That's right… nearly three years since the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) was supposed to launch a super-duper opt-out scheme for unaddressed mail it has been confirmed that the scheme has been scrapped.
As you may recall, the opt-out scheme was first announced in November 2011, as a bit of good news in the run-up to Christmas. The scheme would merge the two existing opt-out schemes for unsolicited, unaddressed mail and allow people to opt out online (rather than having to request and complete paper forms). The website was to be launched in April 2012 – but it didn't happen.
A Freedom of Information request learned that the DMA had effectively sabotaged the scheme by making an impossible last-minute demand – they wanted Defra to ensure that non-DMA members would also become part of the deal. Initially Defra protested but in the end they gave in and started talking with the Newspaper Society and Professional Publishers Association.
By November 2012 there was still no sign of the super-duper scheme – both Defra and the DMA had gone completely quiet. A second request for information I submitted that month was rejected on the ground that it was best not to tell the public about Defra's ongoing negotiations. Eventually, in February 2014, Defra's argument was upheld by the Information Commissioner's Office. Interestingly, the Information Commissioner acknowledged that there was a strong case for releasing the information but Defra had assured them that the negotiations would be done and dusted within the next two months – it was for this reason that the the case was rejected.
As I had expected, nothing happened after two months – and by April 2014 it was too late to get the Information Commissioner to review its decision notice. The only option was to submit yet another request for information. And although I haven't received the documents I had requested (I'm still on to the case!) I have now received an obituary from Defra:
Re: Information Request Response Door Drop Preference Service RFI 7052
We spoke on 19th December regarding your request for information about the implementation of the Door-Drop Preference Service, so I could better understand the information you are seeking. I apologise for the delay in responding to you substantively.
You explained that you are particularly interested in Defra’s talks with the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) on implementation of the door-drop preference service, what Defra did to engage with the Newspaper Society and the Professional Publishers Association (PPA), and why the door-drop preference service has not been launched.
As you will know the voluntary agreement in place between the DMA and the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments is aimed at waste prevention, sustainable production and distribution and recycling.
As part of that voluntary agreement the DMA were aiming to introduce a single consumer opt-out website by April 2012. The DMA deal also included a Defra commitment to ‘engage with other parts of industry that are delivering unaddressed printed material to householders with a view to improving the environmental performance of these other delivery channels’. This was not a precursor to the DMA launching an opt out on direct marketing. However without those the DMA consider that the launch of their single consumer opt-out website would have negligible effect and negatively impact DMA members. Therefore, the DMA have decided not to take this aspect of the voluntary agreement forward at the current time.
In order to seek to deliver similar agreements with the Newspaper Society and the PPA, Defra held official level meetings, and in addition, the then Parliamentary Under Secretary wrote to the Newspaper Society encouraging them to engage. The result of discussions with the PPA culminated in the agreement which was published in May 2014. We understand the PPA did have a look at what the DMA were doing in terms of reducing material inserts, but the magazine sector is very different to the direct marketing sector. People buy magazines intentionally rather than having leaflets put through their doors, and magazine inserts tend to be targeted e.g. specific companies will arrange for inserts in particular magazine titles e.g. car tyre adverts in a car magazine. As a result the PPA agreement published in May 2014 did not include reduction targets. A further agreement with the Newspaper Society has not been secured.
Defra have sought to reach agreement with the DMA to launch the single consumer opt-out website despite no similar agreements coming forward from other sectors on a number of occasions, however they maintain that the launch of their single consumer opt-out website would have negligible effect without commitment from other paper sectors. As this is a voluntary agreement, Defra cannot take this work any further.
Whilst a new single consumer opt-out website is no longer being taken forward, the separate opt out systems that are operated by the DMA and the Royal Mail will continue.
I hope that this helps to clarify the situation.
To be sure, this is happy news. Although the Door-Drop Preference Service would have been an improvement (no more paper opt-out forms!) the scheme would otherwise still have had the same flaws as the two 'services' it would have superseded – the Door-to-Door Opt-Out and Your Choice scheme. Now that the super-duper scheme is officially dead I'll be making the case for a more sensible solution: letterbox stickers.