2019-01-22 17:16:52 UTC
Direct-marketing pioneer found ways to test ads and quantify how many
sales they generated
By James R. Hagerty, Jan. 18, 2019, Wall St. Journal
After founding his first advertising agency at age 19, Lester
Wunderman went door to door searching for clients.
His opening line: Im here to help you sell what you make.
The usual reply: Well call you if we need you, sonny.
Mr. Wunderman kept trying and by the late 1950s established himself as
a pioneer in what he named direct marketing. Junk mail, he
demonstrated, wasnt junk if written and targeted well enough to
nurture long-term customers. He advised clients on ways to use all
kinds of advertisingincluding mail, magazine inserts, TV and internet
campaignsto reach customers directly and loyalize them, as he
sometimes put it.
After he retired in the late 1990s, the global firm he created changed
its name to Impiric. His loyalized fans hated it. The name of the
firm, now owned by WPP PLC, was swiftly changed back to Wunderman.
In a career lasting more than 60 years, he designed the original
Columbia Record Club and touted products ranging from roses to Lincoln
cars and American Express cards. His success came largely from finding
ways to test the effectiveness of ads and quantify the sales each
Mr. Wunderman, who was also a noted photographer and collector of West
African art, died Jan. 9. He was 98 years old.
I didnt consciously set out to invent anything, he said in a 2001
interview. I just tried to solve problems.
Born June 22, 1920, he grew up in the Bronx. His father, who was born
in Austria, made fur coats and died when Lester was 9. His mother,
born in Romania, did clerical work. She lost her savings in a bank
failure. Lester graduated from high school at 15 and enrolled at
Brooklyn College, but the family was so poor he dropped out to work
A collection agency gave him a job writing letters and calling on
deadbeats, tasks that helped teach him the arts of persuasion. A
neighbor suggested that Lester and his older brother, Irving, should
start an ad agency. Their mother sold a diamond bracelet to provide
the initial capital.
Though the brothers knew almost nothing about the business, they
formed Coronet Advertising and began soliciting potential clients.
They found work that was typically shunned by larger ad agencies, such
as writing marketing material for door-to-door salesmen.
Lester Wunderman proved to one mail-order company that it could double
the response to its magazine ads for thermal socks simply by changing
the headline from Cold Feet to Warm Feet. The brothers firm began
to thrive but suddenly collapsed when a major client went bankrupt and
didnt pay a large bill.
The big ad agencies wanted college graduates, so Mr. Wunderman and his
brother applied to a tiny firm catering to mail-order business. They
got the job by offering themselves as two employees for the salary of
one. Among Lesters early assignments was to create ads for a
His aspirations were far higher. In his spare time, he studied
photography, wrote plays for radio broadcast and hung out with an
artistic crowd. My friends insisted that all advertising was vulgar
and without social value, he wrote in a memoir, Being Direct. These
friends considered it better to be a failed poet or an inept painter
than a successful adman. Though stung by their scorn, he found a
creative outlet in solving business problems and pursued his artistic
interests on the side.
In 1947, Mr. Wunderman joined the New York firm of Maxwell Sackheim, a
direct-mail maven who had helped create the Book-of-the-Month Club in
the 1920s. Though Mr. Sackheim fired him after three months, Mr.
Wunderman kept showing up to work anyway. The boss ended up putting
him back on the payroll.
He made his name with successful marketing campaigns for Jackson &
Perkins, a mail-order seller of roses and other garden plants. When
the firm was caught with a glut of rose plants one year, he cleared
the surplus with a promotion that sent the plants to customers with no
money down and a later payment required only if they were satisfied.
He built databases allowing customers to get pitches tailored to their
In 1955, CBSs Columbia Records division hired him to design a
mail-order record club that offered free LP records to induce people
to buy more records later. It thrived for decades.
He joined several colleagues in 1958 to create a new firm, Wunderman,
Ricotta & Kline, with an office on Madison Avenue. He gained stature
in the industry by giving speeches about direct marketing, dubbing it
a new revolution in selling. A seminar he organized in 1971, with
the management guru Peter Drucker as the keynote speaker, drew nearly
In 1973, he sold his firm to Young & Rubicam, which later was acquired
Executives at Ford Motor in the 1970s snubbed his initial efforts to
interest them in direct marketing. So he came up with a different
term, curriculum marketing, and promised to teach people to buy
Ford cars. He got the assignment.
In his spare time, he collected art made by the Dogon tribe of Mali
and later donated many of the works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Mr. Wunderman is survived by his wife, Sue, two children and two
[ALL COMMENTS 7]
TIM HAWKINS, 2 days ago
What folly - thinking that by testing ads and managing data, someone
would actually buy unseen products from from the comfort of home.
Ted Harvatin, 2 days ago
I hope someone sends a record to his grave every month for eternity
and a day. Let him see what it feels like when you can't get anyone to
stop sending them.
CHRISTOPHER FOUNTAIN, 2 days ago
I do remember that difficulty in cancelling my subscription, back in
the day, so yeah, funny comment. But I don't blame Mr. Wunderman, and
boy, did I end up with a lot of records!
Bob Acker3 days ago
Naturally I wondered if he'd ever published anything. There's this:
Daniel Herkes, 2 days ago
Thanks, that is interesting. He was a smart man.
RUSSELL MOON, 3 days ago
On the jazz boards, Columbia Records exec George Avakian is given
credit for the idea of the Columbia Record Club. Maybe Mr. Wunderman
was the guy brought in to do the work.
BOB HAGERTY, 3 days ago
Yes. He was hired to figure out how to make the idea work. One of the
trickiest things was to set up a club that would be acceptable to the
local record stores that sold most LPs in those days.