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Editorial: Smug Paddlers

The ducks are feeling pretty darned sure of themselves today.

Jon Roska's column explains the difference between direct marketers and brand marketers more entertainingly than I’ve ever heard it put.

Roska, president of ad agency Roska Direct, Montgomeryville, PA, says either you think like a chicken (brand guy) or you think like a duck (direct marketer). And ducks who try to work for chicken coops (ad agencies) invariably end up miserable. Indeed, I once had the misfortune of being a duck working in an inhouse chicken coop. I can vouch for Roska on this one.

For years, there has been a debate over whether the Internet is or is not a direct marketing medium, and if so, which rules apply.

For direct marketers, the Internet economy’s troubles mean the debate is pretty much over. The ducks feel like winners.

As a result, there was some weird energy evident at the DMD Marketing Conference & Exhibition in New York last week.

“Ironic enthusiasm” is the phrase Michael Keeler used to describe it — the irony being that direct marketers seem unusually happy in the midst of an economic downturn.

The reason: The dot-com implosion means that old rules still apply. No more Shangri-La business models.

“There’s a sense of reassurance here that the old-school business practices that people have been honing for 20 years still work,” said Keeler, chief marketing officer at Princeton, NJ-based Impower, the interactive marketing services arm of American List Counsel. “This is a vindication of classic, proven disciplines.”

“The tenor of this show has changed,” said Tim Dolan, vice president of marketing at Return Path Inc., New York, an e-mail change-of-address service. “I sense resilience from a year ago.”

Resilience? A big, collective “Phew!” is more like it.

In October 1999, at the Direct Marketing Association’s fall conference in Toronto, there was a much different type of energy. It was coming from the fringes of the exhibit hall. First-time exhibitor dot-coms, full of venture capital-fueled bravado, felt ready to choke the traditional companies inward almost to oblivion. To some, the old-schoolers looked like dinosaurs just waiting for a comet. But the comet never hit.

And now the mood among direct marketers is apparently back-to-business.

“Just the fact that there are no Day-Glo or Hawaiian shirts is a good indication,” Dolan said.

Another signal that all is right with the world, according to Dolan, was the announcement earlier this month that Experian is buying 24/7 Media Inc.’s Exactis e-mail marketing division for $13.5 million in cash. The Internet is not knocking traditional companies into oblivion. And it’s not going away, either. Experian will make sure of that.

“The consolidation that everyone was predicting is happening,” Dolan said. “Not all the dot-com business models were bad. The ones that were good are still here.”

The energy at last week’s conference was particularly evident to executives who have been exhibiting at shrinking Internet-focused trade shows lately. Most of the Net shows have become “vendor love-ins,” according to Scott Healy, vice president of marketing at e-mail marketing services firm e-dialog, Lexington, MA.

“We’ve found that the Internet shows are getting tired,” he said. “In fact, we’ve killed all our Internet-only shows because [vendors] sit there staring at each other for a couple days and then someone says, ‘Hey, maybe we should work together.’ Then you give each other a Barney hug, and no money changes hands. We’re shying away from Barney hug partnerships.”

However, direct marketers still have a long way to go before they can claim victory in the interactive marketing wars.

“It’s still not going to be easy, but at least it will be done on terms we’ve been taught for 20 years,” said Impower’s Keeler.

However, he believes the dot-com implosion may lead some traditional direct marketers to move faster on their Internet initiatives, the thinking being, “I’ll get into it now that I can evaluate it. This, I get. This, I can compete for.”

Quack, quack.

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