Industry Heroes: Lester Wunderman

Long before Wunderman Thompson, there was Lester Wunderman himself – calling him the ‘father of direct marketing’ is an understatement according to Resulticks’s Redickaa Subrammanian who believes Wunderman was arguably the father of all modern marketing

Lester Wunderman

More than half a century ago in the mid-1960s, Marshall McLuhan, a professor of English, predicted the internet. In 2017, while marking the 106th anniversary of McLuhan’s birth, Google noted that he was spot on in foreseeing a time when a majority of people would get and share most of their information quickly, easily, and globally through electronic technology.

As prescient as McLuhan was and as fundamental as the internet is to my work as a marketing professional, I have chosen to write about another similarly visionary contemporary of his: Lester Wunderman.

He founded the global digital agency Wunderman and his career spans a huge chunk of the 20th century. Wunderman is widely heralded as the father of direct marketing.

That he is, but I think it’s an understatement of his broader impact on the marketing profession. Lester Wunderman is arguable the father of what we refer to as modern marketing, that powerful blend of data-driven strategy, creative thinking, advanced analytics, and marketing technology that builds connections with customers and drives sustainable business success.

Much of Wunderman’s visionary thinking and many of his innovations have inspired how marketers today leverage technology, data and channels to engage customers individually and to build lasting, mutually rewarding relationships. That’s why he stands as a hero in my book.

Technology as the enabler, used wisely and well

For instance, like McLuhan, Wunderman very early on recognised the enormous potential of interactive technology, calling the internet “the fruition of all things I believe in.” But beyond the technology itself, Wunderman also emphasised the importance of using it and its by-products wisely and well. The revised version of his landmark book, Being Direct, speaks of how using information to serve customers requires “good judgment and prudence on the part of all parties regarding the expanding commercial conversations of the Information Age”.

Still relevant: Wunderman’s Being Direct

In his “Consumer’s Communication Bill of Rights,” Wunderman says that consumers have a right to ask for a clear statement of what brands will and won’t do with the information consumers give them. Like a vision come true, marketers in the European Union today must now comply with the far-reaching General Data Protection Regulation that gives consumers extensive control of their personal data. The rest of the world will surely follow.

Creatively inspired audience engagement

As far-sighted as he was with technology trends, Wunderman was equally creative in how he delivered outcomes for his clients. Once, when he felt his agency had saturated conventional media for the Columbia Record Club, he persuaded Better Homes and Gardens to insert a postage-paid subscription card with a print ad for the club to stimulate immediate response.

An ad for Columbia Record Club

On another occasion, for Columbia again, he offered viewers of a TV ad a bonus if they responded to a print ad in a certain way so he could measure the impact of the commercial. With that creative move, Wunderman accomplished something retailers struggle with even today: closing the conversion attribution gap between electronic and physical channels.

While today’s technology of chatbots, virtual assistants, and what-have-you eclipse what were revolutionary approaches in Wunderman’s time, the core concept behind his innovations holds true: engage with your audiences using contextually relevant messaging when and where they’re most likely to be receptive.

To me, that’s a very good description of the seamless customer journeys we strive so hard to create today across channels, devices, and time.

Individualised customer relationships

Critical to these journeys are the continuing conversations with the individual customer that actually render it seamless. It’s no news today that deeply personal communication is imperative to building sustainable audience engagement.

As Wunderman wrote in his Direct Marketing: The New Selling Revolution, “Those marketers who ignore the implications of our new individualised information society will be left behind in what may well come to be known as the age of mass production and marketing ignorance.”

Wunderman was a marketer with views far ahead of his time. To me the “19 Principles of Success” he lays out in Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay are as relevant today as ever and serve as a great primer on both his approach to marketing and life.

If I had to sum up what Lester Wunderman has taught me, it would be in his own words, “If there is a lesson to be learned, it is to not do anything half-heartedly. If you’re going to do it at all, give it all you have to give.”

Redickaa Subrammanian is co-founder and CEO of Resulticks, a leading data-driven, AI-enabled omnichannel marketing automation platform



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