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H. Robert Wientzen, president-CEO of the Direct Marketing Association, last month announced he would retire July 1.

The seasoned marketing veteran came to the DMA in 1996 from Advanced Promotion Technologies, where he spent three years as chairman-CEO. Prior to that, he logged 27 years at consumer packaged-goods giant Procter & Gamble Co.

Since taking over as head of the DMA, Wientzen has brought the association into the digital age. Among his achievements was the 1998 acquisition of the Association for Interactive Media (now known as the Association of Interactive Marketing).

Wientzen recently spoke with BtoB about his decision to retire and the challenges ahead for marketers.

BtoB: After seven years at the helm of the DMA, what motivated your decision to step down?

Wientzen: It was largely because I had been promising my wife and my family that I was going to retire, in fact some time ago. I originally took this job for no more than five years. It went by very quickly. I have a lot of things I want to do. I have a fair amount of hobbies, notably woodworking, photography and travel, which I enjoy. I own a farm in Ohio that I haven’t even visited in two years. There’s never really a good time to do something like this. While there’s no end to issues, we are in good shape. Also, a big part of my life was in charitable work. There’s a Cincinnati children’s charity I created. It’s a big charity in Cincinnati I founded 30 years ago.

BtoB: You’ve made many changes and accomplished a great deal at the DMA during your tenure. If you had to pick the two or three most important accomplishments, what would they be?

Wientzen: Bringing the DMA into the Internet age—welcoming and trying to help build electronic commerce—is something I set out to do when I took the job. The DMA is now integrated into that world. I think most people, while they might not agree with all the policies, would agree we played a significant role in e-commerce and e-commerce policy.

Secondly, the growth of the DMA. We’ve grown significantly into the largest marketing association in the world. We’ve grown in members, and we’ve grown in budget very significantly. Membership has grown from 3,200 to 4,700. The budget itself has grown about 25%.

The conference and business side of DMA has been expanded considerably. We’re doing more business in the seminar area. The dues account for about one-quarter of the operating costs of the DMA, so we’re able to raise money to put against industry issues by having a better business foundation to the association.

B-to-b is an important part of what we’ve done. The DMA focus is much broader now. A big part of my effort has been to grow b-to-b because that’s the fastest growth area in direct marketing. Some of the early acquisitions I did were in the b-to-b sector. We’ll continue to focus on b-to-b.

BtoB: Are you disappointed about anything you didn’t get to do?

Wientzen: I have been disappointed that we haven’t been able to pass postal reform legislation, although I’m quite encouraged now. I’m also disappointed that the telemarketing situation turned out the way it did. I’m not happy about a lot of the way Washington regulation and politics have gone. I think the industry has ended up not doing well in Washington in areas in which we could’ve done better. I don’t think we’ve done enough in the b-to-b area to reach out to companies that don’t necessarily think of themselves as direct marketers.

BtoB: How is the DMA moving forward to replace you? Where does the search for a successor stand now, and how long is it expected to take?

Wientzen: We have a search committee consisting of five board members and two former board members, and we’re in the process of identifying an executive recruiting firm, which hopefully will be done in a couple of weeks. We’ll be talking with the board about the board’s view of what kind of person to look for [in order for] the search firm to get off on the right foot. That should be done in the next few weeks, and they’ll be on a track to name a replacement that would become effective July 1, which is the beginning of our fiscal year.

BtoB: What qualities do you think are most important in that person?

Wientzen: I don’t know what the board will end up saying, but I think the job needs someone who has a visionary approach and understands the challenges of the business and understands marketing. I think that’s been helpful for me. I had 30 years in a combination of jobs that involved direct marketing, general advertising and high-tech marketing efforts, including 27 years at P&G. I was also involved in a lot of consumer and b-to-b marketing along the way. I had done what most of our members do, and I understand their challenges and interests and the tools they use. That’s for the board to decide. I’ll be involved, but in a peripheral way.

BtoB: What are the biggest challenges that new leader will face in the next 12 months? Long term?

Wientzen: The biggest one will be dealing with consumers’ apparent frustrations with borderline marketing efforts of all kinds from an ethical standpoint, like spam, and some questionable marketing practices of companies through all media, be it mail or phone. The public is demanding a higher level of credibility from marketers. Washington is very sensitive to the voter appeal in dealing with some of these things. We need to do a better job in encouraging a higher level of ethical behavior. In difficult financial times, it’s even more difficult for companies to consistently take the high road. The DMA will need to find a way to help companies do that, to do more than the minimum legal requirements. It’s good business to do the right thing, but that’s not always easy to sell. It’s also not always easy to get agreement on what the right thing is.

BtoB: What are some of the key opportunities your successor will have?

Wientzen: Certainly finalizing postal reform is going to be done over the next year. That will be a continuing issue. Continuing to fight the spam problems is important. Dealing with environmentalist concerns over direct marketing is a concern. Finding ways to be more environmentally friendly is not simple. It’s a tough objective.

BtoB: Have spam and other legislative restrictions had any effect on the overall ability of b-to-b marketers to do business? If so, how?

Wientzen: The effect has been to diminish the impact of e-mail marketing. The bad guys are so aggressive in their efforts that many people have not been opening their mail. The bad guys are ruining it for legitimate direct marketers.

I think we’re seeing a huge impact because of the amount of filtering going on. Legitimate e-mail is not getting through because companies have been very aggressive in setting up filters. They’re likely to have their own filters in place on top of ISP filters. Once we clean up the bad stuff, that might be less of a problem.

The issue can be diminished to a tolerable point if we can get serious enforcement of existing laws now that we have a reasonable set of laws. Response rates to legitimate marketers’ e-mail will go up.

BtoB: Did the legislative landscape have any bearing on your decision to retire now?

Wientzen: I was pleased we got the CAN-SPAM bill through. This had been part of my plan for quite a while. There will always be challenges and issues for the industry. I wouldn’t want to run from a particularly harrowing point in the legislative process, but I think we won some battles and we’ve had some impact, so I think it’s a good time. That didn’t play a role in my decision.

BtoB: How do you predict things will shake out, particularly the issues of spam and e-mail legislation? Do you think a do-not-e-mail registry will be adopted?

Wientzen: No, I think anyone who looks at the problem with an informed view recognizes that an e-mail registry is not a viable solution. I think in two years we’ll have an entirely different view of e-mail, and if we get the kind of law enforcement I anticipate because of what the DMA and the [Federal Trade Commission] and others are doing, I think we’ll see the most egregious offenders go out of business and therefore a significant drop in spam volume. This problem will fade into the background. It’ll never completely go away.

The big issue is listening to consumers and respecting their wishes while continuing to find ways to make it effective for the marketing companies as well.

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