March 12, 2023

When I wrote “There are no unique names, only unique lists” two weeks ago, I told you a little bit about the man I consider the “king of the list industry” who most of you have never heard of…a friend and a mentor…who handled the role as emperor with humility, quiet confidence and a philosophy like no other CEO during the period he reigned.

He passed away last month at 92…and we need to remember him today.

His name is Dave Florence.

When I write about legendary marketers such as Lester WundermanMel Martin, Denny Hatch and other “unknown icons” in these weekly posts (unknown to you younger folks, that is), I always receive a flood of email.

Those who knew them (or of them) are happy to remember their exploits and to know that they are not forgotten; and those of you who are hearing about them for the first time are always fascinated that something they thought was invented by an online marketing superstar needs to be credited accordingly to one of these (and many more) pioneers, who paved the way for all of us.

Read how Facebook didn’t invent everything for more about this phenomenon.

It’s not just about giving credit where credit is due.

I find it to be one of the most educational things we can do…and based upon your reactions when I write about them, it seems you agree.

Dave Florence is one of those pioneers.

Being more than transactional

His company, which you might remember as Direct Media Inc., was initially called Direct Marketing Inc.—and in the late 1960’s (and early 70’s), “direct marketing” meant mostly direct mail but it included all direct response marketing in any channel.

That has resulted in many in our industry today equating the term direct marketing with only direct mail (which is incorrect).

But to avoid confusion, I use the term direct response marketing to encompass all marketing channels.

Dave was the original multichannel marketer, whether it was Direct Marketing Inc. or Direct Media Inc.

He always had his eye on building something much bigger than just a “list brokerage and management company.”

To that end, he launched the first public database of lists, a cooperative database of response lists which is the model today based on individual list owners having fewer namesnot compiled list databases (and you should know the difference which you can read about in Chapter 4 of Overdeliver). 🙂

Dave prided himself in hiring young up-and-comers to learn how to be the best “list pickers” in the industry…while growing into trusted advisors for their clients…which made him different than the other CEO’s at the time in the list industry who were all about “doing one job and one job only.”

He didn’t want his list brokers and managers simply recommending lists to eat for a day…he wanted them to be able to learn everything about direct marketing so they could eat for a lifetime.

There’s merit to focus…but Dave saw the need to be more than just a “list picker,” and one of the lessons he taught me in my early 20’s was, “Why not be a trusted advisor rather than a transactional vendor by becoming a partner with your clients.”

You know I’ve beaten that one to death…whether it’s in terms of media buyers, copywriters, funnel builders…why become obsolete when you can become indispensable?

Four words that changed a business

Dave was soft spoken and a man of few words (more on that below).

But I knew when I was with him, I had to pay close attention to every word he spoke.

Marty Edelston, Boardroom Inc’s founder (and my first boss and mentor in direct marketing), knew that too.

Any sentence from Dave could lead to something exponential.

He loved Dave like a brother…and he had regular lunches and dinners with him to pick his brain.

During a casual/not so casual lunch between Marty and Dave in the early 1980’s, Marty was lamenting that the growth of his new consumer newsletter, Bottom Line/Personal, was going slowly.

Dave was perplexed because he thought the publication was so good and the universe of lists that could be mailed was so wide, he knew those factors should lead to a flurry of new subscribers…and renewals.

When Dave realized that the newsletter was being sold “cash-with-order” (credit card or check only) because it was better for cash flow and it was the standard for newsletter offers (which needed to make money on subscription revenue because they lacked advertising revenue) …he said:

“You don’t need to sell Bottom Line like a newsletter…sell it like a magazine with a risk-free, bill me later offer. Once you put it in the hands of people they will be addicted and they will eventually pay for the subscription…and they will stick around longer because they get to try it before they buy it.”

Sounds simple…but to sell an unknown publication (i.e., not on newsstands, with no advertising to support the free issues), it was more than a little risky.

But Dave’s common-sense approach, defying the rule of thumb for newsletters, resulted in Bottom Line/Personal becoming the largest circulation consumer newsletter in the country when it hit one million active subscribers.

Talk about a trusted advisor giving us advice we could test…and roll out…to the max.

Marty remembers it more simply:

Dave said “Just give it away” (those are the four words by the way) …and we did…and moving Bottom Line to a bill-me later offer, giving away 3 free issues (and then 6 free issues), was a key driver in making Boardroom a $100 million business.

Dave also knew that a by product of growing the circulation (with cash flow guardrails which you can read about here), would create an incredible list of affluent, 100% direct mail sold subscribers…and despite Bottom Line not taking advertising, the mailing list became a gold mine for Boardroom as a strategic by product.

Dave was a strategic by product too. 🙂

A list industry CEO like no other

During the time I worked exclusively in the list industry (made up of list brokers and list managers), there was a paranoid cloud that hung over those companies…except for Direct Media.

Most employees at other list companies had to sign non-compete contracts and when they left they were prevented from working for another list company for a year…maybe more.

It seemed that every day during the 80’s and 90’s, there was someone suing someone when they left over their non-compete…and it was not only ugly, it was non productive and costly, having nothing to do with the business itself.

The only ones who got rich were the lawyers.

And the departing employees were given a huge dose of mostly unnecessary misery.

I’m all for protecting your clients and proprietary information…Dave was too…but because he adored every employee while they worked for him, he rarely, if ever, made them sign a non-compete.

His advantage was hiring his employees while they were young, taught them to be independent—he grew “intrapreneurs”--who eventually worked with Dave (many for decades) …not for Dave.

He also was about launching careers and not just hiring for jobs.

An indicator of this was the overflow crowd at his memorial service last week.

How many retired 92-year-olds can pack a huge church—most of which were people who owed their livelihood to Dave—and we all talked afterwards about the footprint he left because of his philosophy around how he hired smart people…taught them well…and if they wanted to seek fame and fortune elsewhere, who was he to prevent that?

I learned my hiring philosophy from him (to hire in-house entrepreneurs)…and even more important, I never got mad or vindictive when someone came to me to let me know they were leaving.

I asked about their new opportunity, made sure it was an improvement on what they were leaving on the table with me, and regardless, I wished them well and encouraged them to stay in touch.

I explained life is long…who knows where we both might be in the future?

Dave knew that…and at his funeral, there were lifelong employees, employees who left him, some who left him and came back…but none of which were ever sued for a non-compete.

Even in a cutthroat business like the list industry, Dave understood that everyone needs to make living and true “trade secrets” were few and far between.

He would have been proud to see the fruits of his labor in that church.

His philosophy also included:

“Have pride in your work and succeed by believing in yourself…and I will always have your back.”

This authenticity permeated throughout his company and in his personal life.

He believed that everyone in his life was family.

Where do you think the notion of calling my list an online family came from? 🙂

A humble visionary: Generosity through frugality…and saying a lot with a little

Dave gave lots of money to numerous charities and volunteered his time to many others…but finding out about so many during his memorial was eye-opening for me, someone who knew a lot about him.

He did it without recognition…just like he mentored hundreds of people (most of which were at his memorial) to become direct marketers and not simply brokers and managers.

A story that was told during his service showed what Dave was all about:

When Dave finally sold Direct Media, someone who was there spoke about being in a “white collar skyscraper” in New York City, in posh offices of high-priced attorneys and investment bankers.

After the deal was done, two of the guys in suits were talking and one said to the other:

“Why is the richest guy in the room wearing a sweater with a hole in it, a tweed sport coat from the 1960’s, and using a scuffed and ripped ‘briefcase’ that was a free giveaway for a magazine subscription from one of his clients?”

The answer was not hidden…and it was in plain sight.

He became the richest guy in the room, not by saving money on clothes and accessories; it was because Dave’s focus was always about what really matters:

Caring for others, never hurting anyone and being a silent (yet loud) mentor.

Regarding Dave being a man of few words, I want to share another story about the lunches Dave and Marty had when they were in their 80’s.

You now know that Dave carried a beat-up briefcase and didn’t care what he wore as long as it was comfortable.

Marty was similar with his philosophy: He carried a pocket-sized notebook, along with dozens of index cards…all tucked into the many pockets (obvious and secret) of various fishing vests…with Sharpies in those pockets (many of which exploded on occasion creating ink stains which he could care less about) …and he too had no interest in fashion…only comfort.

They went to lunch one day shortly after Marty had a stroke and Dave’s  hearing had become quite diminished…and while their minds were still exceptionally active, Marty had trouble with the volume of his voice and everyone had trouble hearing him when he spoke…the same was always true with soft-spoken Dave…and a noisy restaurant didn’t help.

After the lunch, I asked Marty how it went:

“I was talking, Dave couldn’t hear a word I was saying…I had trouble hearing him as well…it was a disaster.”

I pictured their frustration…but I knew the enormous respect they had for each other…and I also knew how lucid their minds were.

I demanded they set up another lunch—ASAP—and I volunteered to be the “mediator” for the next meeting of the lucid minds…between the genius who talked too softly and the genius who couldn’t hear a thing.

I also took charge of reserving a quiet restaurant. 🙂

I don’t have to tell you the result…but I will.

I got a crash course in how simple ideas become monumental ones…in marketing and about changing the world…and I arranged for many more of these “senior summits” until Marty’s death in 2013.

The jazziest entrepreneur

Dave was a big fan of New Orleans and jazz…he had an apartment there throughout his adult life…and it was fitting at his memorial service that a NOLA jazz band band, the “Street Beat Brass Band” performed (inside the church).

And fittingly, on exit, we followed the band leaving the church to a rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In.

It sounded like this so you get the feel.

I couldn’t think of a more appropriate tune for the saint (of the list industry, of a rich and fruitful life, and a true saint as a my mentor and friend) to keep marching in…rather than leaving to go anywhere. 🙂



P.S. I mentioned numerous times during this post that Dave was a man of few words…but he also had a wry sense of humor, usually done in few words.

He sent the picture below via email to his online family a couple of years ago when he experienced a house fire—no injuries or fatalities thank goodness.

And the caption simply said, in typical Dave Florence fashion:

“We moved”

Love you Dave wherever you move next. 🙂

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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