How the Academy and the Agency Became Kissin’ Cousins

By BKV in Direct Marketing on July 8th, 2010

I didn't always want to be a direct marketer. When I was two, I informed my mother that I intended to grow up and become a clock.Clock with hands Two or three years later, I found myself really reaching for the stars - pausing from my Spaghetti-O's just long enough to crow about to my plans to become a checkout clerk at the Piggly Wiggly. "Because," I explained to my parents as they glanced at one another and shifted uncomfortably in their seats, "You get to use a cash register and meet a lot of people." Fast-forward another twenty years, and my career goals might have grown loftier in prestige, if not in salary. I found myself in graduate school, trudging doggedly toward a life as a college professor. It all seemed plausible enough: Tweed jackets. Boozy departmental potlucks. The distant dream of tenure at a land-grant school in a Midwestern flyover state. But somewhere along the way, I managed to get distracted. Entranced. Seduced. Somehow, it occurred to me that maybe commercials mattered more to me than did Camus. Pynchon paled against print ads. And so, I traded in my academic robes for the creative black turtleneck. "You want to do what?" My academic colleagues recoiled like they'd just sniffed rotten milk. You'd have thought I was announcing my plans to carve out a new life as a sewage plant worker or a theme park plushie. But in my case, the answer was yes. Absolutely. Hi, I'm Michelle, and I'm a direct marketer. I'm the person who watches the infomercial at four o'clock in the morning and calls the 800 number in a panic because I have to have the bonus shoe tree or knife set or wrinkle cream that's available only if I order in the next twenty minutes. Let's face it: Some career paths are simply destiny, and it's best not to interrogate them too stringently. You could say I took the road less traveled for only $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Infomercial still shot But come to find out, the fork in the road wasn't nearly as forked-up as I'd figured: Direct marketers share an awful lot in common with their academic brethren. Sure, we dress better than they do. And a lot of them don't have, like, actual working televisions in their houses. But when it comes to the obsessive, engrossing, all-encompassing passion for information, direct marketers and college professors are twins separated at birth. We may spend our days in a Buckhead mid-rise while the professor logs his time in a dusty library, but it's only a difference of geography. We're both engaged in aggressive, uncompromising, heavy-duty research. I'm not kidding. Just look at the way we test the bejayzus out of creative in order to find the one execution that truly speaks to our audience. Or better yet -think the postmodernist literature scholar speaks an elevated language that's foreign to us plebes? Well, just listen to the strange, nuanced patois that accompanies our SEO or social marketing discourse; I defy you to get through it without a sherpa. And I won't even delve into the database stuff we do, because I don't really understand it and it frightens me a little. But at back of all of our efforts as direct marketers is a quest to learn more ... to find out what works, and make it work better. Let's not kid ourselves, of course: It's a curiosity that's borne of financial motives. And hallelujah for that. But it's also genuine, profound interest in what makes things - and people - tick. Part of what motivates us as direct marketers is knowledge for knowledge's sake. And absolutely nothing could be more academic. As for me, I'm shouting internal hosannas that I abandoned the academy for the agency. Brethren we may be, but the geography's a lot prettier from where I sit now. And, hey ... if things don't work out, there's always the clock gig.