"Below the Line" Redefined

This blog addresses a positioning problem for direct marketers. It continues to weaken the concept of integrated marketing and limits the potential for advertisers in all industries everywhere.

Surprisingly, the belief and application of direct marketing as a "below the line" marketing strategy continues unabated in many advertising agencies and their client counterparts.

The phrase assigned to direct marketing continues to say in one way or another that direct marketing belongs "below the line. " What's worse, the phrase has mostly died as a common expression today, but the belief continues to linger.

The problem as I see it relegates the direct marketer to the tactical rather than the strategic zone. 

Listed are the implications of such a position.

  1.  
    1. Implies that direct marketing is secondary to the awareness advertising strategy. 
    2. Strictly limits the application of direct marketing to a support role to awareness or general advertising. (Sometimes direct marketing does support awareness advertising. But in many cases awareness advertising supports the direct marketing effort).
    3. Reserves first dollars to mass advertising regardless of the target market's size with any left over budget going to "beneath-the-line" efforts.
    4. Direct marketing lives as the step child in large budget recommendations.
    5. Direct marketing, sales promotion and PR have no place as a core strategy with this prejudicial line of thinking.

 Today's common definition:

Above the line advertising includes television, radio, press, outdoor and television advertising. Below the line advertising includes sales promotions, direct marketing, sponsorship and public relations.

Yet this was not how the phrase was used in the beginning. According to Wikipedia it originally referred to the compensation structure used for general advertising agencies. 

Here's the Wikipedia definition:

"The term comes from accountancy and has to do with the way in which Procter and Gamble, one of the world’s biggest advertising clients, were charged for their media in the 1950s and 1960s. Advertising agencies made so much commission from booking media for clients that the creative generation and actual production costs of making TV ads was free – hence above the line. Everything else they paid for and was therefore below the line. Since then, models have changed and clients are no longer charged for their media in that way."

But the definition for BTL (Below-the-line) and ATL (Above-the-Line) went through several iterations. 

An interactive agency, imagri.com explains today's hierarchy of the integration mix on their website in this way. 

"Below the line (BTL) is an advertising technique. It uses less conventional methods than the usual specific channels of advertising to promote products, services, etc. than ATL (Above the line) strategy; these may include activities such as direct mail, public relations and sales promotion for which a fee is agreed upon and charged up front.

Below the line advertising typically focuses on direct means of communication, most commonly direct mail and e-mail, often using highly targeted lists of names to maximize response rates.

The term 'Below the Line' is rapidly going out of fashion in advertising circles as agencies and clients switch to an Integrated Communication Approach.

Above the line (ATL) is an advertising technique using mass media to promote brands. Major above-the-line techniques include TV and radio advertising, print advertising and internet banner ads."

If only this Australian agency were correct in its assessment that the integration approach had replaced the flawed view of ATL and BTL advertising. Even though we rarely hear this terminology used openly within reputable client and agency marketing sessions, the reality is that this antiquated view of communications continues to this day.

My proposed definition was best expressed by Lester Wunderman, the Father of Direct Marketing.

It wasn’t too many years ago that Europe was separated by a wall than ran through Berlin. Ronald Reagan, then President of the United States, went to the wall and demanded that Mr. Gorbachev, the Russian leader, tear down the wall.

I now make the same challenge to the so-called line that separates much of our work from that of general agencies. It is: There is no line. We’re not above it or below it—we just deny that it exists. From this day forward, this is 'the end of the line.' We will erase it, deny it, fight it with every resource we have--- until it is gone.

Posted on November 11, 2008 and filed under Direct Marketing Strategy, General.