Larry Kimmel, a longtime advertising executive, was the surprise choice last month to take over the administrative reins of the Direct Marketing Association. With no association management background, Kimmel nevertheless brings plenty of direct marketing experience to the table, as well as enthusiasm.
“I don't think there has ever been a more exciting or challenging time to be in marketing, with the demand for information, collaboration and involvement with the legislative process more important than ever,” said Kimmel, who takes on the title of CEO at DMA. “As a result, the role of our association is more critical now than it has been in years past.”
Kimmel succeeds Robert “Bob” Allen, the former president-CEO of cataloger and e-commerce company Vermont Country Store, who assumed interim operational control of the DMA in February following the January resignation of John A. Greco.
Until 2008, Kimmel was chairman-CEO of agency G2 Direct & Digital, and its earlier incarnation, Grey Direct. He's unapologetic about his lack of association management experience. His agency background, he said, aligns him with the needs of DMA membership.
“We all know the world of marketing has been upended over the past several years,” he said. “We as direct marketers have long understood the best go-to-market strategy, which is leveraging behavioral information and data to provide better customer experiences, but now the rest of the world has come to that agreement.”
Kimmel became chairman-CEO of Grey Direct in 2000, and previously served in other executive capacities at the agency. Prior to Grey, he spent seven years in senior management at direct agency Draft Worldwide, now Draftfcb.
The early betting on a new DMA boss was that it would be someone with association management experience. Kimmel was a surprise to many, but he's comfortable with it.
“In the agency business, you're focused on serving clients,” Kimmel said. “And at DMA, we exist because our members have needs. At this moment in time, the issues are too complex to just focus on association management.”
Kimmel's background doesn't faze Matt Blumberg, chairman-CEO of e-mail deliverability company Return Path, who is a DMA board member and served on the search committee that eventually chose Kimmel.
“Having association qualifications was one of four or five factors we considered, but [it] was by no means the main one,” Blumberg said. “We looked for someone with very good industry expertise in direct and interactive marketing.”
Kimmel's background in marketing also was strongly supported by DMA board member, Jerry Shereshewsky, who holds the title of chief grown-up at Grownupmarketing.
“The problem DMA has had for a while is that they have not had a direct marketer at the helm,” Shereshewsky said. “You need somebody who really, really understands the business. DMA has suffered, frankly, from having association guys, not direct marketers. Larry was a brilliant choice.”
Kimmel's hiring may herald a new period of stability for the association, whose leadership ranks have experienced a series of shakeups over the past year.
The role of chairman became vacant when Eugene R. Raitt, senior VP-accident and health and CMO of Asia for Allied World Assurance Co., resigned from that position in April for personal reasons, and was succeeded the next month by G. Steven Dapper, chairman and founder of agency Hawkeye. Dapper will serve until the association's annual convention in the fall of 2011.
Greco, DMA's previous permanent president-CEO, resigned in January after five years on the job over criticism of his operational policies. Worsening the situation, the association was buffeted by the recessionary economy, falling attendance at its conferences and expos, and operational losses. That produced a groundswell of criticism from the membership that forced Greco out.
Kimmel is intent on working with members to repair the damage.
“On day one, I sent a letter to every single member asking for suggestions,” Kimmel said. “I received hundreds of responses, and I've answered almost every one.”
Blumberg feels that Kimmel's background may go a long way toward improving formerly bruised relations with DMA members. “The art of running an association actually has a tremendous amount of direct marketing in it,” Blumberg said. “Doing things like good member communications and acquisition, running great events, doing online and offline education—much of this requires great direct marketing skills.
“Marketing to marketers is one of the toughest things you can do,” Blumberg said.
There's also the issue of economics. DMA posted a loss of $4 million in 2009. “Bob Allen has done a fabulous job of improving the financial complexion of the organization,” Kimmel said. “But to me, in all honesty, it's not about economics. It's providing better member value.”
Regardless, Kimmel said his most immediate goal is to promote DMA 2010, the association's annual conference and expo scheduled for Oct. 9-14 in San Francisco, in order to turn around falling attendance and bring in more funds for the association. M