Lester Wunderman, widely acknowledged as “the father of direct marketing” has died. He was 98 years old.
That’s a broad category that includes subscription entertainment services such as Netflix, e-commerce loyalty programs such as Amazon Prime, and direct-to-consumer health and beauty memberships such as Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s. It includes e-commerce websites such as Amazon, direct grocery delivery services such as FreshDirect, and meal kit services including Hello Fresh, SunBasket and Blue Apron.
Add to that all the mostly late-night 1-800 number direct-response television commercials selling everything from Swiffer to convection ovens, Peloton and Mirror and so much more in fitness, Weight Watchers’ app, SlimFast, Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig in weight loss. Warby Parker in eye glasses, Casper in mattresses and StitchFix in clothes. Dell in computers. American Express in financial services and credit cards. Apple in music and so much more. Priceline, Hotwire, Booking.com, Kayak and TripAdvisor in travel.
I could go on like this for pages and still only scratch the surface of the immense direct marketing revolution that has upended the old intermediated marketplace and touched the lives of every consumer and business. Direct model businesses are the wave of the present, and Lester Wunderman saw this coming more than 50 years ago.
But, does that make him the “father” of all of this. There’s a really good argument for his paternity.
He did launch the first “direct marketing” agency, Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline, later Wunderman and now Wunderman Thompson. He is credited with coining the term “direct marketing” and describing his vision of more personal and accountable marketing in a 1967 speech at MIT. He and his team invented the toll-free 1 800 number (for a Toyota campaign), the magazine tear-off subscription card, the record club that is a precursor of both Apple Music and Netflix, and the first loyalty program (for American Express).
In addition, many of the techniques used in direct market and direct response advertising were first developed by Wunderman and his team. The use of on-camera telephone operators which has become a cliché’ in infomercials and direct television commercials was invented by Wunderman himself and introduced in his campaign for Time Life books which he called “the Judy Wrap.”
Another legendary ad man, Tom Messner, tells of how Wunderman wrested the Time Life business away from Messner’s agency by putting their television spot in between two messages from “Judy,” one at the beginning and one at the end. Thus, the Judy Wrap.
Messner’s commercial and Wunderman’s version of Messner’s commercial with the Judy Wrap were both tested in market. Wunderman’s won by a landslide, producing many more calls and sales. Wunderman’s agency won the account.
Wunderman managed to grow his agency huge, sell it to Y&R yet stay in charge, step down from the CEO role in 1998. Well into his 70s he come to work through a brief name change to Impiric and a public offering and acquisition by Martin Sorrell’s WPP — after which Wunderman’s name was returned to the masthead. He continued to come into the office every day well into his 90’s and survived to see his name placed ahead of J. Walter Thompson in the merger of the two agencies at the end of last year, forming Wunderman Thompson.
Or, at least I hope he saw it. Though he lived, I don’t know what his condition was at that time.
Those of us who labored “below the line” in direct marketing back in the day like to think he saw that. Whenever I meet a fellow direct marketer, they say the same. With that name change, it felt like the revolution was finally complete and those who had been last were finally first.
When I started my agency, I published a piece announcing our approach as “brand direct.” I was thinking of Lester’s introduction of “direct marketing.” I worshipped entrepreneurs like Lester and I guess I had an ambition to be the “father” of something too. I thought I saw something, a future in which direct model companies would need to build brands as well as businesses, and a gap in the marketplace – a lack of agencies that combined those areas of expertise. About six months after I launched my agency in 1996, Lester Wunderman came to our offices to visit. I had never met him before, but he said he was interested in what we were doing. I gave him a tour and he was mostly silent, taking it all in. At the end he said, “I think you’re doing something very interesting and worthy. Don’t let it grow too fast. We grew too fast and it caused us no end of problems.”
He proceeded to charm me, in the way that he no doubt charmed every potential client who came within reach.
Thank you, Lester Wunderman, father of direct marketing.