LESTER WUNDERMAN: Chairman Emeritus & Founder, Wunderman

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Lester Wunderman- consultant, professor, author and photographer- is Chairman Emeritus and founder of Wunderman.

Mr. Wunderman is an advertising legend and the pioneering father of direct marketing. The visionary marketing techniques he conceived and perfected over his long and brilliant career transformed the advertising industry and continue to shape the interactive marketplace.

After an apprenticeship served at several agencies, Mr. Wunderman joined Maxwell Sackheim & Company in 1947, where he became executive vice president. In 1958, he founded Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline, now known as Wunderman.

How did you get into the advertising industry? 

When I was young and seeking a career, I wanted to do something creative. My brother and I began an advertising service that created ads, letters and brochures. He was the inside man who did creative work. I was the outside man who sought clients and worked with and served the ones we represented.

Which campaigns are you most proud of? 

We are very proud of the work we’ve done for our clients, past and present. However, one of the most interesting engagements was years ago with Columbia Records. It not only changed its business, it was emulated by many others. Even today we see the use in the digital arena. The chairman and president came to see me and asked me to help them launch a record club. The idea was to do for records what Book of the Month Club did for literature. They needed an innovative way to generate new membership. We came up with four categories that satisfied consumers’ musical tastes. The impact on advertising was profound because we saw how relevance could play such a crucial role in serving people’s taste.     

How does your firm stay successful in this digital era? 

At this juncture in my career, I have the luxury of watching a new generation of marketers run the agency. Our current chairman & CEO, Daniel Morel, recognizes that the problems and solutions of this digital era are not significantly different from earlier times. As an agency we stay relevant and in touch with all of the newest solutions and technologies. Daniel is, as I was, a believer in taking chances and learning from them – that has been in our DNA from the very beginning. To be a market leader you must remember that providing your clients with the most creative and forward-looking techniques is only one part of the equation. The technologies may change but the need to be relevant and persuasive is paramount. 

What is your opinion on publicly traded advertising companies versus privately owned? 

I don’t see any substantial difference. We are judged by the quality of the work that we do for our clients. Public ownership developed as a result of the capital needs of global agencies. We employ thousands of people in 60 countries. To do that right requires an investment of capital not usually available to privately owned agencies.

Define creativity. 

Creative thinking is at the core of our practice. One of my earliest clients would call me from Europe and ask over and over, “Lester, give me an idea.” We were able to do that by asking ourselves, What now? What if? What next? And as we answered these questions we imagined new solutions to old problems.

I think it’s safe to say that you know creativity when you see it. It creates ideas and techniques that are qualitatively different. 

What are the biggest industry trends and how do you capitalize on them? 

The biggest industry trends have to do with the collection and use of data. Data makes it possible for advertising to be relevant to individual persons rather than members of mass groups. The concept of personal advertising is, to me, the most intriguing of all.   

Who was your greatest influence in becoming a successful CEO? 

One of the strongest influences on me as a CEO was a man named Maxwell Sackheim who was my boss when I was a young man. He encouraged me to think differently, and when he would review my work, he would look for loopholes in it. So when I received his praise, it was exciting. It was something that I learned to do gently but effectively when I began to oversee others.             

What is your life motto?

To think and act creatively and responsibly. 

What literature is currently on your desk or Internet browser? 

At the moment, I am reading the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.

What’s next for your firm?

It’s what it has always been ­­– to know, understand and use the current and future tools creatively and productively to create successful advertising for our clients in all media and in all markets.

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In 1967, in an address at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Wunderman identified, named and defined Direct Marketing and has led the theoretical and practical growth of the industry ever since. He has received many awards and tributes from the direct marketing industry, including inductions into the Direct Marketing Association's Hall of Fame in 1983, and the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame.

His book, Being Direct, was published by Random House in January 1997 and reissued in 2004 with new information, including the first-ever Consumer's Communications Bill of Rights and his views on the Internet. An earlier book, Frontiers of Direct Marketing, was published in 1981, and his speeches and articles have appeared in publications worldwide.

Mr. Wunderman became fascinated by photography many years ago, studying at The New School in New York City and working privately with several well-known photographers. Years ago, he met regularly with Cornell Capa, Karl Katz and Jacqueline Kennedy to discuss the possibility of a professional school of photography. And so the International Center of Photography was born, and has thrived ever since.

His photographs have been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in association with his collection of Dogon sculpture, which he donated and 50 photographs remain in its permanent collection. In addition, his photographs have become part of the permanent collection in the Dapper Foundation in Paris, which is now part of the Louvre.

A native New Yorker born in the Bronx, Mr. Wunderman and his wife Sue (Cott) make their home in Manhattan.