Oct 222009

If this madness all ended tomorrow, I would do…almost nothing

If this madness all ended tomorrow, I would do…almost nothing

(This post originally appeared on FindYourNerve on October 21)

I don’t know what you call the last 12 months of global macroeconomic meltdown.  I’ve taken to calling it the Great Repression.  In part because it’s somewhere in between a Recession and a Depression, in part because it’s certainly repressed the wants and needs of startups and growth companies the world over.  And it makes for good cocktail party chatter.

Someone asked me a question the other day, which started off with “Now that the recession is over…”  I can’t even remember the end of the question.  I got lost in the framing of it, mostly because I’m not convinced it’s over yet.  Fine, fine, Bernanke says it’s over.  But he couldn’t possibly have used more caveats or more cautious language to couch his statement.  I haven’t seem great signs of a recovery, in any case.  But the question got me thinking.  What would I do if the recession really was over, or if I knew that, say, tomorrow, the heavens would open up and swallow our inflation fears, deflation fears, and collective global deficits whole?

You know what?  I wouldn’t do a thing.  That’s not entirely true.  I’d probably sleep better that night.  But I wouldn’t do a lot of other things out of the gate.  This last year has tested nerves.  My nerve as a CEO, my Board’s nerve, and the collective nerve of our organization.  And we’ve pulled off a great year.  We will still grow close to 50%, we greatly expanded our operating margins and are generating nice cash flow, and we preserved all jobs, salaries, and core benefits (all five of our objectives that I laid out 12 months ago when the &*%$ started to hit the fan). 

So, why wouldn’t I do anything different if I knew the world would be a different place tomorrow?  Because holding our nerve this past year has changed a lot of things about our organization for the better, and I don’t want to see us reverse course on those things just because we can.  Here’s one example, one of many we have – when we cut our travel budget by 50% this year, everyone on the team looked at us like we were crazy and said there was no way we’d be able to make budget.  Guess what – we BEAT the slashed budget by almost a third, without complaint!  Why should we triple it going forward to get back to where we were? 

Anyway, other companies can lose their nerve when they aren’t forced to have it.  As for me and Return Path, while we will certainly move some things back to normal over time as the world improves, it won’t be a wholesale reversion to yesteryear.

Oct 212009

Why I joined the DMA Board, and what you can expect of me in that role

Why I joined the DMA Board, and what you can expect of me in that role

I don’t normally think of myself as a rebel. But one outcome of the DMA’s recent proxy fight with Board member Gerry Pike is that I’ve been appointed to the DMA’s Board and its Executive Committee and have been labeled “part of the reform movement” in the trade press. While I wasn’t actively leading the charge on DMA reform with Gerry, I am very enthusiastic about taking up my new role.

I gave Gerry my proxy and support for a number of reasons, and those reasons will form the basis of my agenda as a DMA Board member. As a DMA member, and one who used to be fairly active, I have grown increasingly frustrated with the DMA over the past few years.

1. The DMA could be stronger in fighting for consumers’ interests. Why? Because what’s good for consumers is great for direct marketers. Marketing is not what it used to be, the lines between good and bad actors have been blurred, and the consumer is now in charge. The DMA needs to more emphatically embrace that and lead change among its membership to do the same. The DMA’s ethics operation seems to work well, but the DMA can’t and shouldn’t become a police state and catch every violation of every member company. Its best practices and guidelines take too long to produce and usually end up too watered down to be meaningful in a world where the organization is promoting industry self-regulation. By aggressively fighting for consumers, the DMA can show the world that a real direct marketer is an honest marketer that consumers want to hear from and buy from.

2. Despite a number of very good ideas, the DMA’s execution around interactive marketing has been lacking. The DMA needs to accept that interactive marketing IS direct marketing – not a subset, not a weird little niche. It’s the heart and soul of the direct marketing industry. It’s our future. The acquisition of the EEC has been one bright spot, but the DMA could do much more to make the EEC more impactful, grow its membership, and replicate it to extend the DMA’s reach into other areas of interactive marketing, from search to display advertising to lead generation. The DMA’s staff still has extremely limited experience in interactive marketing, they haven’t had a thought leader around interactive on staff for several years, and their own interactive marketing efforts are far from best practice. Finally, the DMA’s government affairs group, perhaps its greatest strength, still seems disproportionately focused on direct mail issues. The DMA should maintain its staunch support of traditional direct marketers while investing in the future, making interactive marketing an equal or larger priority than traditional direct marketing. We have to invest in the future.

3. Finally, I think the DMA suffers from a lack of transparency that doesn’t serve it well in the hyper-connected world we live in here in 2009 – that’s a nice way of saying the organization has a big PR problem. The organization does a lot of great work that never gets adequately publicized. This whole proxy fight episode is another example, both in the weak response from the DMA and also in a lot of the complaints Gerry lodged against the organization, many of which the organization says are untrue or misleading. Senior DMA execs or Board members should be blogging. They should be active thought leaders in the community. They should be much more engaged with their members to both understand member needs and requirements and more aggressively promote their agenda.

In short, I will be an independent voice who advocates for progress and change in the areas that I consider to be most important, and I will be transparent and open about expressing my views. I’ve already been clear with the existing DMA Board and management that I do have this agenda, and that I hope the organization will embrace it. If they do, even if only in part, I think it will be to the DMA’s benefit as well as the benefit of its members. If they reject it wholesale, my interest in long-term involvement will be fairly low.

That’s the story. As I said up front, I am taking up this new role with enthusiasm and with the belief that the DMA is open to change and progress. We’ll see how it goes, and I will blog about it as often as I can.

Do you have thoughts on the future of the DMA? I’d love to hear from you. You can leave a comment below or email me directly at matt at returnpath dot net.

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