“Father of Direct Marketing” Created a Trillion-Dollar Industry

Lester Wunderman, chairman emeritus and founder of Wunderman, the original and largest direct marketing advertising agency, passed away last week in New York of natural causes. He was 98 years old.

A trailblazer in the advertising industry, Mr. Wunderman launched a new kind of advertising agency in 1958—one that focused on delivering sales for its clients. That agency concept caught on and led to the creation of today’s trillion-dollar direct marketing industry. 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.

Mr. Wunderman is fondly remembered by Sue, whom he married in 1975, his son Marc and daughter Karen and three stepchildren, Patrick, James and Thomas. He is also remembered and revered by the thousands of people who work for the agency that bears his name.

While he left the helm of Wunderman in 1998, he reported to work every day at the agency’s offices, where he often visited with clients, executives and interns alike.

A New Yorker throughout his life, Mr. Wunderman was born in 1920 in the Bronx. After an apprenticeship served at several agencies, he joined Maxwell Sackheim & Company in 1947, where he became executive vice president. In 1958, he founded Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline, now known as Wunderman.

In 1967, in an address at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Wunderman identified, named and defined Direct Marketing which led the theoretical and practical growth of the industry ever since. As a result of that speech, he was named “The Father of Direct Marketing.”

Mr. Wunderman 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. In the July 23, 2001 issue of Time, Mr

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. Wunderman (along with David Ogilvy and Sergio Zyman) was heralded as “Great Pitchmen over the Years.” Most recently he was awarded the Golden Apple from the Direct Marketing Club of New York in recognition of over 50 years of contributing to the direct marketing community and Marketing EDGE’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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. In 2010, it was translated and published into Chinese. An earlier book, Frontiers of Direct Marketing, was published in 1981, and his speeches and articles have appeared in publications worldwide.

Mr. Wunderman’s achievements do not, however, fully describe the impact he has had on our industry. In 1967, he served at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson to champion usage and acceptance of the fledgling U.S. Postal Service’s Zip Code.

A passionate believer in the arts, Mr. Wunderman collected the artwork of the Dogon tribe of West Africa. Mr. Wunderman made two visits to the region including spending time living there. Mr. Wunderman donated his collection to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Dapper Foundation in Paris, which is now part of the Louvre.

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. Long 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, and 50 photographs remain in its permanent collection.

As the head of Wunderman, he served as an inspiration and visionary, providing thoughtful counsel and valuable insight. “Lester possessed the curiosity of a scientist, an artist’s eye, the soul of an author and the heart of an entrepreneur,” said Mel Edwards, CEO, Wunderman.

“Lester was a true visionary with a lifelong commitment to innovation and creativity,” said Mark Read, CEO, WPP. “He will be remembered and respected for his achievements and revered as a friend and colleague.”

In Lester’s own words, “If there is a lesson to be learned, I believe it is to not do anything half-heartedly. If you are going to do it at all, give it all that you have to give.”

He died January 9th, 2019.  Our thoughts are with his family.

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