Remembering Lester Wunderman, Direct Marketing Pioneer

Credit: Wunderman

By Peter J. RosenwaldF

Lester Wunderman, who passed away at 98 last week, was a quiet giant among visionary innovators. And if the marketing universe looks almost totally different today than it did in the “Mad Men” age of the 1960s, Lester deserves the lion’s share of the credit. That he recently saw the legendary J. Walter Thompson merged into Wunderman must have given him no small pleasure.

When in 1958 with his brother and two other partners, he opened the mail order and direct mail agency Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline, in modest Union Square premises, relatively few companies were using the mail order channel and those who were, such as “The Book of The Month Club,” were doing their own marketing. Columbia House, the club division of Columbia Records, was one of the first and for many years, the leading client.

Eras are measured and defined by the magnitude of change that takes place within them and the visionary drivers of that change, whose innovations give the landscape a whole new look. Now, after years as secondary citizens in the marketing community, direct and data-driven marketing have taken “pride of place.” Lester always said it was just a matter of time.

Quoting Publicis Groupe Chief Growth Officer, Rishad Tobaccowala on the reason, MediaPost wrote:

“… conventional brand-building media models aren’t working as well as they used to. It’s because big brands are realizing that the only way to have a relationship with and understand their consumers, is to cut out the middlemen and have a relationship with them directly.”

The essence of marketing has now come full circle from the door-to-door peddler and personal selling to mass marketing and back again to the personal selling Wunderman always championed; albeit, with technologies never dreamed about in the 1950s. In a 1967 speech at MIT, Lester insisted on giving the industry a proper name, and “direct marketing” replaced direct mail, mail order and a host of others. Invited to give a keynote speech to the then U.S. Direct Mail Marketing Association, Lester accepted — but on the condition that the association change its name to the Direct Marketing Association. It was noisy fight but Wunderman won. That he would then become the “Father of Direct Marketing” was obvious.

For over the last half century, Lester was my closest friend and my guru. His humanity went hand-in-hand with his vision. “There is nothing that will not change,” he would say to anyone lucky enough to hear him. “Nudge that change in the right direction, take chances and measure, always measure your success or failure.” Having spent considerable time with his beloved Dogon tribe in Mali, even earning the honor of becoming a tribal Chief, Lester never lost touch with what he saw as real, a primitive understanding of human behavior and a profound respect for human values.

He knew instinctively (and proved over and over again) that a one-to-one relationship between people, be they partners, friends, acquaintances, customers or prospects, had to be more enriching than any distant relationship. His endless curiosity demanded that he know as much as possible about them and as the computer gradually replaced the mechanical card systems, the possibilities to capture data and use it to better serve customers and clients exploded. As increased streams of data became accessible, clients might scream about the cost of keeping and managing it, but that didn‘t deter Lester, who coined one of his best and most lasting perceptions: “Data is an expense” he said. “Knowledge is a bargain.”

Increased knowledge became an endless quest for Lester, and it was a gospel he shared domestically and internationally. Born one summer evening over a bottle of very good wine in my London garden, Wunderman Worldwide was designed to make this knowledge and its marketing uses available to young, ambitious, like-minded marketers — first in the U.K., France and Germany and, if successful, in any countries where it might be wanted. There are now 175 Wunderman offices in 60 countries.

The road to this success was hardly a smooth one. The acquisition by Young & Rubicam in 1973 was more a marriage of convenience than of love: Y&R needed to be seen to have the direct marketing skills it lacked, even if it had a very limited passion for the discipline. WRK wanted access to blue chip clients who were beginning to seriously examine direct marketing.

For reasons never made clear to Wunderman or the industry and breaking every classic rule of branding, Y&R management created a new brand, Impiric, and folded all its non-traditional businesses under this rubric. Overnight, the Wunderman brand was erased from the door. Lester was both personally heartbroken and professionally angry seeing years of brand-building disappear on what seemed little more than a whim.

Fortunately, just a few years later when Sir Martin Sorrel’s WPP acquired Y&R, he searched for the Wunderman company and found it buried under Impiric. As confused by Impiric as everyone else, he telephoned Lester, invited him to meet and, over lunch, both proudly restored the Wunderman brand and appointed Lester Chairman Emeritus of the company for life.

In an Ad Age interview in 2010, newly anointed by WPP, Lester said:

“For me, who started one little office with my brother and myself down on Union Square, to be the chairman of a company that is global, and practicing a high state of art all over the world, I can’t tell you what a revelation, in my lifetime, [it is] to see us go from kind of the horse-and-buggy form of advertising to the Internet. It’s just miraculous. The things we know about people, our ability to make messages more relevant and timely — advertising is just more efficient than it used to be.”

Lester’s creativity and his inventions are legendary. Eager never to leave a client or prospect without something new and unexpected, many of Wunderman’s greatest breakthroughs were brilliant adrenalin-driven responses to momentary problems. With a furious Columbia House client in the WRK conference room throwing on the table “take ones” millions of which had been printed and few “taken,” Lester, coolly walked over to the conference room magazine rack, picked up a copy of TV Guide, put one of the take ones in the center (where it almost fit) and announced that at that very moment the media department was booking this position exclusively for Columbia and all the take ones would be used. That position became one of the most productive DM media buys of its generation.

The Wunderman credo never changed, whether the means of accomplishing it was consumer loyalty programs, subscription club models, newspaper inserts supported by TV spots and toll-free 1-800 customer service numbers. Get as close to the customer as possible, listen to his voice and establish a one-to-one relationship. At an industry conference when others were droning on about postal regulations, out of nowhere, Lester proposed the idea of an intelligent mailbox for each consumer, a mailbox that knew what was wanted and only permitted those special messages access. Today we call it our “inbox.”

An avid tennis player, Lester never let work get totally in the way of play and, until recently, he found time weekly to play singles with the pro from his tennis club. On winter business trips abroad, he could almost certainly be found on weekends skiing in St. Moritz or Davos and in the summer at his beautiful house in Mogins, France. About 43 years ago, when he was courting his wife Suzanne who became both his companion and muse, he interrupted an otherwise important business meeting to carefully write down the recipe for a special dressing he wanted to prepare for the dinner’s arugula salad. The important things for Lester always took priority.

Lester Wunderman was a unique gentleman in an industry not over-populated with them. Read his books, “Being Direct” and “Frontiers of Direct Marketing,” or look deeply at his photographs of the Dogon tribe — his brothers, (in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan) and talk to those direct marketing practitioners who have worked for or with him. You cannot miss his special magical quality.

We have lost a great guru and friend, and he will be sadly missed. We are lucky that his wisdom and teachings are indelibly woven into the fabric of two generations of U.S. and overseas marketers.

Lester Wunderman Rosenwald

Credit: Peter J. Rosenwald. The two of us in 1997 at the DMA Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Lester (Right) and Me (Left).