Sailing around the world in a self-built, 50-foot Chesapeake Bay schooner might be a retirement goal for some, but not for Jim Sandino. The free-spirited executive already went that route years ago.
After his acceptance into five graduate schools in 1970, the managing director of agency Lowe McAdams Direct, wasn't sure what he wanted to do. Rather than choosing among graduate study in law, biology or theology, Sandino headed to Puerto Rico and taught SCUBA diving and prep school secondary English for 12 years. He took several sailing trips and built a boat that ultimately took him around the world in 1979.
During that period of seafaring life, he also bought a bookstore and implemented what today is standard fare: coffee menu, art shows and readings. “It was quite the place to go,” Sandino says of the store he began managing in 1975. “It is was one of the few places that sold The New York Times.”
Annual sales of the store totaled $400,000 when he began, but he grew the company to $4.5 million in annual sales in four years. “We had to learn marketing, but we had no money.”
The bookstore was Sandino's first successful business venture and led him to meet some interesting customers, among them the late Roberto C. Goizueta, the former Coca-Cola Enterprises chairman who died in October. After developing a friendship with Goizueta, Sandino found a career opportunity. “I discovered this business stuff was fun,” he says.
Lured to Atlanta in 1982 to work on a project for Coca-Cola's diet Tab product, Sandino got his start in direct response marketing. He devised a 90-day “shape up for summer” calendar insert that partnered Tab with a bevy of retailers and health and beauty manufacturers.
“We partnered with the others for the couponing and the program paid for itself,” he says. The 12 million-piece program helped Coke sell more cases of Tab that summer than previous seasons. His ingenuity, executed as a consultant for Coca-Cola, led to a one year stint at what is now Wunderman Cato Johnson, followed by more consulting.
“I went off on my own; like a lot of others, I was looking for my own Ginsu knife,” Sandino says, alluding to the knife set sold through direct channels in the 1970s. “What was really appealing about direct marketing was knowing whether it worked or not. Direct marketing, in general, is rooted in common sense.”
Sandino remained a free-spirited businessman for five years, traveling back and forth between Australia and Switzerland working on his own projects and special projects for Wunderman and other agencies. In 1990 Klemtner Advertising, an agency that specializes in medical and pharmaceutical clients, invited Sandino to join the firm that was being acquired by Saatchi & Saatchi. It was a turning point in his life. On his second day on the job, he met his first client, which happened to be spending $40 million annually on direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical products.
“Pharmaceuticals, more than any other products, are perfectly suited for direct marketers,” Sandino said. The nature of the accounts provided an added bonus for Sandino, who is interested in medicine and biology. He had gone through college as a pre-med student. After four years at Klemtner, however, the freedom bug took flight and he opened his own consulting firm specializing in direct marketing for pharmaceutical companies.
“I could pronounce polysyllabic words, and I had a few friends who were doctors,” he said about having an edge for the drug business. “My one disadvantage was that I didn't play golf.”
He built a solid roster of clients until Lowe McAdams lured him away in 1996 with an opportunity to be managing partner of a new agency, born when general advertising conglomerate The Lowe Group acquired the William Douglas McAdams. At Lowe Direct his accounts include Lamisil, a foot fungus product by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., East Hanover, NJ, and Xenical, a weight-loss treatment by Hoffman La Roche Inc., Nutley, NJ.
While some creative types might be challenged the product names, Sandino is more challenged by the management styles and business principles that seem to reside throughout organizations. Having the freedom to build the right team and having his team do the right thing are two important tenets for Sandino.
“The tough part has always been attracting the right talent and building the best account and creative talent,” he says. “I have a feeling for what will get people to respond.”
But whether Sandino is getting his account team or consumers to respond, he is set on doing it right. “If you are not responsible about your marketing you are not going to be successful. We are providing access to information that will lead to a desired action. A lead is not a lead unless it is an appropriate one. The only people you want to respond are the people who benefit from the product.
“If a direct program isn't providing a sound return then you are not doing anything for anyone. You are not doing anything for the client, you are not doing anything for the product and you are not doing anything for yourself,” he says.
“Doing” seems almost as natural to Sandino as being creative. With an eye for photography, which is evidenced through a number of bold, colorful action shots of sailing that hang in his office, Sandino seems to blend the right mix of creativity, strategy, management acumen and client skill. “To me the real creative guys are the ones who can work in a box and deliver a message with great clarity and cleverness. How well we do creatively is how effective we are in actually driving business.”
Clarity and cleverness are extremely important in the business of prescription drugs, particularly in light of industry regulations. Although the Federal Drug Administration's series of guidlines last August opened up direct marketing opportunities, the industry remains plagued by heavy restrictions on information ads can convey. Sandino played an active role in the hearings last year and says he feels that although the guidlines could use some tweaking, they are good overall.
“Companies need the right story and the right message that show we know how to treat consumers,” Sandino says. “The essential thing is that prescription drugs are not normal consumer products, they are not over-the-counter. The whole prescription process involves a whole medical ritual.
“We have to be very, very careful and have had to become experts in a lot,” he says. “The problem is the large agencies whose creative teams are used to selling products have not learned enough about the differences in direct advertising. The traditional pharmaceutical agencies don't know enough about consumer advertising to do a good job from that end.”