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Singer Direct Marks 25th Anniversary: A Q&A With Fred Singer

Singer Direct is proud to announce the celebration of its 25th anniversary in business. The two founders, Sheila and Fred Singer, have witnessed revolutionary industry developments and growth since their company's inception in 1981. Recently, Jeff Holland, a vice president at Singer Direct, sat down with Fred Singer to discuss the company's first 25 years in business.

Jeff Holland: Tell me, Fred, how your career in direct marketing began.

Fred Singer: Prior to forming Singer Direct, I spent 15 years on the client/advertiser side of the business, working at various companies including Columbia House, which used to be known as Columbia Record Club, The Longines Symphonette and Berkey Photo. These experiences really gave me the insight to think and make decisions like a marketer.

JH: A number of our industry colleagues also began their careers at Columbia House. Do you stay in touch with any of them?

FS: Yes. Every year at New York DM Days I host a party called C.R.E.A.T.E. This is an acronym for Columbia Record Executives After They Exit. We meet, toast ourselves and chat about the old days.

JH: During those early years, while on the client side of the business — were you involved in insert media?

FS: Actually, Jeff, during the '60s and '70s insert media, as we know it today, was rarely used. For those mailers looking beyond direct mail in their customer acquisition efforts, there was only something called “miscellaneous” media. Few in the industry could really define it, and even less were savvy enough to understand it and make it work effectively. Consequently, most brokers and mailers stayed away from it. That's why it eventually became known as “alternate” media.

JH: Did you have any mentors during your early years in direct marketing?

FS: Yes. At Columbia, it was Robert Bartner, my boss. His favorite statement was, “If you can't figure (i.e. do the math), then stay out of direct marketing.” He taught me to fully understand the impact and subtleties of a P&L statement. He emphasized the importance, from both historical and futuristic perspectives, of getting a solid grasp of factors that make up the P&L statement. With his guidance, I quickly learned the importance of projecting results for future DM campaigns by using the most recent historical data.

JH: Let's talk about how and when Singer Direct got started.

FS: Although my wife, Sheila, was always asking me to start my own business, she was not prepared for that day when I came home from work and announced, “I quit my job and am about to start my own business — Fred Singer Direct Marketing.” At the time, we were living in New Rochelle, NY, we had 3 children (ages 13, 11 and 8), we had a mortgage, I was 37 and Sheila was just getting back into teaching. I told her that I needed her help and that she would have to end her teaching career. We set up our office in the kids' playroom in a relatively small house — just the two of us. On Feb. 21, 1981, we wrote our very first order for the placement of 60,000 Grolier inserts into the Fingerhut PIP. We were off and running!

JH: OK, Fred, you had been in the industry for 15 years, on the mailer side. What played a role in your early successes on the vendor side of the business?

FS: I was confident … and I was also lucky. Two people, who I hired when I was at Columbia Record Club, were now placed in key marketing positions at two major mailers: Steve Fishman at Grolier and Marty Breisblatt at The Franklin Mint. Grolier was using inserts in a limited way. Franklin Mint was not using them at all. Grolier only advertised in “vertical” media. I convinced Grolier to try a more general media approach, which had positive results. The Franklin Mint had numerous product lines. I convinced them to test three different items in various programs. One product worked, one was marginal and one bombed. But they were convinced that inserts could indeed work … and I had landed my second account.

JH: So, you're in a new business. You have a few clients and you're getting some orders. What else stands out about those beginning years?

FS: I was anxious … to say the least. My livelihood was dependent on the success of these few tests. I would phone the clients every day, just to see if any results were in. I can remember our excitement when we were told a test had some success and we would be getting a continuation. Initially, it was just the two of us — Sheila and me. Gradually, we saw our way to hire some “part-timers.” In 1985, we moved to a new house in Scarsdale. It was larger and afforded us more room for our office. We even had a separate entrance just for the office. No fancy furniture — just a few tables and some chairs. But, we had a business and it was growing!

JH: And both of you were “hands-on” business owners, dealing with just about everything from getting orders to sharpening pencils. Any amusing stories you can share?

FS: You'll appreciate this one. We had a sizable order from Franklin Mint that was being shipped to a lettershop for the Cosmetique package insert program. The trucker arrived at the end of the day when the lettershop was closed. Unable to reach anyone, he stopped off at a local pub for a few beers. Now, remember, this was in the days when there were no cell phones, so it was not easy to reach anyone at any given time.

While having a few drinks our trucker met this local guy and they became “fast friends.” The trucker explained his situation with the insert delivery and says he really has to return home for another delivery to a different area. His new pal tells him to drop the cartons off in his garage and he will make the delivery for him. Trusting soul that our trucker was, he did exactly that. The following day the inserts were delivered as promised. See, Jeff, there are some honest people in this world.

JH: Great story, Fred. Well, now your business is growing. When did you start to increase your staff?

FS: In April 1988, Marisa Calamari came to work for us. She relieved Sheila from some of the financial matters like processing orders and sending out invoices. Marissa really did all of the administrative work. She is still with us today as vice president of administration. In 1990, we had five people working for us and decided it was time to move to a “real” office. So, we found a small office, slightly larger than 500 square feet, above a store on North Avenue in New Rochelle. We doubled the square footage a year later and tripled it a year after that. The business was growing, we were adding to the staff and yet we were still sitting on top of each other. In 1997, we had 13 employees and desperately needed larger quarters. We moved to 700 White Plains Road in Scarsdale, our current address. We have since expanded to a much larger space and now have 35 employees plus a satellite office near Philadelphia.

JH: You started out as a broker, but Singer Direct now has a pretty successful management division. When did that start?

FS: We got into management in 1991. I hired Sandra Roscoe from American Baby, and before long the management division was able to stand on its own. Today, Sandra is a partner in Singer Direct, and the management division is an important part of our business.

JH: As I very well know, Fred, your two sons play a very active role in the business. When did they join the company?

FS: In 1992, the business took on more of a family flavor when my oldest son, Andy, joined the company. Today, he is the co-president of the company. My next son, Jeffrey, joined us several years later, and in 1999 he formed our Internet division. As the other co-president, he, along with Paul Thau, oversees one of our fastest-growing areas.

JH: So, you started out as a broker; you now have a management division and an Internet division. Anything else?

FS: About two years ago, we added a consumer package goods division that now works with some of the leading national brands. We're constantly creating new and unique opportunities for these clients. The problem is the guy who runs this division is always taking off to play golf.

JH: Good one, Fred. Why are you still so passionate about this industry and insert media?

FS: I like being able to completely immerse myself into each campaign. I try to get involved in all aspects of the campaign: the creative, the offer, the format and the product. With this knowledge, one just needs to develop a mathematical formula to determine how to increase the advertiser's results. I love the challenge.

JH: What marketers does Singer Direct work with today?

FS: Among our major mailers are Scholastic, Bose, Gevalia Kaffe, Guthy-Renker, Gerber Life, Custom Direct and Lenox Collections. Some of our larger managed properties are Doubleday Entertainment (formerly Bookspan), Bloomingdales by Mail, BMG Columbia House, 1-800-FLOWERS.com, Plow & Hearth, Fingerhut, Custom Direct, Discovery Movie Channel, Hanover House, Disney Movie Club, Heartland America and Taylor Gifts.

JH: Fred, what's been the overall evolution of insert media — starting with the early days until now?

FS: The two biggest advances since the early days of the 1980s are the increased development of insert media as a new customer acquisition channel and its acceptance by more and more companies to allow inserts into their own outgoing packages, catalogs and billing statements. Years ago, insert media, or miscellaneous media as it was called at that time, had limited acceptance among the mailers as it offered very few choices of programs. Most mailers were reluctant to test the media. They grew up on direct mail and understood its subtleties and nuances. In essence, they knew what to expect.

And, at the time, there were too few brokers who really understood insert media. The list brokers with the major accounts were really afraid to encourage their clients to test it. They were fearful about recommending something that was relatively new and untried, and something they did not understand. If results were poor, they would be blamed, and it could negatively impact their list business. Now, most every direct marketer has at least tested this medium, many with great success. More recently, the emergence of non-traditional direct marketers has helped fill all of the slots in our managed properties.

JH: What about the technology? How has that changed in the past 25 years?

FS: From a technological standpoint, I can almost laugh. There were no computers like we have today. There was no voice mail, fax machines, cell phones or anything else that we accept as standard communication tools for doing business today. The first copy machine our company had was not only previously owned but it produced “wet” copies, and we had to wave them in the air until they dried. Can you imagine standing at your copy machine today waving copies in the air until they dried?

When our first orders came in, I would go to my neighbor next door and use his IBM 5120 computer to input the orders one at a time. To run a “history” report, we would start running it at night just before going to bed. In the morning, the report was ready for our review. Initially, our insert orders were typed on typewriters one at a time. Now, our current system allows for an error-free upload of 500 orders at a time with one simple copy and paste.

JH: As for the future of insert media — well, the question we often hear is whether the biggest growth is behind us or yet to come.

FS: I think there are some terrific new opportunities on the horizon. Direct marketing, once called the “ugly duckling of Madison Avenue,” is attracting the interest of major advertising agencies. They are seeking information on “below-the-line marketing” for their prestigious clients. These are data-driven, quantifiable programs that include such areas as database marketing, direct mail, interactive services and, of course, insert media. It is the natural evolution of things, based on where we started.

JH: That's it, Fred. Anything else you would like to add?

FS: Singer Direct would not have the reputation and success it currently enjoys if it were not for our employees. Ranging from senior vice presidents to assistant account executives, they deserve the credit for learning Singer's marketing principles, coupled with their own thoughts, and then demonstrating their knowledge and skill levels of this industry to our clients on a daily basis.

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