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Lester Wunderman (June 22, 1920) is an advertising executive widely considered the creator of modern-day direct marketing. His innovations include the magazine subscription card, the toll-free 1-800 number, loyalty rewards programs, and many more. He identified, named and defined the term "direct marketing" in a 1967 speech at MIT, and was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1998.
Wunderman was born in the Bronx and educated at New York City public schools. He attended classes at each of New York City’s colleges and universities so he could create his own “degree.” Though highly educated, he still does not hold a formal college degree.
In 1947, he was hired as a copywriter at Maxwell Sackheim & Co. While there, he noted that their "mail order" accounts had the potential to be built into a broader line of business. He introduced a "direct marketing" approach to service them, using the medium of clients’ mailboxes as a way to develop a more personal connection with potential customers than general advertising had previously found possible.
To expand the direct marketing approach, Wunderman and his brother Irving, along with two colleagues, Ed Ricotta and Harry Kline, met on August 20, 1958 in Lester's new "office" - a $30-a-night room at the Hotel Winslow in New York City - and with combined assets of $60,000 founded their own agency, Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline. In 1958, Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline opened its doors in New York City with a staff of seven. There were no clients. Nevertheless, WR&K attracted more than $2 million in billings during its first year. WR&K (later acquired by Young & Rubicam and eventually called Wunderman) was responsible for developing and/or promoting the Columbia Record Club, the 1-800 toll-free number for businesses (developed for a Toyota campaign), the magazine subscription card, and the postal ZIP code system. A long-time relationship with American Express also led to the first customer rewards program—a breakthrough means of keeping customers loyal to a brand that has since transformed the travel and retail industries as well.
Wunderman was elected to the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1998. He received an honorary doctorate from Brooklyn College, City University of New York in 1984. He was named one of twenty “Advertising Legends and Leaders” by AdWeek Magazine in 1998. In the July 23, 2001 issue of Time Magazine, Mr. Wunderman (along with David Ogilvy and Sergio Zyman) were heralded as “Great Pitchmen Over the Years.”
Mirroring his eclectic college education, Wunderman has lectured at a host of schools, including Columbia University, Fordham University, Boston University, and M.I.T. His book Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay was published in January 1997 and republished with new material in 2004. An ebook version, which includes a new introduction from the author, was published in 2011.
An avid art collector, he has donated nearly 300 works of Dogon artifacts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the balance of his Dogon collection to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, France. He has been an exhibited photographer for many years. He studied photography at the New School for Social Research and then with private instructors. 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. His work has been represented by galleries in New York and the village of Mougins, France. He, Jacqueline Kennedy, Karl Katz, and Cornell Capa helped found the International Center of Photography in New York. His book of photographs, named "Wunderman", has been published and distributed in 2008 by the global advertising agency that bears his name.
Wunderman brought engineers to Mali to help the Dogon people build water catchments and instruct them in water purification. For this, he was inducted as a tribal chief ("Amma Sagou" or Beloved of God). His wife Suzanne was also given a Dogon name ("Ya Domio" or Beloved of the Beloved of God).
Beginning in 2010, a collection of Wunderman's papers have been housed at the Rubenstein Library at Duke University.
He currently serves as Chairman Emeritus of Wunderman. He lives in New York City and the South of France with his wife, who was Director of Editorials for WCBS-TV, New York, for many years (under professional/maiden name Sue Cott). Wunderman remains an active speaker, author and photographer.
- L. Wunderman
- "Lester Wunderman Papers". Rubenstein Library, Duke University.
- Time International (South Pacific Edition), 7/23/2001, Issue 29, p53
- Wunderman, L (2004). "Being Direct: Making Advertising Pay".
- Art of the Dogon: selections from the Lester Wunderman collection, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries (fully available online as PDF)