As the hostess seated us at a neighborhood sushi restaurant near Columbus Circle, my lunch partner said quietly, “When I come here, I always sit there,” pointing to the sushi bar located to my right, “the second seat from the right.” I wondered why as we continued to navigate the table maze to get to our seats. The answer came a moment later. “That’s where the head sushi chef is stationed,” he said as a matter of fact.
Ahhh, I thought. A little known detail… a tiny piece of information… but a significant data point for the ad man at the center of the trillion-dollar direct marketing industry he so proudly invented and named more than five decades ago. Perhaps that’s why Lester Wunderman, 94, founder and chairman emeritus of the agency that still bears his name, was so successful. He made sure he knew something nobody else did, which gave him a competitive edge in business and in life.
I had the pleasure of being office “neighbors” with the legendary nonagenarian for the better part of a decade. We were also on a first-name basis, which I considered a great honor since he was frequently quoted as saying, “just because you know my name, doesn’t mean you know me.” This September day, we lunched on the sushi/sashimi combo. He had salad and I the soup. And our conversation focused on leadership, learning and a look forward.
I asked about the single aspect of his own leadership style he considered most important. Without hesitation, the man I had come to know as “Lester” responded: “Empathy. If you are not able to feel what your people are feeling, you don’t have a company. A company is not just about the numbers; it’s about the people.” He recalled some hard times he and the agency endured early on. I could feel the perseverance of his past.
He explained you pay people to produce and produce profitably, but to get them to do so you need to understand what inspires and motivates them. He likened running a business to playing a game. “It doesn’t mean you win every time. But it does mean you play with the best people you have all the time.” Lesson learned.
Knowledge is important to him—so important that when it came to his own education, the path he chose was anything but typical. “I never planned to be ‘matriculated,’ I planned to be educated,” he said; “there’s a difference.”
The difference, I learned, was characteristic of this advertising legend. Lester Wunderman wanted to be educated about specific topics that interested him—not what others thought he should learn. Therefore he attended classes he chose at institutions that offered them that he selected—New York University, City University of New York (CUNY) and Columbia University. Ultimately, academicians from CUNY recognized his educational pursuits and awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters.
This quest for learning was never more apparent than his decision to learn Spanish. During lunch, I got the back story. A voracious reader, Lester would frequently take the subway from his Bronx home to the end of the elevated line—all the while his head buried in a book. When he disembarked, book in hand, he continued reading as he walked to his favorite spot beneath a tree in the nearby park.
“One day I was walking and reading at the same time and bumped into a guy who was also walking and reading at the same time,” he explained. “Our books fell to the ground. When we picked them up we discovered we were both reading Don Quixote. His book was in Spanish and mine was in English.” Serendipity or karma, I wondered.
Admittedly, Lester said he found the story “boring” at first. But the two men got to talking. His fellow reader was a Spanish instructor and suggested he read Don Quixote in its native language to grasp the richness of the story. It was then Lester decided to take his Spanish to the next level. Once he did, there was a new found appreciation for the story, its language, its humor and its wit. Another lesson learned.
“Relevance” remains his mantra; and, as technology inculcates itself into the advertising industry, “personal relevance” nears his Nirvana.
Of the Internet, Lester was among the privileged to preview it in the 1960s. In later years, he observed “I can’t claim to having had a vision of its eventual popularity, but I had an absolute fascination with its potential. I knew what it could do, was using it, and viewing it as a technological miracle that could bring to life the kind of dreams I had about dialogues between consumers and advertisers.”* That comment is perhaps the most telling of advertising’s continued evolution.
So I wondered. What’s next for the industry? Relevance remains key and data will be used to make what’s relevant more and more personal, he said. Then he added this: “My ultimate belief is that manufacturing will change. Factories, which started in England as a means of mass production, will go away. We are in the age of what I call ‘personal advertising’ now. And, I believe we will have factories in our homes and use data to help make the products we want to make.”
It is this type of thinking that makes legends. It is why Lester Wunderman was the first direct marketer to be named to the Advertising Hall of Fame. It’s why he sits at the second seat from the right at the sushi bar. It’s also why the inside of all his overcoats fashion a ruby red silk lining. But that’s a lesson for another time.
* Conversations with Marketing Masters, Laura Mazur and Louella Miles, 2007, John Wiley & Sons.
Originally posted, September 2014.
Author’s note: For 12 years, I headed Global Communications at Wunderman, the billion-dollar digital agency founded in 1958 by Lester Wunderman, the legendary ad man who turned traditional advertising on its heels with a “direct” approach. I had the pleasure of working directly with Mr. Wunderman, who served as an ambassador to the industry, on many initiatives, including speaking engagements at Direct Marketing Association events, the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, the re-launch of his autobiography, Being Direct and the establishment of archives at The John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History at Duke University which maintains an archive of the personal papers of Lester Wunderman.