A Q&A With H. Robert Wientzen

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DM News editor in chief Tad Clarke conducted a telephone interview with H. Robert Wientzen after yesterday's announcement that he will retire as president/CEO of the Direct Marketing Association in July. Here is that interview.


DM News: Let's begin with postal reform. Do you see it happening next year? Are the U.S. Postal Service's problems fixable and what will reform mean for mailers?


H. Robert Wientzen: Absolutely yes. In fact I just got off the phone with the postmaster general two minutes ago, and the last thing he said was, "I look forward to working with you on the rest of this reform issue and I'm sure you're going to have an impact on that after you're gone even." I think reform is going to happen. I think we're going to see a bill in the spring. I talked to the Department of Treasury last Friday, and the White House is looking for a bill in the spring, probably in April. I believe we will probably see debate into the fall and see some votes, if not out of committee, certainly in committee in September or October.


DM:And reform will be a good thing for direct marketers?


HRW:Well, right now, it's all looking good. We are absolutely thrilled with the presidential commission's report. We couldn't be happier. Having just spent 2 1/2 days with the leadership of one of the postal service's large unions, I don't think they're opposed to most of it. There are a few things they're opposed to. There also are a couple of things the White House isn't happy about. But on balance, they are quite delighted with what they see as a necessary change if we're to preserve postal jobs.


DM:Do you think reform will help stabilize rate increases?


HRW:Absolutely. One of the most important provisions is the limitation that caps increases to the rate of inflation, minus some factor. So we're delighted that is going to provide us with much more stable rates in the future and an opportunity for the postal service to reduce their costs.


DM:What impact will the decrease in First-Class mail volume have?


HRW:That's the real issue. The last financial report showed a much more precipitous drop in First Class volume than we -- than anyone -- expected. It's really only Standard A that's holding up the postal service. And as e-commerce becomes more entrenched, we're not likely to see any increases there. The drop in First Class is really the crux of the problem, and I believe it's going to continue to accelerate. The drop will grow greater next year. That's what we've been yelling about for three years. I think now people are buying it, including, I will say, maybe two or three of the four unions. And, so, I'm quite encouraged for the chance of meaningful reform in the next Congress


DM:Is there the possibility of a do-not-mail list coming down the pike?


HRW:I certainly have to acknowledge that there's a chance of debate over a do-not-mail list, but I don't think it's a current issue. The general impact on the economy of a reduced postal operation is generally accepted by Congress as a real problem. The White House agrees.


DM:Have marketers been effective in how they've dealt with consumers over the past few years?


HRW:We say the consumer is more in control, but marketers don't generally act like they believe that. And if they did believe that the consumer is in more control, they probably would behave somewhat differently. So, yes, I think that's a problem. I think we do have to acknowledge that the consumer -- for whatever reason -- has acquired more control, and not only that they believe they have a right to that control. I think we have to work harder at listening to the wishes of the consumer. You know, that's really just good business in the end.


DM:What was your biggest achievement at the DMA?


HRW:Two things. One, bringing the direct marketing industry and the association into the electronic marketing age. Eight years ago, there was very little engagement of that. We were the first non-technology company to join the World Wide Web Consortium and so forth. We did a lot of things to get direct marketing into that industry. Secondly, expanding the DMA both in terms of number of members, resources, budget and influence in Washington and the states.


DM:Obviously, 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax scare was the most turbulent time in recent years. Any reflections on that?


HRW:The reflection I have is that it behooves us all to remember that any industry is susceptible from ways and in ways you might not anticipate. Who would have thought that we faced such dire threats over an issue that we had no control over, no involvement in? What was important there was to be able to respond as an industry -- and I think we did -- and get the message out as an industry so it didn't cause people to become afraid to open their mail, at least not commercial mail, which was the fear. The big lesson was you can be threatened from areas you don't anticipate, but being able to respond effectively is important.


DM:Can you think of anything to remember next time something like this happens?


HRW:Well, we had the need when we had the telemarketing [issue]. I think it was important to speak as an industry, to set some guidelines and to cause a significant portion of the industry to do something. I think the lesson is that there are times that we have to act as an industry that is together, not like a diverse group of folks. That's not always appropriate, but in some instances, it's important.


DM:You mentioned telemarketing. In regard to that and the do-not-call list and the DMA's lawsuit, would you have handled things differently?


HRW:Quite frankly, the constitutional question -- the question of whether or not the government should be doing this -- is so important. In my opinion, we did the right thing, painful as it was, painful as it is. I suspect that the board made the right decision by thinking about the long-term picture, not just the short-term issues.


DM:What about getting the lawsuit ruled in your favor and then basically telling members to abide by the FTC's registry? Didn't that negate everything?


HRW:I think that was absolutely the best thing we did. Frankly, we got tremendous credibility from it. As recently as Friday, we had very important people suggesting to us that they were shocked that we would do that. However, the issue is a very valid constitutional question. That's evidenced by the fact that a fairly high court agreed with us. That's evidenced by the fact that it is still a matter of some discussion in legal circles. It is an important question that needs to be answered.


DM:What do you think the outcome will be?


HRW: I don't know. I'm not a jurist. I have no idea.


DM:Will it go before the Supreme Court?


HRW:That I don't know either. I mean that's a very technical question apparently from talking to the lawyers. I don't know.


DM:The other big issue this year has been spam. How do you think you and the DMA have dealt with that? What's it like being booed at the FTC's spam forum?


HRW:Well, I'll tell you, it did one thing. It established me as a different voice than the majority of people there, who were activists, who frankly were anti-business and had no interest at all in preserving e-mail as a marketing tool. I think after all is said and done, the strategic view is that we need to protect the whole concept of e-mail. If you look at history, there are many, many other cases where the bad guys have gotten in and mucked up something early on. But over time, we figure out a way to work things out much more reasonably, so banning it or having a law like the California law I think would be detrimental. I think we've absolutely done the right thing, but it hasn't been easy. I will also say that the fact that the president signed the CAN-SPAM Act this morning and that, indeed, we have a law that we can live with and we can work with is testimony that an awful lot of people ended up agreeing with us. The CAN-SPAM bill was what I asked for at that hearing, and I would suggest that those who booed me turned out not to be in the majority.


DM:Do you think CAN-SPAM is a satisfactory solution?


HRW:It's a satisfactory legal solution, but as I've said many, many times, it's not going to fix the problem. I think stringent law enforcement of both the existing laws prior to CAN-SPAM and the CAN-SPAM Act will make a difference. I'll predict that a year from now we'll see a different attitude about this as we get more along with enforcement.


DM:In regard to spam, would you have done anything differently?


HRW:I would have focused much more quickly on enforcement than I did. I see the importance of it now and so does everyone else at this point. I'm sorry we didn't start two years ago on enforcement.


DM:You came on at truly the beginning of the Internet boom. Did you think the world would be where it is today?


HRW:I took this job because I thought the Internet was the most exciting thing coming. Remember, I'm a guy who was on Prodigy 13 years ago, so I've been involved in it for a long, long time, and I believed it was really an exciting thing. Had it not been for the fact that I had agreement from the board to move in that direction, I wouldn't have taken the job. I really did think it was going to be a big deal. Did I envision it would be what it is? Absolutely not. I'm thrilled it is, but I didn't have the vision to realize it was going to be a worldwide phenomenon like this.


DM:Do you have anything to say about the startups that thought they were creating this new business model that was something the industry had been doing for years? Were DMers vindicated?


HRW:I think it did vindicate direct marketers, the graybeards as I like to call them, and I'm certainly one of them who saw the Internet as exciting but not the be-all-end-all and that it would not replace traditional direct-to-consumer marketing, but augment it. I think we have been vindicated.


DM:What advice would you give your successor?


HRW:I think the advice is to really get as excited as I have been about the future of direct marketing. I think that will make a big difference. I think direct marketing has a wonderful future.


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