Election year is imminent. Politicians are vilifying marketers. Marketers are becoming careful about the company they keep.
What will be the domestic issue in the coming election year?
That's right, marketers. Candidates in state and federal elections are plotting their strategies for the 2004 elections. They're casting marketers (that would be you) as the bad guys. You star opposite the Heroic Lawmaker.
Creating jobs is hard. Ditto fixing the economy. Iraq? Nothing $87 billion can't fix. Political strategists (themselves marketers) have drawn a bead on an issue near and dear to voters' hearts. Media coverage is guaranteed, and voters' eyes won't glaze over.
The domestic issue in the coming election year will be marketing. Do-Not-Call, spam, RIAA consumer data subpoenas, Yahoo rapped by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for less-than-ethical marketing practices. All these issues touch consumers directly, speak to them personally. Even the most ham-fisted measures are viewed by the majority of voters as a sign politicians care about them. Case in point: California's half-baked spam bill received embattled Gov. Gray Davis' signature at the lowest point in his political career.
The glare of the public spotlight is unrelenting as far as marketers are concerned. Precious few trade organizations are household names. The MPAA and recently, the RIAA, are among the few exceptions. An unlikely newcomer to that select group is the much-less-sexy DMA. The group's staunchly anti-populist positions on Do-Not-Call and spam are a staple in the stories making the headlines.
DMA members, even many members of its own staff, are starting to freak out. In this business, image is everything.
"We have totally distanced ourselves from them," FutureNow's Bryan Eisenberg told me. Once ultra-involved, he's now near apoplectic on the topic. "We left the CRE (Council for Responsible E-Mail). How can you stand for that policy? We left the Search Engine Marketing Council. They killed that, too. It's all incompetence and politics. They've totally quashed the AIM voice, even on search, which is innocuous."
AIM (Association for Interactive Marketing) is DMA-owned. In conjunction with its parent, it holds the annual net.marketing conference. Historically, CEOs will offer to trade their grandmothers for an opportunity to speak before this audience. That seems to be changing. If people are judged by the company they keep, many marketers now welcome the opportunity of being linked with the DMA about as much as a political candidate would welcome the paparazzi during an assignation with a showgirl.
Seth Godin has keynoted a number of AIM and DMA events. It might be assumed he's a likely a contender for net.marketing keynote. But there's that sticky issue of his blog. Entries like "The DMA steps in it again" are sentiments that reflect the opinions of most legitimate marketers.
"They shouldn't be scared to call me because what's the worst that's going to happen?" Seth told me (after he stopped laughing). "Sure, I've been publishing screeds against the DMA recently. Because they don't get it."
"There's no history of any industry saving themselves in the face of this kind of change. They should lead, not fight. The DMA has a chance to stand up and say to the world, 'if you hear from a DMA member, it's because they're treating you with respect.' Consumers should demand responsible marketing groups join the DMA and honor its principles."
Before interactive marketing, that's essentially what the DMA did stand for (if imperfectly). Now, with the opening of a Pandora's box of uncomfortable, Internet-related issues surrounding permission, privacy, spam and the fact that over half the U.S. population (not to mention many DMA employees and executives) fell over themselves in a rush to register on the Do-Not-Call Web site, the parent organization appears to regard AIM as if it were nuclear waste. They want it to go away. But how can they get rid of it?
They can't, not without courting another PR disaster. But they can ignore it. In fact, ignoring AIM now appears to be DMA policy.
A DMA employee-who-would-be-fired-if-named (a term in the media so frequently nowadays, there should be an acronym for it -- EWWBFIN?) told me there's been a communications blackout between the DMA and AIM regarding net.marketing. This especially holds true for AIM director Kevin Noonan. Will AIM officials officiate at an event bearing their name? Might the DMA be harboring a Do-Not-Speak list?
"I'd be shocked if they wouldn't let me speak at another event," said former AIM director Ben Isaacson when I spoke with him this week. Still active in the organization, he sighed, "I just don't know what going on with AIM and the DMA. These email issues are so up in the air. There's going to be a federal law passed, and life will move on. If you're not going to support them this year, you'll support them next year."
Another marketer told me, "[The DMA] seems to be doing everything they can to irritate consumers. I don't understand their relationship with AIM, and I'm an AIM board member. The DMA seems to have a complete disregard for their constituents who are Internet marketers. They seem to have a total disregard for AIM's leadership. If they're not going to listen to that constituency, why bother with AIM? I'm very concerned as to the impact membership could have on our reputation."
ReturnPath CEO Matt Blumberg, also on AIM's board, says he's unaware of any actions or measures involving AIM for net.marketing.
AIM may have been rendered toothless by its parent (The still-suppressed email best practices document is the best-known example). At least AIM members were AIM members, distanced from the wildly unpopular positions and policies of the larger body. Now that AIM is more integrated with the DMA, and the DMA is the Trade Association America Loves to Hate, interactive marketers are beginning to keep their distance. Qualified speakers on topics like email, permission and privacy for a DMA branded event? The issue isn't who can. It's who will.
Not involved in email or telemarketing? You're still not off the hook. Last week, a friend who specializes in B2B print pitched a potential client. When he learned my friend was a DMA member, he evenly informed her not only would she not receive his business, but he would see to it no one in his professional circle engaged her services.
The Other 98 Percent
"Direct marketing works on small percentage returns," says ePrivacy President and CEO Vincent Schiavone. "They never measured what they're doing to the other 98 percent. Privacy matters. Companies realize these people are the bulk of their customers. It's just not worth it to piss them off for a two percent return."
"Procter & Gamble and the other great, strong national consumer brands will not tolerate the heat of getting in the oven with the DMA," he predicts. "And then, the DMA will change."
Maybe Vince is right. Best-case scenario: the marketers heal themselves. Worst case? A bunch of under-informed political aspirants spend the first 10 months of 2004 jump-starting dumb legislation to regulate an industry that cannot regulate itself.
At least the public will know who really loves them. Won't they?
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Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.
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