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Can-Spam backer to lose top exec

The Direct Marketing Association, which helped shape the first U.S. federal antispam law, announces that CEO Robert Wientzen is planning to retire.

An influential marketing trade group that helped shape and provided key political support for the United States' first federal antispam law is losing its top executive.

Robert Wientzen, president and CEO of the Direct Marketing Association, said on Tuesday that he plans to retire from the group in July, an announcement that came on the same day President George W. Bush signed the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (Can-Spam) Act.

Wientzen, named the association's chief in September 1996, said he will step down to spend more time with his family.

Current and former DMA board members will form an executive search committee to find a successor. Wientzen has been asked to continue to stay through the end of 2004 to make sure that the transition is smooth.

Wientzen said the timing of the announcement was a coincidence and was not meant as a comment on the DMA's role in the legislative process. But he said he was pleased with his group's efforts and the results.

"We've been working with the Burns-Wyden folks for two years now, big-time," he said, referring to legislation authors Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mon., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "We had a great part of the process; we got a lot of lobbying in. I do feel very good about the fact that we got this law passed."

Legislators and lobbyists have battled over the wording of a federal antispam law in a stream of proposals since the late 1990s. Then, just more than a year after the DMA publicly announced its support for antispam legislation, the logjam broke.

The law aims to crack down on junk e-mail senders, but it has been criticized by antispam advocates for including some promarketing provisions. Among other things, the law overrides some tough state measures that allow individuals to sue alleged spammers.

"The DMA's fingerprints are all over this thing," said Jim Nail, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "It's an early Christmas gift to marketers, actually."

For this reason, industry watchers applauded Wientzen for building the DMA into a powerful lobbying group in his eight years at its helm. He has also positioned the DMA at the center of the digital marketing sphere and elevated the profile of direct marketers during his tenure.

Wientzen said in an interview on Tuesday that for a time, the DMA had not publicly supported antispam legislation but that it had started working in the background with several Congressional representatives. When the group was presented with a bill it thought viable for direct marketers and consumers, it had backed the legislation. He said the DMA's priority was to come up with a law that would require the sender to identify itself and give law enforcement--not the public--the right to strike at fraudulent senders. The DMA also wanted strong penalties for convicted spammers, Wientzen said.

"We ended up believing that we had to have more legal status to help law enforcement and to raise the consciousness of the government about the problem," Wientzen said. "And in the process of getting a law, you get law enforcement to be much more focused."

The goal, he said, was to create a deterrent against spammers by giving law enforcement the means to jail junk e-mailers. The DMA does not support the Do Not E-mail list suggested in Can-Spam, but overall, it believes that the act is a good start, Wientzen said.

"The sight of a few spammers being led away in handcuffs could go a long way to reducing the problem," he said.

But in his tenure as head of the DMA, Wientzen has fielded many attacks from staunch antispammers who believe that the group is essentially pro-junk mail. They point to the DMA's endorsement of commercial e-mail and "opt out" laws, which let marketers e-mail consumers freely until the recipients ask to be removed from their list.

Wientzen called such critics shortsighted, because small businesses on the Internet would not have the means to reach new customers if not for e-mail. "That's the price we pay for American spirit," he said.

Forrester's Nail said the DMA's only disappointment came this year, when the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry was introduced.

Before becoming head of the DMA, Wientzen was a 20-year member of the organization, serving as a member of the board for six of those years. He started his career in direct marketing at Procter & Gamble, one of the DMA's founding members.

Under Wientzen's eight-year leadership, the DMA established a dominant presence in Internet marketing by buying two digital advertising trade groups--the Association for Interactive Marketing in 1998 and the Internet Alliance in 1999.

In the past eight years, the DMA's membership has grown by 47 percent, expanding to seven chapters across the United States from only one in 1997.