At the DMA Annual: Opening Session Waves the Red, White, and Blue

Chicago–Patriotism was the order of the day at the opening general session of the 84th Direct Marketing Association Annual Conference here at McCormick Place. Starting with a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and ending with a Q&A with keynote speaker former president George Bush, the two-hour Monday morning session was calculated to make attendees feel better about what Calvin Coolidge said was “the business of the American people”: doing business.

The former president’s 30-minute speech offered more entertainment than information. After receiving the first of three standing ovations, President Bush addressed his suitability as a keynoter to several thousand direct mailers: “Can you think of anyone who receives more direct mail than the president of the United States—and I mean direct.

President Bush addressed the terrorism activity of the past seven weeks in a general sense. “The tentacles of terrorism have found their way into the mail system,” he said, later adding, “We must not let ourselves be cowed into submission. The best defense we have in this day and age is a bit of good old common sense.”

After praising legislative changes giving greater freedom to U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies and the DMA’s quick action in issuing revised guidelines following the discovery of anthrax in the postal stream, President Bush described our enemies as not only the terrorists but also “instability and unpredictability. They are the natural enemies of sound government and good business.”

The former president was the final speaker of the opening session. Following the national anthem and a historic film overview of the history of direct marketing, a masked painter, bouncing to a techno beat, used Day-Glo paint to create skeletonlike figures against stars and stripes holding up the letters “The DMA.” After a brief appearance by four Blue Man Group-inspired dancer/drummers, DMA president/CEO Robert Wientzen began his hourlong speech.

Wientzen cited Coolidge’s quote about the business of America, then acknowledged that the DMA has lowered its 2001 direct marketing sales projections by several percentage points since the terrorist activity of Sept. 11. But he noted that despite the sluggish economy, which had been hurting marketers even prior to September—U.S. direct and interactive sales were expected to hit $1.86 trillion this year, up almost 9% from last year’s $1.71 trillion.

Among other statistics mentioned by Wientzen: U.S. Internet sales for the year are projected to reach $34.16 billion, and the DMA projected 35.6% annual Web sales growth during the next five years. And according to DMA surveys, 49% of its member companies are profitable online.

Looking ahead, Wientzen enthused about technology that he anticipated would recast direct marketing. For instance, he declared computer tablets—portable, Web-access computers that are roughly the size of a writing tablet—as the wave of the future. Because of what he envisioned as their ubiquity, Wientzen said that they showed more promise for marketers than mobile commerce and e-books. Wientzen also said that interactive television was about to live up to its long-deferred promise, citing tests in a southwestern cable system of commercials that are customized based on individual household demographics and psychographics.

He was less sanguine about pending legislature. This year 583 bills addressing privacy and other direct marketing issues were introduced in the 50 states; Congress had introduced 118 privacy bills this year. And Wientzen was blunt about where he felt much of the blame rested: with the press, for drawing attention to these issues. “Where there’s the press, there are politicians,” he said.

Wientzen also warned of continued scrutiny by the press, consumers, and the government. “If your house is not in immaculate order, I urge you to get it in order now,” he said.

While Wientzen protested potential legislation mandating a national do-not-call list, he did call for support of postal reform legislation. Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) was likely to introduce yet another bill call for postal reform, and Wientzen—who made a point of noting that the DMA had worked with McHugh in drafting the bill—urged DMA members to write their representatives and otherwise support the legislation.

Following President Bush’s well-received speech, Wientzen asked the former president questions submitted from the audience. Among the tidbits gleaned: Yes, the Bushes shop from catalogs, though President Bush said, “I don’t want to put in a plug for a particular fishing catalog.” And while his computer home page is CNN.com, he professed not to know how that page came to be the first one he sees upon logging on to the Internet. And the former president isn’t a sophisticated Web surfer. “I go to whatever search engine comes up when I push [the] search [link].”

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