If history is to be trusted, in 1748, a middle-aged Benjamin Franklin scribed a maxim that today is seemingly as elemental as his discovery of electricity.  In his Advice to a Young Tradesman, Franklin wrote, “Remember that time is money.”   With the current economic climate, who can question this wisdom?

Deliberating on Franklin’s advice, it is easy to distill his argument down to a simple matter of efficiency.  Indeed, “efficiency” has become an increasingly common buzz word in today’s global marketplace, instilled in our vernacular by black belts.  The one function that has been, for the most part, immune to this trend is marketing.  This result has been, perhaps, precipitated by the legacy view that marketing is the last bastion of creativity and streamlining the creative process can stifle innovation.

While some creative marketers fear the lean process, implementing cost-effective procedures into marketing operations is something that can be done in the immediacy.  From a direct marketer’s perspective, the first area of focus should be the direct mail channel.  Despite early promises that digital would replace all direct mail in the early part of the new millennium, postal marketing still remains a viable, strong channel of communication.  This is in spite of the obvious disadvantages, namely:  decreased tracking as compared to digital alternatives, logistics, and cost (design, materials, printing, and postage).  Indeed, in early 2011, MarketingSherpa, a research firm specializing in marketing analysis, conducted a survey of more than 1000 B2B marketing professionals.  Of this population, 79% still deem the direct mail channel as an effective or very effective communication channel.

Although there are a number of ways to increase the effectiveness of a direct mail campaign (reference Margie Clayman’s article “Five Ways to Create a More Engaging Direct Mail Campaign” ), perhaps the most comprehensive suggestion is the implementation of a Marketing Resource Management (MRM) system.  In general terms, these systems help a business support marketing operations by providing solutions that span from budgets, to content management, to deployment, and through to analytics.   While a complete MRM system can offer even more functionality, where efficiency is concerned, the critical item to track is inventory.  While industries like automotive can adopt Just-In-Time (JIT) standards, direct mail marketing must keep a readily available supply on hand (printing on-demand can often be more costly than the creation of bulk quantities).

A number of today’s industry leaders track their print inventory in inefficient spreadsheets, if they even track them at all.  While a given direct mail fulfillment house may keep accurate records, there is often a breakdown in communication when supplies run low.  Such a common scenario forces marketing campaigns to be placed on hold while new copy is approved and printed.  The end result of this critical path is unnecessary waste in resource hours, inaccurate forecasts, and wasteful material overages.  Never is this more prevalent than in the pharmaceutical industry as frequent changes required in the Important Safety Information (ISI) necessitate new print inventory.

The simplest method to reduce the time, effort, and resultant cost associated with this inefficiency is to tie inventory tracking to the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.  It’s not difficult to identify starting quantities and then automate iterative decreases as assets are fulfilled.  To further improve on this concept, thresholds can be set to initiate orders when fulfillments drop below a pre-defined level.  If this threshold is set intelligently, new quantities of assets should arrive just as existing inventory runs down (reminiscent of JIT).  Such a picture of efficiency would even make Deming smile.

As direct marketing continues to evolve, incorporating less expensive channels like text and web, the need to justify the direct mail channel will become ever-important.  Minimizing opportunity costs, as with effective inventory management, will be critical to the survival of the medium.  If direct marketers stay diligent, perhaps we can more readily adopt a new maxim, “Remember that mail makes money.”