Leon Henry: 50 Years in Business — Golden Anniversary for Leon Henry, Golden Age for Insert Media

Insert media was in its infancy when Leon Henry started his company 50 years ago. But as he celebrates his golden anniversary year, what once was called alternative media has become a high-profile direct marketing medium. However, it didn’t exactly start that way, as Mr. Henry recalled in an interview with DM News.

Mr. Henry founded Salesbag Promotions Inc., Buffalo, NY, in May 1956 along with his wife, Thelma, to whom he now has been married 51 years. The business sought to sell advertising space on supermarket grocery bags.

“I thought I’d be a millionaire in 1956 dollars, which was quite substantial,” said Mr. Henry, chairman/CEO of Leon Henry Inc., Hartsdale, NY. “Instead, within six months, I was looking for part-time work, which included delivering telephone books and ultimately teaching economics at the University of Buffalo.”

When he sold his first ad, the client wanted a different supermarket chain than the one that Mr. Henry had the original contract with to sell the advertising space, he said.

Mr. Henry’s next move from on-bag advertising in supermarkets and drugstores was in-bag inserts and then billing statements. He changed the company name to Leon Henry Inc. in 1965. “One of my clients was Esquire magazine for subscriptions, and they really wanted to go out in men’s clothing bills, so I found enough stores to accept an order from Esquire and subsequently Gentlemen’s Quarterly,” he said. “This led to contacting other retailer and discount store chains as well as banks.”

Mr. Henry credits Len Holland as the father of insert media in the 1950s and sees himself as godfather to Mr. Holland’s brainchild.

“Len Holland was working for Popular Club Plan, and he sensed that the book and record clubs, insurance companies, photo finishers and related noncompetitive mailorder firms would gladly swap space in their packages for space in his Popular Club packages,” Mr. Henry said. “Eventually he went into business with the blessing of his ex-employer.”

With Mr. Holland at an advantage from his Popular Club days, Mr. Henry scrambled to find marketers that weren’t already involved with his competitor yet were willing to test the new medium.

“I needed to find mailers who were not in the ‘club,’ so to speak, and many of my first mailers in the 1960s were various subscription offers such as Consumer Reports, Sports Illustrated, Condé Nast and some photo-by-mail companies as well as book clubs,” he said.

Still, many marketers were not quickly persuaded, and those that did use inserts weren’t eager to publicize it.

“Those who used inserts tended to fall into two groups: tested and dropped out or tested and continued big time. But the second group was very quiet as to their usage, and it was difficult to get testimonials,” Mr. Henry said. “Neither Len nor I had much, if any, money for promotion, and both of us, me especially, pushed the PR buttons to the hilt. The big breakthrough for everyone in the business was the Betty Crocker cookbook offer [in the 1970s]. They bought everything that was for sale from anyone who presented it first. The fledgling insert companies needed this type of customer to build their inventory of insert programs.”

Many insert brokers, including Leon Henry Inc., owe their growth to the use of inserts by Betty Crocker, he added.

In the early years few other companies got involved with inserts, though Walter Karl and National Envelope were exceptions. But by the 1970s, more were moving in that direction, Mr. Henry said. On the mailer side, Columbia House, American Holiday and Mutual of Omaha were insert marketers that helped shape the marketplace, he said.

The landscape today has grown vast, with programs ranging from package inserts to billing statement inserts to catalog blow-ins, and mailers moving from the previously typical low-end offers to a greater variety of merchandise.

“Now you have a much more representative assembly of mailers using inserts, and many more to come,” Mr. Henry said. “Sharper Image and Bose proved that inserts could sell high-end merchandise. Cabela’s proved you could get every hunter to sign up for their catalog. There are dozens of success stories.”

On the flip side, putting a program on the market is far simpler now, too.

“If your company has enough distribution to accept outside mailers, you can become an insert program by contacting any of the many competent managers,” he said.

Though business is good, Mr. Henry said, it could be better if the industry as a whole promoted it more actively. He also said that the Internet is a challenge for insert managers and brokers that needs to be met in terms of how it fits with media plans.

With the distinction of being the longest-standing insert media firm, Leon Henry Inc. also remains under the management of its founder and his family even amid recent industry acquisitions such as Singer Direct being bought by Omnicom Media Group.

“When the latest round of sales and collapses came into being, we felt that we were in a strong position to capitalize on our experience, name and the potential in the industry without needing to sell,” Mr. Henry said.

As for retirement, Mr. Henry said he enjoys running his company with his family too much. He noted that the high point of his career was when his daughter Gail joined and subsequently was followed by his other daughters, Lynn and Barbara.

“Now they are leading the new generation of direct marketers in our company,” he said.

Outside of the Henry clan, the longest-serving employee is senior vice president Linda Callahan.

“Our company has long had a policy of giving out responsibility to the limits of acceptance,” Mr. Henry said. “While we are only 30-35 in staff, Thelma and I have seen that we cannot do it all ourselves, nor do we want to, and many others have abilities not seen when they were hired. I find that mentoring is a strong suit for me.”

And one can’t pay tribute to Mr. Henry without acknowledging his push to change the “alternative media” moniker to insert media, though he wouldn’t take all the credit.

“I would be remiss if I did not credit Dean Barile with the motivation and inspiration based on a talk we had at New York DM Days five years ago,” Mr. Henry said. “The insert media industry needs to grow up, and its membership especially among the broker/managers needs to pay back some of their dues in promotional activity.”

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