Five Questions With... Jeanniey Mullen

OgilvyOne Exec Wants to Prove the Power of E-Mail

A New Best-Practices Council Hopes to Help It Overcome 'Whipping Boy' Status

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E-mail -- not as sexy as MySpace and little more than junk to many consumers -- is both the whipping boy and the little-appreciated workhorse of the digital-marketing world.
That's the perception that OgilvyOne e-mail marketing guru Jeanniey Mullen is trying to change, with an organization set to "prove how powerful e-mail is." In just a few months since she co-founded the E-mail Experience Council, the group has pulled in more than 1,000 subscribers. Yesterday, it opened up to paid memberships and announced the opportunity to help develop standards via, of course, an e-mail. (An hour after the blast, the open rate was 63%, Ms. Mullen said.) To that end, Ms. Mullen's group is trying to become a clearinghouse of best practices and a setter of standards for the e-mail marketing business. As a yearlong case study, it's creating a pro bono e-mail and interactive marketing program for the nonprofit RAK Memorial Foundation (Ryan Andrew Kaiser Memorial Foundation), which helps families with critically ill children. Here Ms. Mullen chats about it.

Advertising Age: How did you come to start the council?
Jeanniey Mullen: Everything I've seen written or published about e-mail always cuts down to a specific tactic and that makes it very compartmentalized and very difficult to put it into a larger program or campaign strategy. If you were a marketer for, say, Coke, and you were looking for information of how to build an effective e-mail strategy, you literally would have to read hundreds of articles to give you the best practices on creative or subject-line length. ... In January, we decided it was time to take a stand for e-mail and pull together something that would help set standards just as rich media, even analytics, has, addressing issues such as how you'll code or measure. We decided we needed an organization that serves two purposes: One is to help marketing agencies take a leadership position in determining standards and metrics and demonstrate how powerful e-mail is. And, on the client side, there needs to be a place to establish standards, a place where marketers could feel safe coming to look for guidance around best practices so it's not just a commoditized effort. Some of our clients at Ogilvy are using e-mail to send out 90% of their communications yet it's a minuscule part of the budget.

AA: Why is that knowledge so decentralized?
Ms. Mullen: It goes back to its origins. When e-mail first started, no one knew what it was so they left it up to little interactive agencies that specialized in e-mail. In 1998 or 1999, when the pendulum kind of swung to the self-service module, companies were so focused on getting applications to market and it was so cheap it became commoditized. Clients felt that for a very small amount of money they could effectively manage campaigns but those jobs were given to a mid-to-low-level person, so it was a low priority. Because it's so cheap and because it was misplaced within organizations it never gained credibility in terms of the impact on brand perception and responsiveness.

AA: Why start the council now?
Ms. Mullen: There are a few critical reasons. One is that the media has finally stopped making every e-mail story about spam, and deliverability issues, and e-mail being dead, and they've started to see the beneficial aspects again. Also, the consumers of tomorrow are engorged in real-time messaging and results -- on-demand and customized to their interests. E-mail is the foundation of all messaging mediums of the future. For anything you do digitally -- a website, communities, RSS or mobile -- you're registering all of those with e-mail or sending updates via e-mail. It essentially becomes the glue for all of those mediums.

AA: So then is spam less of an issue for email-marketing these days?
Ms. Mullen: Everybody is talking about e-mail marketing as hitting a plateau and [that] opt-in growth hasn't been increasing as much as it had been. People are opting in only because they're expanding their interests or maybe opting-out of another list. What we're seeing is that spam isn't going away; people are learning to manage it better. It's becoming less of the newsworthy type of annoyance it's been in the past. It's just become something you have to manage the same way you would junk mail.

AA: Each day brings a new technology that occupies everyone -- social networks one week, video blogs the next -- has e-mail been taken for granted in all this?
Ms. Mullen: People haven't given it the recognition it deserves. If you're going to have an electronic conversation, it's with e-mail or an e-mail derivative. When you look at the databases a lot of large marketing companies have, a J.C. Penney, or IBM or Cisco, they're built off infrastructure that didn't support e-mail for the longest time. As we evolve and get into wireless messaging and a slew of other types of permission, it's really going to impact the way these legacy databases work. It's got such a key foundational role. It's not going to be the glitziest thing or the most glamorous thing, but having a well-established e-mail program is going to be critical as we continue to evolve digitally.
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