Direct Marketing Association President-CEO H. Robert Wientzen is facing the toughest times since he joined the organization in 1996. Already hampered by the economic downturn, the direct marketing industry now must deal with disruptions and fears caused by the anthrax threat to the nation’s postal system.
An outspoken proponent of resuming business as usual in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Wientzen said he is confident the direct marketing industry will recover, with b-to-b leading the way. Wientzen spoke to BtoB in advance of the DMA’s 84th Annual Conference & Exhibition, which is taking place this week in Chicago.
BtoB: How significant does the DMA believe the anthrax threat has been to b-to-b direct marketers so far? What steps should marketers take?
Wientzen: For the short term, this is a serious issue for b-to-b marketing because we don’t know what the impact will be on mailrooms and how they distribute our mail. Mailrooms will take a look at their procedures, and that will put pressure on us. The most important step is to make sure your mail is identifiable.
Overall, b-to-b will be in better shape because many names are well known to the recipients. People know the suppliers.
BtoB: With regard to direct marketing, do you think we are in a recession?
Wientzen: Yes, I think we finally have to agree that the events of Sept. 11 tipped us over into a recession. However, I will tell you that the overall estimates are still for positive growth in our industry.
While we believe that the overall economy is in a recession, we believe that, as in the case of the prior two economic downturns, direct marketing will do slightly better than bricks-and-mortar retail. That was the case in the past; we think it will be the case again. We are still looking at an annualized 3.3% growth forecast.
BtoB: How is the recovery likely to take place?
Wientzen: That’s an interesting question, which I’m being asked a good bit by many people now. The best view is one that says that the business-to-business side is likely to come back first. I think it’s important for people to know that.
We will likely see the b-to-b side of direct marketing improve faster than the business-to-consumer side. Consequently I’m telling people to very carefully, No. 1, focus on that area, because you’re likely to see positive results sooner rather than later. Second, for those who want to see where we are in terms of direct marketing’s return to normalcy, I would say: Look at the stronger b-to-b companies; you’re likely to see the turnaround happening there first. That’s a good indicator that it’ll likely soon spread to the b-to-c arena.
BtoB: How is the DMA upgrading security at its annual conference in light of recent events?
Wientzen: No. 1, we added plans for increased security and revisited all our contingency plans, which are significant in terms of putting on a conference this big. Secondly, I have written to the governor of Illinois (George H. Ryan) and the mayor of Chicago (Richard M. Daley) expressing our interest in understanding what they’ve done.
I heard from officials in Chicago giving me a long list of things that they’ve done to beef up security both in the convention center and in the hotels around the convention center, as well as on the streets of Chicago. On balance, we’re feeling that the city of Chicago is ready for our conference.
BtoB: Are you changing the content and schedule of the annual conference?
Wientzen: We didn’t change the schedule. However, there will be a number of sessions that will focus on how we overcome some of the challenges of Sept. 11, and I’m sure you’re going to hear from a number of speakers who will highlight these events in their presentations. But we’re not making any material changes in the nature of the conference.
BtoB: The DMA decided to offer free coach airline tickets to the annual conference for new registrants. What prompted you to do that?
Wientzen: First, we expected to be challenged to have the same number of people who attended our prior conferences, given the fear of flying after the Sept. 11 events, as well as due to the declining economy and the fact that a number of companies are tightening their belts.
So we felt as though we had to do something special to alleviate some of the economic concerns that people had about going to any conference.
[The DMA declined to provide the number of new registrants who took the organization up on its offer. It also declined to provide an attendance estimate for this year’s conference. The attendance at last year’s annual conference in New Orleans was 14,000 people.]
Secondly, we were motivated by President George W. Bush’s call for people to get back to business as usual, and we felt we could do something to help people get back to normal and come to our event.
When times are tough, that’s when people really need to go to a conference. We wanted to make a special effort to help people who had the most economic challenges to be there.
BtoB: What are the DMA’s greatest legislative challenges?
Wientzen: We continue to see the issue of privacy in many forms being the greatest potential challenge—not because there’s imminent danger, but because if things happen in this area, they could be detrimental to the entire industry. We are more dependent than ever on the use of information, and information technology is producing a lot of the benefits our industry is recognizing.
The second area that threatens the business-to-business and consumer side is the United States Postal Service’s declining health. Without a doubt, there are a lot of questions about the survival of the post office in its current form, and we’ve got to solve that problem, which is quite challenging.