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MIAMI BEACH, Fla.-It's a bit like preaching to the choir, but executives at the Direct Marketing Association's spring conference last week sang the praises of interactivity.

That's because the stuff of direct marketing databases, response rates and one-to-one communication is being legitimized by proponents of the information superhighway.

"The future of direct marketing ... is dictated by the use or ignorance of technology," DMA President Jonah Gitlitz said in an opening address to 1,750 executives.

The conference, devoted almost entirely to new technology, promised not-so-rapid but ultimately profound changes in an industry now largely dependent on mail and TV.

The notion of knowing more about consumers, though raising privacy concerns, has many proclaiming they are able to market more effectively.

"In the black and white world of direct mail now, people either responded or they didn't," said William Claussen, an ad manager at AT&T. "It's impossible to tell who looked at a [mail] piece and decided not to respond."

But letting consumers choose what ads they receive can make direct marketers far more efficient. Ultimately, they can pare spending on print production and postage.

"It's a complete reversal of the marketing system; as such, I don't believe any investment is unwarranted," said Lester Wunderman, chairman of Wunderman Cato Johnson, New York.

For agencies, he said, the age of interactivity will mean "a lot more creative work [and] a lot more marketing intelligence," and media departments must become more sophisticated to keep up with the widening array of choices.

Several companies drew attentive crowds with demonstrations of their fledgling systems. Among Time Warner's Full Service Network, Prodigy and CompuServe were other, shopping-only systems likely to cut into the traditional print catalog business.

Already, direct marketers are playing a big role in shaping the content of interactive systems.

A home shopping software system called eShop will be licensed to AT&T and others for interactive systems. Another system, En Passant, is a collection of cat alogs on CD-ROM, developed by AT&T and Redgate Communications.

Several traditional direct marketers have forged their own alliances. Spiegel is Time Warner's partner in Catalog 1, a shopping channel that will be tested on a handful of cable systems. Home Shopping Network is working with R.H. Macy & Co. on TV Macy's, which has been delayed until the summer of 1995. And mail-order giant Fingerhut Cos. is handling fulfillment for MTV Networks' spring test of merchandise sales on its cable networks.

But many speakers reassured anxious marketers that despite the hype, changes in the industry will happen over a period of years.

Much interest depends on proof that CD-ROM will yield more sales and profits than print catalogs.

"For the foreseeable future, electronic retailing will not drive print mail-order or catalogs out of business," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a Bethesda, Md.-based consultancy.

And some DMers griped that major marketers need not wait for futuristic technology to drive their interest in closer communications with customers.

"Direct marketers don't need to be educated on the importance of one-to-one marketing relationships; the rest of the marketing world does," said Stan Rapp, president of Cross Rapp Associates, a New York consultancy.

"The realization that we're steadily moving toward interactive media has every marketer saying, `I have to think about getting a response' and `What do I do after I get a response?' Having said that, most marketers miss the point that 800-numbers, fax machines and on-line computers are all here now. The new technology is beside the point."

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