January 22, 2023

“Over lunch, a colleague’s young nephew asked me how we tweeted before the Internet. Pneumatic mail tubes and a lot of stationery, kid”

    -Lester Wunderman on Twitter 3/25/12

Almost exactly four years ago to the day, we lost one of the pioneers of direct marketing, Lester Wunderman.

I wanted to remember him again…with some new insights about this legendary figure who many of you probably never heard of…and I hope this post is as meaningful for you to read as it was for me to write.

In the words of rocker Steve Miller, “Time keeps on slipping (slipping, slipping) …into the future.”

Lester Wunderman didn’t slip into the future…he helped create it. And he flew like an eagle while doing it.

His book, Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay, was one of a few “bibles” I read early in my career.

And if he hadn’t stolen that title from me (20+ years before I thought of it), it would have been the title for my book. 🙂

I have often lamented that I wish guys like Gene Schwartz, Bill Jayme and Dick Benson could have had the opportunity to strut their stuff online…but unfortunately, they were all gone before this Internet thing caught on.

However, Lester Wunderman is proof positive how a direct marketing original (heck, one of the “fathers of direct marketing”), and the definition of an “old schooler,” can embrace online marketing.

Unlike many of my other mentors and heroes he was able to do that since he lived until he was 98.

We don’t have to ask “what if he was alive today (during the online marketing boom)?” because he was…and he was also alive and well during the ramp up.

For those of you who have never heard of Lester Wunderman, he was the chairman emeritus and co-founder of what became the world’s largest direct marketing ad agency.

He founded a “general advertising agency” in 1958 (Wunderman, Ricotta and Kline) and later created Wunderman Direct as its own sub-agency, beginning a trend of Madison Avenue agencies getting cozy with direct marketing…making sure they were able to create advertising that paid out for their clients.

Although the first exclusively “direct marketing/mail-order agency” was founded in 1921, the appetite for it soared when guys like Wunderman, David Ogilvy, and Bill Bernbach launched these direct marketing units inside their agencies.

He understood to his core that advertising that was measurable and accountable was…well…the only kind of advertising worth doing.

And it started with “mail-order.”

From his obituary:

“He never graduated from college, had no formal training in advertising and got into the mail-order business on a two-for-one offer: one salary split between him and his brother. It proved to be a big bargain for Madison Avenue.”

His brother Irving was a gifted copywriter who I had the privilege to share a few meals with in his later years and I learned a lot from him in a very short time.

Also from Lester’s obituary:

Long before anyone had ever heard of internet sales or interactive communications, Mr. Wunderman was widely credited with coining the term “direct marketing.”

For decades he championed an industry that sent personalized ads to preselected people for products and services that they might want to buy, as opposed to the scattershot approach of general advertising for the mass audiences of printed publications and broadcast media.

He also invented (or brought into the mainstream) things like toll-free telephone numbers for ordering (read my post about Joe Sugarman for more here), postage-paid subscription cards, buy-one-get-one-free offers, and “loyalty reward programs” for brand buyers who came back.

He was quoted in an interview before his death, while reminiscing on his early days (when he figured out how to make advertising pay out):

“Direct marketing was out there. I didn’t invent it. But it had no definition and no strategy.”

Studying the life’s work of a man like Wunderman is not just a stroll down memory lane—studying him, and others like him from his generation, is an inquiry into “original source,” where bedrock principles come from; and that inquiry is the best way I know to apply those principles as “scientific advertising,” a phrase coined by another pioneer, Claude Hopkins, in 1923.

No…there were no computers or anything scientific to calculate ROI in 1923 (or 1958).

Guys like Hopkins (and Wunderman) were always ahead of their time. They did it with pencil and paper. And thousands of ledger books, the precursor of spreadsheets.

My first book, The Advertising Solution,profiles six legendary copywriters who were direct (scientific?) marketers trapped in the bodies of general advertisers.

The eras they toiled in had something to do with that as well…but they strived to let the direct marketer inside of them to come out to play as often as possible.

Wunderman is not one of the six but could have been…Hopkins is one of them…and The Advertising Solution is also not about nostalgia…but more about “where babies come from” (in a direct marketing sense, that is).

It’s also a series of marketing checklists from six of the most prolific marketers and copywriters of all time.

Click on the title above to learn more.

One of the exceptional bonuses for buying the book (in addition to swipes and videos from the six legends) is an annotated and illustrated PDF of Hopkins’ classic, Scientific Advertising, curated by top copywriter and author, Bob Bly. The book and the bonuses are a must for any direct response marketing library.

In addition, I also devoted an entire chapter in my second book, Overdeliver,  to “Original Source.”

Back to Lester Wunderman.

When the TV series Mad Men came out in 2007, which depicted the advertising industry of the 1960’s in New York City, Lester didn’t just watch it…he tweeted about almost every episode…and this tweet is quite revealing:

“I liked this episode of #MadMen better the first time, when I lived it”

Lester spent parts of seven years watching his career play out on TV and became known as a weekly tweeter over multiple seasons (until 2015) as he devoured Mad Men, rating each episode on a “1 to 5 martini scale” which is an homage to the drinking habits of the Mad Men.

Not only were we hearing from someone who was there to confirm what was (or close to) fact and what was fiction, we were also witnessing a guy in his 90’s tweeting regularly.

He never lived in the past. He simply took what was needed from the past that was relevant to direct response marketing today…and he understood that the Internet was the ultimate direct marketing medium.

Rather than run away from it, like so many of his (and my) colleagues did…he embraced it.

On that topic he tweeted:

“Enjoying the nostalgia of #MadMen, but the golden age of advertising is here and now.”

I’ll use Lester’s “wunderment” (a new word) as being anecdotal evidence that my heroes would have felt the same way had they lived as long as he did.

Lester spoke often in his later years about that “here and now golden age of advertising” being about technology and marketing techniques he never could have dreamed of, even while almost inventing direct marketing.

But I think he would combine that with the fact that human beings are still human beings…and no matter what technique or technology we use…communication, connection, and relationship trumps all.

Are you “being direct” with all your communications no matter what the medium?

Lester had the privilege of crossing over into the “golden age of advertising” from many other ages…and we are all the better for it.

His book was originally published in 1996…maybe closer to the stone age of marketing?…but things were heating up; and he issued a 2nd edition in 2011 which speaks directly (pun intended) to his ambitious nature to update what he thought was complete in 1996 but it was not…and shows his passion for embracing change.

But that doesn’t mean being married to technology every minute of every day.

Proving you are not a robot has nothing to do with living in the past…it is also part of the future…and also part of “being direct.”

Seeing some of the Wunderman tweets makes me long to read his emails…I’m sure he thought about every word he wrote, since it’s today’s most direct (and personal) way to communicate, survey, engage and learn.

You can’t have a relationship with someone unless you start a conversation in the first place…email is still the best way to do that…but you sometimes need to forego an automated response. 🙂

I encourage you to set your boundaries in a way so that you don’t lose touch with all people worth interacting with who might get lost in an autoresponder series.

I’m sure Lester would highly recommend that.

Since I believe that email is still the best way to create one-on-one relationships most intimately and efficiently, I am focusing mostly there; but reading and then responding is not unique to one medium.

There is also gold in emails from any person who takes the time to communicate with you—and if you open them and read them carefully, looking for key words and nuance, you will find that out.

I’m sure many of you do this regularly.

Even when you are sending thousands of emails to a large audience, all automated, you would be amazed if you take the time to try and respond to every one (or most or many) of them (even if not immediately) with an attempt to go beyond “all auto responder all the time,” what you will learn.

And dare I say sell more completely too.

Quick idea: When sending out a mass email, ask a question or encourage feedback or try to get a response.

Write to engage.

When you do that, figure out a way to respond one-on-one as much as you can and read responses for clues on how you can take a relationship deeper right away.

And…so your people will never forget you.

(Check out the P.P.S. for an easy way to get started doing that today.)

Being Direct is not just the title of a game changing book…it’s a way of life.

Thanks Lester.



P.S. One more tweet from Lester Wunderman which I love (and it has nothing to do with direct marketing):

“I remember when the Stones played NYC in 1965. Big ruckus. But that kid Mick wrote some toe tappers.”

I saw The Rolling Stones for the first time in 1985…big ruckus then too.

And I saw “that kid Mick” again in June of 2019, six months after Lester passed away.

Lo and behold, Lester was still correct in his assessment of Mick Jagger:

He was still toe tapping at 75 just like Lester was at 95. 🙂

P.P.S. Speaking of books, pioneers and rock stars, I recently went to Amazon and searched for a book, written by a pioneer (a contemporary of Lester Wunderman) who is also a rock star (even before Mick Jagger) …and I was astounded by what I found.

The book—often considered the “other book” written by one of the best copywriters of all time—is The Brilliance Breakthrough: How To Talk And Write So That People Will Never Forget You.

What astounded me was the price…click here and see what it is selling for as a USED “lost classic” on Amazon.

That’s a show…not a tell.

The tell: Yes…that’s $500 for the cheapest version (O.K…it’s only $499.99) …and only 6 other copies available ranging from $888.98 to $2,000.

What could be so special about this book?

Because it’s Gene Schwartz’s “manual” for writing…and not just sales copy.

And it was rare (and unavailable) for a long time…but not anymore…so please don’t buy a copy for $2,000. 🙂

Writing and choosing the right word for every occasion (and audience) can be taught, grammar can be damned (well, at least grammar is overrated)…and “writing in images” is also something worth learning…both of which are core premises of this book.

Learning these and other keys to writing effectively from one of the greatest writers and observers of human behavior of all time is also what makes it special.

When Gene teaches you how to write, it’s worth a lot more than $2,000.

In fact, many folks who have bought it exclusively through me (at a much more reasonable price) …with a workbook included…are buying it for their kids (with extra workbooks).

Not to mention the world class copywriters who couldn’t wait to get their hands on a copy once I was able to bring it back to life.

Check out the “story” of how that came about…which includes a sneak peek at the foreword I wrote when I republished it.

I think you will enjoy the foreword even if you don’t buy the book.

And if you want to buy the book…at one-third to one-tenth of the price it is selling on Amazon…and those copies don’t even include a workbook…

Click Here

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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