25th Anniversary Issue: List Industry’s Demise is Greatly Exaggerated

Around 1979, just about when DM News started, a well-known ad agency executive – a pundit in his own mind – said the mailing list business as we knew it would cease to exist.

He contended that ad agencies would take over list research and ordering. After all, he said, weren’t direct marketers relying more and more on the abilities of these agencies? And because these agencies were so astute and savvy and could entice the smartest and best researchers and media people through their doors, outside brokers and managers no longer would be needed. This man is still around, and a friend of mine to boot, so I will not identify him.

What he failed to recognize was that the list industry is one of the most energized and entrepreneurial businesses in direct marketing and has been a mainstay in it for almost 125 years. Not only have list people stayed ahead of the curve, but also ahead of the ad agency experts, who – as far back as I can remember – always called their favorite list companies for the information and data they needed to serve their clients. This has not changed in the past 25 years, nor is it likely to change anytime soon.

Needless to say, the list business is alive and well, thank you, and probably is stronger than ever. This is not to suggest that the industry hasn’t changed in 25 years. New technology, new business models, legislation, mailer needs and, of course, the natural ebb and flow of the companies and people in the industry have altered the landscape.

And though it may look somewhat different today than it did 25 years ago, there are more similarities than differences.

Acceptance of Compiled Lists

One major change has been the proliferation and acceptance of compiled lists and data. Twenty-five years ago, you had to subject a mailer to torture before he would even try a compiled list. If it wasn’t a response list, if it did not contain the RFM characteristic (recency, frequency, monetary), a mere suggestion to try a compilation would have you ushered out of the office.

But this didn’t deter the list industry. With new data sources being mined on a daily basis, with overlays, enhancements, analytics and modeling becoming part of the equation, with an ever-evolving computer technology creating capabilities never before available, the use of compiled data started to become commonplace. Once the province of the business-to-business arena, it became mainstream among consumer mailers as well.

The Donnelleys, R.L. Polks and Metromails were joined by the credit bureaus (Trans Union, Experian, Equifax), by list consolidators (AccuData, MarketTouch, Lexus Nexus) and by dozens of other compilers (ABL, now infoUSA, the Dunhill companies, Edith Roman, Data Base America, HomeData).

And we all know the effect of computer technology on the industry. Brad Pagano, for example, who started in the list brokerage business at Dependable Lists in the early 1970s and who is a prominent list consultant today in California, explained that his first job consisted of typing list rental orders.

He was part of a pool of 25 or so typists whose function was to type multi-part orders, split them apart, then distribute them to the list owner, the list user, the list processor, the billing department, the follow-up department and whoever else needed a copy. Everything was done manually. This was part of the training he and the others would get before they were allowed to move up the ladder.

Today, those 25 typists have been replaced by a single order processor sitting in front of a desktop PC who inputs hundreds of orders a day without breaking a sweat and – at the touch of a key on the keyboard – has all of the copies miraculously sent to each party on the distribution list.

Add to this the Internet, which has created a whole new marketing capability and a new medium not known 25 years ago.

Who could have predicted that we would be able to send millions of names and addresses into cyberspace and have them received on a computer in another city, another state, even another country?

What Hasn’t Changed?

Though technology may have changed how we do business, the way we do business has changed very little in 25 years. Mailers have always been demanding, even more so today because direct mail not only is more costly to use, but competes with a far greater array of media than ever before.

The competition to reach consumers has never been so fierce, be it from television, the Internet, newspapers and magazines (which have been losing ground steadily over the years), radio or everything else that competes for a consumer’s attention.

As a result, the companies and people who serve the mailer, be they the list broker or the list manager, have to be much more professional, technically oriented and better prepared to deal with mailers’ needs than they were 25 years ago. And they are. That’s why the good ones are still around – they stayed good. Not only have they kept abreast of the marketplace, they also are the innovators who brought creative new ideas and concepts to the mailers’ tables.

Many who thrived 25 years ago still thrive today. Many do not. Some of the larger companies that were well established in the 1970s remain: Direct Media, Millard, American List Counsel, The Lake Group (Names in the News), Mokrynski & Associates, List Services Corp., D-J Associates, Rubin Response, Worldata.

Other large companies were bought by even larger companies: Donnelley Marketing, Walter Karl, Jami and more recently Edith Roman were purchased by Vin Gupta’s infoUSA; Stevens-Knox (which was the successor to Woodruff-Stevens and was part of Computer Directions Group) was bought by MKTG Services (a CBC Company), which also bought Media Marketplace, the Coolidge Company and Metro Direct; AZ Marketing was acquired by 21st Century Marketing; NBL (National Business Lists) was bought by MDR. The list goes on and on.

A number of list companies around in the 1970s no longer are part of the list tapestry for various reasons. The Kleid Co., which started in the 1930s, went out of business in 1998. The Florence Wolf Co. never made it past 1974. Uni-Mail, which had a long, prestigious run, fell victim to 9/11. Demographic Systems no longer exists. The Kaplan Agency closed in the late 1990s. The Alan Drey Co. is no longer around. Others have gone by the wayside.

Reinvention Is Key

But the most fascinating part of the industry is how it keeps reinventing itself through the movement of key people. What has been traditional in the list business – this process goes back more than a century – is that some of the people who learned their craft well at the feet of some of the industry’s masters left their incubators to start what have become, for the most part, successful companies.

For example, in the late 1970s, Walter Prescott, Carol Enters, Don Mokrynski and Jordan Perper all left Marci Coolidge and Clem Schwartz of the Coolidge Company to start their own individual companies. Donn Rappaport and Liza Price left the Ed Burnett company in the 1970s to start American List Counsel.

Alice Zea started AZ Marketing after spending eight years at Direct Media (her brother, Walter Karl, had left their other brother, Arthur Martin Karl, who owned Names Unlimited, to start his own company in the early 1960s). Mal McCluskey left Walter Karl to start List Services, as did Al Raskin years later to start Listworks.

Adrea Rubin worked for Names Unlimited and Direct Media before going out on her own. So did Doug Flynn, who started Flynn Direct Response. More recently, David Clark and Lorrie Mackain broke away from Uni-Mail to start Clark-Mackain, and Ralph Drybrough left Direct Media to start MeritDirect. This list goes on and on as well.

The bottom line? The list industry is as strong and as energetic and as smart as ever – and seems to be mushrooming by the day. Even direct ad agencies, contrary to the contention of the misguided executive who predicted its demise 25 years ago, depend more than ever on the knowledge, expertise and professionalism of our industry’s fine companies.

And I predict that we’ll be around and even stronger 25 years from now. Count on it.

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