DC Marketers Show Cautious Optimism

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WASHINGTON -- Washington direct marketers heaped blame on the Sept. 11 tragedy, economic slowdown, corporate scandals, paralysis caused by the war with Iraq and Anthrax for the industry's pallor.


Those excuses, however, did not stop an estimated 985 delegates yesterday from attending the Direct Marketing Association of Washington's 48th Annual Conference and Expo. Perhaps it was the spanking new Washington Convention Center or the change in schedule from oppressive July to pleasant May.


"I think it's getting to a point where 9/11 cannot be blamed anymore," said Joan M. Anderson, a consultant who works on writing, editing and marketing projects out of her 25-acre farm in Maurertown, VA. "I think we've left that behind us as businesses."


If anything, the sea of young faces was hard to miss in the cavernous quarters of Washington's latest concrete edifice that skirts the edges of Chinatown.


Attired in khakis and shirtsleeves, and many in suits, attendees walked the exhibition floor when they had time off from the numerous educational sessions on database and CRM, strategy and analysis, Internet marketing, creative and production, and management challenges.


"Because it's not an expensive conference, a lot of companies and organizations use it as a training ground for direct marketing expertise in every facet," said Susan Boghosian, director of marketing and strategic planning for the Smithsonian Catalogue in Washington.


Like other shows, the conference charged attendees on a rising scale -- the closer to deadline, the higher the rate.


The exhibitors were not complaining, at least not as much as they used to. About 102 at last count agreed to buy booths, ranging from list brokers, envelope makers and fulfillment firms to printers, database marketers and integrated marketing service providers.


"I think it's certainly an improvement over last year," said Michael J. Putrino, sales manager at Conrad Direct Inc., a Cresskill, NJ, list broker and manager. "Looks like there's more energy, it's livelier. We've got a good location here and we've got some pretty good leads."


Exhibitors in attendance included Colfax Envelope, Harte-Hanks, Experian, Mead Westvaco, Peachtree Data, Quad Direct, Saturn Corp., The Fala Group, U.S. Postal Service, Vertis, Arthur Blank & Co. and Western Union.


"I've heard from a lot of exhibitors, 'We haven't exhibited here in several years and we're back,'" Smithsonian's Boghosian said.


A key trend emerging not just at this show but others is that delegates, and even exhibitors, are choosing to register closer to the conference dates, risking higher tabs.


All of the association's programs have a lift in response in registration at the last minute, said Syma R. Mendelsohn, executive vice president of JZA Inc., a Bethesda, MD, administrator and broker of retirement and insurance services for clients like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.


"So many of our participants seem to wait to see if they are going to be able to break out of the office," said Mendelsohn, who is this year's president of the association. "On-site registrations over the last three to four years are going up, up and up.


"You really have to push hard before the early-bird registrations even for regular deadlines," she said. "So we had to learn as a sponsor of the program how to factor that in. Ten years ago we could close the meal counts and that was that."


Another departure for the 1,500-member association is the demise of the lunch function. Fewer members are reluctant to leave office during that hour. It could be traffic snarls in Washington or the fact that members have moved beyond downtown to a 90-mile radius in the beltway.


"There are more educational, more business-related and networking things that happen at breakfast or late afternoon," Mendelsohn said.


But for all the accommodations, the facts are cold. Attendance is the same as last year and the number of exhibitors actually fell.


"People are feeling the pinch," Mendelsohn said. "Organizations that would have sent a dozen people are telling us 'I don't have the budget that I had in the past.'"


Kate Petranech, a direct marketing consultant in the District of Columbia, is grateful that the association at least matched this year's attendance numbers.


"Many of my clients spent January and February sitting on their hands," Petranech said. "There's money, but they're just nervous. The war's over and in the last two weeks we got more exhibitors."


Mendelsohn said charities are seeing declines of 8 percent to 15 percent over the past years. Area clients are squeezing costs, pulling back mailings and cutting staff.


A telling sign especially of the layoffs was the one time recently when the association's newsletter, which lists jobs open on the one side and wanted on the other, had nothing in terms of offers. The pace of listings is picking up, though.


"Washington was supposed to be recession-proof," said Anderson, a former National Geographic Society creative director who handles publicity for the association. "But it changed with the tech implosion [in the Dulles corridor along with other centers on both coasts]."


While traditional marketing tactics may have suffered, a net beneficiary is online marketing.


"People are refocusing in new ways," said Liz Murphy, partner at Redboots Consulting, a Herndon, VA, interactive marketing services firm. "The basics have a new twist."


Murphy cited increased demand for e-mail marketing from her clients and search engine optimization, as well as Web design and development. There is little evidence to claim this is a switch from traditional direct marketing. But the newness of Internet marketing certainly is a factor.


One person who has a clear vantage point of the state of direct marketing in the Washington area is Michael O'Hara. As chairman/CEO of AB&C Group in McLean, VA, O'Hara oversees a 550-employee company processing and fulfilling responses to promotions from a range of clients. He is also past president of the association.


O'Hara sees slowdowns across catalogs, business-to-business marketing, fundraising and membership organizations. The only way forward is for marketers to raise their heads up and start moving forward.


"People that are getting hurt the most right now are the printers," O'Hara said. "Until they start printing and mailing again, not much is going to move. Direct marketers everywhere have got to get back to acquisitions. Because they've been using their house files, it's going to shrink. They've got to go out and chase more customers.


"I don't think we can count on the government to do anything soon," he said. "Too much politics."


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