit sector. Tying the values of the two individuals and organizations together makes for such a strong bond."
By believing in his client's product, Kehrli says, he's able to have a greater understanding of the market. "I can then apply my list knowledge to help their plan."
In Good Times, and in Bad
A list broker's job is multi-faceted. Part of it is recommending lists, part of it is price negotiation, part of it is trying to pry information out of a clients' hands, and part of it is sharing creative ideas and engaging in dialogue about the mail campaign.
But hey, let's face it: Every relationship has its peaks and valleys.
"Much like in any union of two people, it's not always a day at the beach," Portner laughs. "There are campaigns that fail. There are people that lose money—and does it mean that you bail out on your list broker who you trust? No. You dust yourself off and move on to the next project."