Panorama's Why hate junk mail? programme may not have sparked a junk mail revolution, it has led to some interesting debates. Instigated by the usual suspect, I should add.
(Charity) junk mail: a waste of money and antiquated
Andrew Cates, CEO at SOS Children's Villages, argues advertising mail - including charity appeals - should be sent on an opt-in basis only:
"I do not know anyone who likes receiving junk mail from any source. If anyone exists who does, they should be able to elect to receive it. The rest of us should be protected."
Shortly after Mr Cates became the charity's CEO, in 2004, he kicked out the marketing consultants. Since, the charity's annual income has increased fivefold. The reason, says Cates, is simple: SOS Children's Villages is no longer wasting money on producing ever more mail-shots. It often takes well over a year before the cost of a mail-shot is recovered; a practice he describes as "shocking".
Junk mail is "antiquated" as it relies on "sound bites and gut reactions to photos", according to Cates. 'Online' is the future. Increasingly, people will shop around for charities (without the help of marketeers) and charities will have to clearly demonstrate exactly what they do and how they spend money. This future is simply unavoidable, and arguments about jobs in mail houses and revenue for Royal Mail are therefore dismissed as "backward":
"The stone age did not end because of a shortage of stones, the junk mail age is over because a better clearer, cheaper route is open to all."
In the Guardian, postman and writer Roy Mayall argues the reason Royal Mail relies so heavily on distributing junk mail is the result of the part-privatisation of the postal market - and in particular of what is known as 'downstream access mail'. Much of the mail you get from the postman has been collected and sorted by Royal Mail's competitors - TNT Post and UK Mail, amongst others. How much Royal Mail can charge its rivals for the 'final mile' delivery of such items is decided by Postcomm (the regulator for postal services in the UK). And, under the current price regime Royal Mail is making a loss of a couple of pennies on every piece of downstream access mail it distributes. In the words of Mayall:
"Yes, that's right: we deliver our own rivals' mail for them, and then we take a loss on it. By law. Or, to put it another way: we postal workers, and you members of the public, are made to pay so that rival companies to the Royal Mail can make a nice profit. This is what Hooper refers to as "modernisation". It is the real drain on the Royal Mail's revenues, and the reason why it is now so dependent on junk mail to survive."
When I was interviewed for the Panorama broadcast myself I raised exactly this point when the Hooper report was brought up. (Hooper, as I mentioned on Monday, claimed on the programme that advertising mail is vital for the economic viability of Royal Mail). Unfortunately, the interview didn't survive the editing suite. It seems though the junk mail debate hasn't quite reached its conclusion yet…