Grounded firms can still soar in tough times

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The mood was surprisingly upbeat at last month's spring conference in Seattle, at least until the earthquake struck.

I wasn't there for the final day of the annual Direct Marketing Association event, but I was around long enough to hear comments from DMA President-CEO H. Robert Wientzen and exhibitors that were encouraging in the midst of an economic slowdown and long stock market decline.

In his opening address, Wientzen drew parallels between e-commerce and the history of aviation. Under his analogy, the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk and Charles Lindbergh's conquer of the Atlantic stood for e-commerce's successes, and the Hindenburg for the fiery crash of the dot-coms.

"Look at it this way: The Hindenburg was quite capable of flying," Wientzen said. "The technology was there. Remember, it did cross the Atlantic. However, it wasn't practical for all occasions and purposes."

Wientzen noted that while dot-coms plummeted to earth, traditional direct marketers have thrived because of their strength in the basics of database management, order-taking, fulfillment and customer service. "From here on out, it's onward and upward, because there's a lot more ahead for us," he said. "After all, if the recent 'crash' is the equivalent of the Hindenburg, we have yet to discover the e-commerce equivalent of the jet engine and beyond."

Exhibitors at the show echoed Wientzen, saying their companies were holding steady or gaining. Their common theme was that in tough times, marketers turn to companies that offer clear return on investment and that online marketing is here to stay.

"I think it's all about ROI," said Roberta Berrent, VP-strategic marketing and communications for Dynamics Direct Inc. "Online marketing people can't afford not to do it because the ROI is there."

Tim Choate, president-CEO of Aptimus Inc., said that while dot-com dollars are drying up, traditional companies continue to expand. "We're finding major companies offering major dollars," he said. "We're in a transitional period away from these pure plays."

Acknowledging that this will be a tough year for businesses, Choate said what most president-CEOs hope to be able to say: "I think we're through the hit."

So the message out of Seattle is simple: A grounding in marketing fundamentals and a commitment to accountability will carry a company through times of economic upheaval.

Nothing earth-shattering in that.

John Obrecht is managing editor of BtoB. He can be reached at

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