Ode to Lester Wunderman, father of direct marketing

By: Molly Morgan on: January 18th, 2019 3 Comments

This week we lost Lester Wunderman, known as the father of direct marketing.  He was 98.

A college drop-out with no formal training in advertising, he got into the mail-order business when he and his brother, Irving, proposed that the two of them work for one salary split between them. He became the advertising executive who pioneered the modern techniques of “direct marketing,” a term he coined, first using it in a 1961 speech to the Hundred Million Club of New York, a mail-order trade group.

He went on to become the chairman emeritus and co-founder of what became the world’s largest direct-marketing ad agency and author of the books, Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay and Frontiers of Direct Marketing as well as authoring speeches and articles which have appeared in publications worldwide.

For decades, he used zip codes and research databases to identify customers, then send them personalized messages matched to their interests and characteristics with mailings, promotional letters, phone calls, newspaper and magazine inserts. He dramatically increased sales with toll-free telephone numbers for ordering, postage-paid subscription cards, buy-one-get-one-free offers, and loyalty reward programs.

A laundry list of well-recognized clients included American Express, Ford, Citibank, and Burger King and many others. From book clubs to record companies, advertisers became his clients because they liked his ideas of selling direct to consumers. Always looking to innovate, in the 80s, he created a subscription coffee service, using direct-mail ads (and later online advertising).

Recognized for being vocal about holding advertising dollars accountable for results, here are some wise and memorable words from Lester Wunderman…

From his speech to the Hundred Million Club in 1961…

“I believe the next ten years will see a continuing decline of the mail-order business as has been defined in the past. It will be replaced by direct marketing—a new more efficient method of selling, based on scientific advertising principles and serviced by increasingly more efficient automated warehousing, shipping and collection techniques… We may not yet know the eventual shape of the new marketing form we are building—but we do know that fresh ideas will be its bricks and mortar.”

From his MIT speech in 1967, “Direct Marketing: The New Selling Revolution”…

“Those marketers who ignore the implications of our new individualized information society will be left behind in what may well come to be known as the age of mass production and marketing ignorance.”

In 1971 he said…

“Advertising has always been capable of eliciting a response—but only in the nature of a direct marketing dialogue do we find the potential for responsiveness. And if I read our marketing and social revolution accurately, responsiveness is the only road to a technology which will serve people instead of enslaving them.”

On the CEO Show in 2010, he said…

“I got the sense that advertising ought to be totally accountable. If people were going to spend money on it, they ought to know what effect the expense was having.”

“I grew up watch data become a science, and in our case, the science of data became the foundation of our business.”

“It’s what we know about the customer and what the customer does, has done, and is likely to do that lets us pretty much predict the effects from advertising.”

“What we have today are two-way technologies. We’re in the death-knell of one-way conversations and the birth of the dialog system of marketing. The secret of the future is to listen to the customer, not to talk to him.”

From his book, Being Direct, Making Advertising Pay:

“The most dangerous question a prospect or customer asks is “Why should I?” And he may ask it more than once. The product and its communication stream must continue to provide him with both rational and emotional answers.”

And this final thought from Lester…

“Look back through the whole of history of advertising and you will find that eruptions of brilliant creative effort took place wherever great talent existed and was permitted to function under stimulating and rewarding conditions.”

Thank you, Lester Wunderman. You were a great talent whose brilliant creative effort not only impacted the way we think about and do advertising, you also paved the way for the small business owner to grow his business. May you rest in peace.

P.S. What are some of your favorite quotes from Lester Wunderman? Let us know in the comments!

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3 Responses

  1. Heeey Nick…Great Stuff in your post. Here are some of my favorite Lester Wunderman quotes from the “Wunderman Rules”

    “The Consumer, Not the Product, Must be the Hero”

    “Media is a contact strategy”

    “Your Share of Loyal Customers, Not your Share of Market, Create Profits”

  2. Jenise Richardson says:

    I had the great fortune of working with Lester Wunderman at Wunderman Cato Johnson back in the 90’s. He was a true pioneer! God rest his soul.

  3. cudos to Lester.I never heard of him but he learned about scientific advertising that has propelled my marketing and the
    way i think about business.I would love to hear more about him Nick.

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