Direct Marketing Industry Copes With Anthrax Scare

The effect of last week's anthrax scare on the direct marketing industry is not severe -- yet. Discussions with industry players suggest not much business has been lost yet, but there may be changes ahead.

Deb Goldstein, president of IDG List Services/Framingham, MA, says there has been an increase in order cancellations this week, but nothing too severe. "People cancel orders all the time, but we've seen an increase in cancellations this week," she says. "And a lot of companies that were planning campaigns aren't going ahead, but we didn't get those orders in the first place."

She says the company called its top 50 customers who buy traditional postal and email lists from IDG. "They're not changing their plans and moving forward with their budgets for the most part," she says.

She believes the anthrax scare will have a short-term effect. "Outside of a handful of cancellations, I haven't seen much," she says.

Susan Rappaport, president/COO of American List Council/Princeton, NJ, says the company hasn't lost any business yet, but she's worried about a ripple effect. "Response rates could be hurt initially," she says. She thinks business-to-business mailings may be affected more than business to consumer because "more letters go to businesses and companies are making corporate wide mail room decisions about what to open and what not."

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Nancy Leibig, senior executive vice president at Draft Worldwide/Chicago, one of the largest direct marketing agencies, says the company hasn't lost any business yet. What it has done is spoken with clients and begun to review their future plans. "We looked at 2002 plans and took it under advisement," she says. She believes clients next year may want to avoid dimensional mailers, large size mailings. "We have to think about larger items, because they'll look at the mail more cautiously," she says. Earlier this week, the Direct Marketing Association warned marketers to stop mailing blind #10 envelopes (MediaPost, Oct. 17). Now it seems large size mailings should be avoided, too.

Goldstein supports the DMA's guidelines, reiterating the need for multi media campaigns to offset the problems with the mail. "The creative use of different media is necessary to overcome this," she says. Leibig agrees, saying Draft already pursues this strategy for its clients and only sends mail to consumers who have already expressed interest. "We don't use the mail for cold solicitation, so it doesn't change things," she says.

Goldstein compares the current situation to the one ten years ago, when the Gulf War and postal increases hit at the same time, devastating the direct marketing industry. That situation "was weathered," she says. "People learned how to integrate the medium and were more creative. We bounced back and the mid 90s were the best years I've had. It would take a larger hit than this to take away our strength. Direct marketing is a vital medium, $200 billion a year."

But Leibig is wary. "In the short term it's very uncomfortable, but in the long term it won't have that big an impact. But it depends on how the government responds and what additional events happen," she says. Rappaport says, "We're all on pins and needles for the next incident. We need a level of non occurrence."

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