Will DMA CEO’s Retirement Make Way for Interactive?

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) Monday announced that H. Robert Wientzen, president and CEO of the Association, will retire on July 1, 2004, shortly before his 65th birthday. Wientzen’s departure raises the question of what level of importance his successor will attach to interactive marketing issues — issues that some feel were neglected under Wientzen’s leadership.

Wientzen will stay on as a board member through the end of next year to help with the transition to his successor. He has headed the trade organization since 1996, and presided over its acquisition of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM) in 1998 and the Internet Alliance (IA) in 1999.

Before landing the top job at the DMA, Wientzen served as CEO/Chairman of Advanced Promotion Technologies. APT, which filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in August of that year, made point-of-sale electronic marketing set-ups that played commercials and printed out instant coupons at supermarket checkout stations.

Despite that emerging technology experience, Wientzen and the organization he led were seen by many direct marketers as not being as aggressive as they could be on issues affecting the interactive marketing industry.

“Bob should be credited with pushing the DMA into the interactive world, but there’s a lot more work to be done there,” said Michael Mayor, president and CEO of email service provider NetCreations and a member of the board of the Internet Advertising Bureau. “The new CEO will need to possess a deep knowledge of these challenging issues and, perhaps more importantly, the consumer’s sentiments toward them.”

Michael Della Penna, chief marketing officer of email solutions provider Bigfoot Interactive and co-chair of AIM’s Council for Responsible E-Mail, agrees. “Bob started many good things there,” he said. Della Penna mentioned the release of email delivery best practices guidelines as an example. There’s now an opportunity to build up the technology component of the organization, Della Penna said, by hiring a CEO with a strong technology background or an understanding of technology.

While the AIM acquisition would seem to have provided that technology component, Della Penna said that the DMA is the organization that most people look to, because it has such a large membership. “The DMA also is starting to reach out to other organizations where it is not as strong,” he said. “Just as AIM is the interactive arm of the DMA, tapping into those [other] groups and experts will be a critical component to the success of someone in that role.”

While the concept of AIM going under the DMA’s wing was a good idea, there were integration issues, according to Ian Oxman, VP of consulting for Rapp Digital Innovyx.

“The DMA acquired AIM because it realized that the Internet would be a mainstream direct marketing channel, and the DMA needed expertise and leadership,” Oxman said. “The problem was that AIM ran into a very resistant old-time mentality in the DMA. As AIM proposed best practices and responses to policy questions, oftentimes they were in direct opposition to how the DMA chose to respond. It was very clear that the DMA enabled AIM to operate independently as long as there was no conflict. If a conflict arose, the DMA policy would win.”

Rapp Digital Innovyx defected from AIM after a more substantive document on email marketing best practices was put on indefinite hold.

It’s perhaps telling that in his good-bye statement, Wientzen referred to “the new world of electronic marketing,” an old-school term for what interactive marketers see as an established and thriving industry. “The DMA needs to recognize at the senior executive level that the direct marketing landscape has changed from being a one-way push of advertising material to becoming much more of a two-way interaction,” Oxman said. “Issues such as privacy, Do-Not-Call and permission are signs that marketers need to be much more engaged and respectful of their target audiences.”

Meanwhile, the DMA Board’s statement hailed Weintzen’s guidance in working with legislators to pass the Can-Spam Act, which has been widely criticized by consumer advocates, state legislators and some email marketers.

“In my opinion, Can-Spam does nothing more than preserve the status quo,” Oxman said. “What needs to happen is similar to what California tried to do. The industry needs to get behind and support the notion that there is only one appropriate way to use commercial email, and that’s in a permission-based environment.”

Bigfoot’s Della Penna agreed. “This is the beginning, not the end, of the fight against spam,” he said. “The new head of the DMA will have to be someone who has mastered an understanding of the consumer perspective as well as being able to bring a strong marketing background to the table, so they can continue the fight against spam and serve up best practices for legitimate marketers to follow.”

Will the DMA be open to an interactively oriented CEO? Della Penna said yes. He pointed out that nearly every Fortune 2000 company is doing integrated marketing, while traditional mailing list managers are diversifying to include email lists. “The world is changing pretty rapidly,” he said.

The question is, will the DMA be able to change along with it?

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