Blog: Lessons to learn from Lester Wunderman

The iconic Lester Wunderman may be under-celebrated in India. But the recent re-branding of JWT into Wunderman Thompson brings Wunderman and his teachings into focus. The legend passed away last month at the age of 98.

Feb 14, 2019 05:33:00 AM | Article | Sandeep Goyal

I first met Lester Wunderman about 20 years ago in New York. I was then President of Rediffusion – Dentsu Young & Rubicam. One of the primary tasks I had set myself as the young new CEO of the agency was to strengthen our relationship and connect with Young & Rubicam (Y&R), a powerhouse of Madison Avenue. Peter Georgescu was still the boss-man at Y&R, and a good friend of mine. Y&R had much to offer beyond the advertising business. Burson Marsteller in PR; Sudler & Hennessey in healthcare; Landor in design; and Wunderman Cato Johnson in direct marketing. And more. In one of my visits to New York, Georgescu got me to meet Wunderman. 
Lester Wunderman was about 80 years old. But sharp and sprightly. Google was still unknown. Hence, all I knew about the legend of Wunderman was purely from word-of-mouth. And what a legend he was! One of the old-timers at Y&R narrated to me how while working as a copywriter at an agency called Maxwell Sackheim & Co in the late 1940s, Wunderman had the idea of using its mail order addresses to send promotional messages directly to customers, thus creating a one-to-one relationship with them. Hence in 1947 was born the entire practice of Direct Marketing … though it took another 20 years for Wunderman to actually identify, name, verbalise and define the term ‘Direct Marketing’ in a 1967 speech at MIT. 
Lester and I first met at the Y&R office at 285 Madison Avenue. It was a brief meeting. Just quick handshakes and brief introductions. But he was kind enough to invite me for breakfast the next day. Over croissants and coffee, we got chatting about a very unusual subject : masks. I told him that one of my fondest hobbies was to collect masks from the various countries I visited. He then started to tell me about his love for African art, especially masks. Little did I realize that the man sitting before me had donated nearly 300 priceless works of Dogon (tribe from West Africa/Mali/ Burkina Faso) artifacts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the balance of his Dogon collection to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, France. Later I was to figure that more than fifty of his photographs of his Dogon art are part of the permanent collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and thirteen other museums. And here I was bragging about some souvenir-grade touristy masks!
Breakfast with Wunderman was in itself a treat. Despite his age, he was highly communicative. Asked me a lot of questions on India. And on telecom. I had just helped launch Airtel in India; hence the discussions to me were pure enlightenment. Perspectives on customer data and profiling that would take me another decade to comprehend, and use. 
Wunderman was responsible for fathering the Direct Marketing industry. He developed and promoted  the Columbia Record Club in 1955, the first-ever mail order music club in the world, flagging off an unprecedented revolution in the world of music. It was Wunderman’s genius that thought up the concept of a 1-800 toll-free number for business, and he did his first campaign using the call-to-action number for Toyota. Wunderman adapted his music club idea to create the world’s first magazine subscription card, again a break-through idea for its times. But one of his greatest inspirations was the use of the postal ZIP code system for direct marketing which fundamentally simplified the access to consumers in large databases. Wunderman’s most famous achievement however was the creation of the world’s first ever customer rewards program for American Express which became the template for not just the credit card business, but later on inspired all the frequent flyer programs of the travel and tourism trade. 
Wunderman had some very interesting and useful insights on 1-to-1 customer relationships, and how to maximize customer value through direct marketing. I have culled some key learnings from his various writings, lectures and interviews: 
Way back in 1967, Wunderman is quoted to have said, “Taste, desire, ambition and lifestyle have made shopping once again a form of personal expression. A computer can know and remember as much marketing detail about 200 million consumers as did the owner of a crossroads general store about his handful of customers…New marketing forms which will link these facts to advertising and selling must evolve—where advertising and buying become a single action.”
In a 1971 lecture he propounded, “Advertising has always been capable of eliciting a response—but only in the nature of a direct marketing dialogue do we find the potential for responsiveness. And if I read our marketing and social revolution accurately, responsiveness is the only road to a technology which will serve people instead of enslaving them.” 
By 1980, Wunderman was already alive to the increased man-machine interaction the future had in store. “Cybernetics, the unique interaction of man and machine, will change what we do and how and where we do it. It is not hard to envisage us doing part of our week’s work at home—almost no matter where we live.” 
In 2010, at age 90, Wunderman was still spouting pearls of wisdom, “We’re in the death-knell of one-way conversations and the birth of the dialog system of marketing. The secret of the future is to listen to the customer, not to talk to him.”
Some more interesting insights from his include:
“The objective is to be relevant, not to be personal. Personal may offend. Relevancy never will.”
“Reach and frequency are out of date. Treat me as an audience that is respected. Only true contacts can begin relationships.”
“Your share of loyal customers, not your share of market, creates profits. Spend more on the good customers you have.”
“It’s what we know about the customer and what the customer does, has done, and is likely to do that lets us pretty much predict the effects from advertising.”
“Brand has to touch everything from advertising to packaging to customer service communications—and in every medium you’re working in.”
“The consumer, not the product, must be the hero.”
Lester and I met another couple of times during my trips to New York. By then we had opened Wunderman Cato Johnson in India with Citibank and Ford as clients. Lester promised to visit India soon. And come he did. In 2003, he was one of the star speakers at Ad Asia in Jaipur. Unfortunately, I did not manage any solus time with him as he had a large circle of admirers constantly surrounding him. In the brief interaction that we had one evening, he hugged me at a crowded dinner but went on to ‘accuse’ me good-naturedly of having ‘defected’ to the other side … I had by then become the Dentsu joint-venture partner in India, and that to Lester that was nothing short of ‘betrayal’! I never met Lester Wunderman again.
His books, Frontiers of Direct Marketing, published in 1981, and Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay, published in 1997, continue to adorn my book-shelf. They are oracles on the subject of 1-to-1 marketing. Bibles, no less. My only regret is that I never got them autographed by the master. 
Lester Wunderman is no longer in our midst. The God of Direct is no more. Gone last month at the ripe old age of 98. I am sure he is teaching the Almighty too a trick or two up there! Lester : you will be missed. Forever. May your soul rest in peace. 
(Dr. Sandeep Goyal was fortunate enough to meet with, and interact with, the legendary Lester Wunderman almost 20 years ago.)