To credit card marketing expert William F. Keenan, the hot new concept is "contact management."

This means mailing different solicitations to the same person at regular intervals-first with a teaser rate on the outside of the envelope, then on the inside, so the prospect is coaxed to open it.

"It's no longer important that you just get the right impression," Mr. Keenan said. "It's the number of times you communicate."

Direct mail is a specialty for Mr. Keenan, a former banker who has spent the last three years setting up a little empire of credit card consulting services.

Mr. Keenan, 41, was senior vice president at a National Westminster Bank affiliate when, in September 1996, he left to found two Hockessin, Del., companies related to his expertise.

One is an advertising agency, Creative Solutions International, which creates campaigns for major direct mailers. Among its clients are Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of Hawaii.

The other company is Convergence Group, a financial services consulting firm. Convergence now employs 42 consultants-most of them former bankers- whose expertise includes card marketing and smart cards.

Mr. Keenan wants to expand that to create a one-stop marketing company that would offer banks a range of services, from strategy and technology to creative work and execution.

To do this he created a holding company, De Novo Corp., to house his companies and acquire new ones. De Novo, based in Wilmington, Del., has 60 employees.

The first acquisition, completed last month, was Owen/Holleway, a communications firm specializing in technology-based marketing - something the other De Novo units lacked.

Owen/Holleway develops Internet marketing campaigns and designs Web pages. Located in Cambridge, Ontario, the company will also help serve De Novo's growing base of Canadian clients, Mr. Keenan said.

De Novo said he plans to announce a United Kingdom acquisition soon.

He said international growth is the "next frontier in the credit card category" for U.S. issuers and the vendors that serve them. Already, 60% of De Novo's sales are to international clients.

"The U.S. is becoming a smaller and smaller market for card issuers, and they have their sights on globalization," Mr. Keenan said.

Foreign markets can be difficult because of language and cultural differences, and Mr. Keenan hopes his firm can help keep U.S. issuers from stumbling abroad. He plans to set up offices in Japan and Latin America, which he views as major growth markets for credit cards.

Foreign markets are very different, not just from the domestic market but from one another, he said. "When you leave the U.S., the model for a credit card is completely alien."

In keeping with that international orientation, smart cards are an increasing focus of De Novo's consulting services. Convergence Group recently hired Irving Robert Gilson as its new managing director. Mr. Gilson was with the smart card vendor IC One Corp. and was executive director of the Smart Card Forum.

A unit De Novo established for new products and strategic alliances is responsible for a recent deal between Creative Solutions and HNC Financial Solutions, a unit of HNC Software Inc. The companies teamed up to develop targeted direct mail campaigns using HNC's SelectProfile data mining software.

Richard LaRosa, previously the head of marketing at Mellon Bank, was hired to oversee the new-product and strategic alliance division, which plans to announce further partnerships with data management, computer programming, and health-care companies.

"Where there's a need in the market that isn't being met, we'll start a company from ground zero or we'll acquire where appropriate," Mr. Keenan said.

Mr. Keenan worked for National Westminster for a year before forming his companies. Before that he was managing director at U S West Communications for two years.

Earlier in his career he was vice president of First Omni Bank, a credit card subsidiary of Allied Irish Bank, and held various marketing and management positions at Mellon Bank, Atlantic Financial, and Beneficial National Bank.

He says the biggest challenge for credit card issuers is price competition-which cannot go on indefinitely.

"Much of the growth in the card industry today is created by (Fed Chairman Alan) Greenspan for creating a low-interest-rate environment," Mr. Keenan said. "That's why the price war hasn't been a death blow yet."

Card issuers need to be more creative, he said, and find ways to add value to the credit card.

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