The Strategic Mailing Partnership (SMP) is having a makeover. The partnership was first launched back in 2008, to give mailing houses more of a say in the future of the industry.
Events were organised, plans for a training course were put in place and leaders in the direct mail marketplace banded together to start something significant.
At the time, the SMP was launched with gusto, with a targeted mailing produced through the Royal Mail’s print management partnership with St Ives sent out to 280 direct mail companies throughout the UK.
All of this pointed to an organisation brimming with enthusiasm. So where is it now?
Still very much here; it has been in beavering away in the background and now has more than 150 members representing around 80 mailing houses, together producing 80% of the bulk mail carried by Royal Mail.
In 2011, it recruited more than 100 members, and a strategy refinement in 2012 saw it take more of a manufacturing focus. It was responsible, for example, for quietly forcing Royal Mail’s hand into refunding reversion surcharges issued in 2012.
However, the organisation has decided that it is time it was a more visible presence and is therefore implementing a rebrand. With a new sponsor, Royal Mail Wholesale, and another big recruitment drive imminent, the partnership is soon to be renamed the Strategic Mailing Partnership: The Mailmakers.
“Initially, it wasn’t part of the strategic framework to publicise it,” says the SMP’s chairwoman Judith Donovan CBE.
“Once the members had been recruited, it was seen as a closed shop, with no particular need to talk to the wider world, but in six years a lot has changed. Mailing houses have come and gone, new ones have emerged and technology has reinvented itself.”
Donovan, a previous vice-chairwoman of Postwatch, the former consumer watchdog for the postal service before it merged with Consumer Futures, was the first to be called upon for the chair position back in 2008 and has remained at the helm since then, overseeing a solid period of growth.
Postwatch was formed in 2000 in order to regulate the industry, after the Postal Services Act of the same year established the Post Office as a public limited company instead of a statutory corporation, intended by the government to encourage competition.
The SMP’s aim has always been to achieve something unique by connecting up the Royal Mail with bulk mailing houses to develop a network. It describes itself as the only supply chain partnership in post in Europe and the board meets six times a year.
Donovan says it has not been the easiest of tasks, but the benefits are now being reaped, and it is time that the partnership boasted of what it has achieved in this period of extreme change for the sector.
Robin Welch was approached in 2014 and asked to become one of the 12 members that comprise the SMP’s board. He is chairman of direct marketing company GI Solutions and remembers the darker days when Royal Mail and the mailing houses rarely saw eye to eye.
“A couple of years ago, the relationship between Royal Mail and the mailing houses was adversarial,” says Welch.
“Royal Mail was rigidly applying rules and making life difficult for mailing houses. Because the SMP met with them on a regular basis, it built relationships with senior people, not necessarily through formal channels. I think over time it was able to get them to understand that what they were doing was destructive.”
“There has been real change,” says Hallmark Cards founder and chief executive Chris Hall, who also sits on the board.
“Before, there was a considerable level of distrust. Now I think there are two key planks of agreement. First, how we grow the postal market together, having a chance to input into marketing campaigns that Royal Mail might be running. And secondly, having input into the innovations or changes Royal Mail wants to implement. I’m a great believer in supply chain members needing to collaborate with each other.”
Donovan now wants to grow the partnership even further, under the rebrand that will see its activities regularly exposed to the media and wider public.
Hall pointed to the connectivity that Royal Mail and the mailing houses now have. The SMP organises events in both the north and south of the country and puts on various workshops.
It also has a number of splinter groups operating within its purview, with one current group focusing on trays and consumables and another looking at forecasting.
Royal Mail is excited too. Jenny Ledgar, Royal Mail Wholesale’s director of network access, says she is “thrilled” that the partnership can continue with a new sponsor.
But with all the successes, Welch for one feels the outward-facing rebrand has come at the right time. “I think there is a job to be done to communicate what we’re doing. With a lot of the initiatives that have been worked out at board level, if we don’t tell the mailing houses and public, they just won’t know.”
So what had previously been one of the most fractious relationships in the industry is becoming ever more critical for its development. Now that it is out, long may the SMP’s brand of direct mail diplomacy deliver.
The SMP has helped work wonders for the DM sector
Danny Narey, operations director, Adare SEC
The main requirement for sitting on the board is being able to turn up and take your company hat off before you enter the room. That’s not to say my company has not benefitted, to some degree we do bring our own agendas, but that is why there are so many represented, from small mailing houses, to pick-and-pack operations, to larger organisations.
I joined about five years ago and at the time the industry was in a bit of turmoil, with the ‘reversion debacle’, when the Royal Mail was making some fairly huge charges for mail being incorrectly presented. People would find themselves with tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of bills for mail batches that had been reverted because it didn’t meet the criteria.
This was a time when the SMP really came to the fore because there were lots of different bodies around the industry trying to tackle this. It was a bit like a foreign power investing in Penzance trying to take back Westminster, we weren’t really getting anywhere with Royal Mail initially because it is a behemoth but we managed to crystallise it and sit as a mediating force. A lot of this is down to Judith Donovan and her leadership.
The SMP was created originally to promote mail as a medium, to promote the craft of good, written, mass communication. A lot of that craft was lost with the recession but the SMP has done a lot to restore that and has worked wonders in promoting the better use of mail. Some companies and sectors that wouldn’t have thought mail as a channel for them are much more aware of it now.
Royal Mail is still a big machine, but by and large I think the industry is a lot better for its collaborating. It would be unfair to say that this is all down to the SMP but it has been at the heart of it without a shadow of a doubt.
With Royal Mail, it is really a very collaborative venture. More than anything it has made them realise they need us as much as we need them.
What has been your experience of the SMP?
David Amor, managing director, First Move Direct Marketing
“We have been part of the SMP for about six years now. We applauded the fact that Royal Mail was actually going to undertake some marketing to support the fact that direct mail was good. Over the years, what Royal Mail does has majorly shifted. The realisation that business mail is dropping because of digital means advertising mail and the role that the mailing house industry has in that has become ever more relevant in what is a market that was shrinking but has now stabilised.”
Dave Reynolds, managing director, DST Dagenham
“I think for all concerned the SMP provides a useful forum for both parties to voice their opinions. There are several initiatives that have been raised by us as a business, which I feel really gave us a voice in the progression of certain issues. For example, the Mailmark initiative, where we had a voice at the table and were perhaps influential in having Royal Mail put incentives in place to cover some of the costs of implementation of using it.”
Noel Warner, managing director, Inc Direct
“I sat on the board for about two years and came off it around 18 months ago. In my view, there was previously a huge disconnect between Royal Mail and the people producing the mail. At the time, there were issues with reversions, and the industry was up in arms. So the purpose of this partnership was to bring people like us and the Royal Mail together to work in harmony and at the same time promote the power of direct mail in the marketing mix.”