vm-people: Mr. Wunderman, after more than sixty years in the business it seems that you are more requested then ever. You are constantly touring the world. How does that feel for you?
Lester Wunderman: It feels good. It’s very exiting to see so many countries and so many places picking up on the things I do and have done for so many years.
vm-people: You started your career at the age of nineteen. If you look back, how has marketing changed ever since?
Lester Wunderman: Certainly the media have changed. Back when I was nineteen television was just maturing. There was no such thing as the Internet. Computers were somebody’s visionary idea for the future. Direct marketing has grown faster than general advertising. So all that I think has changed the industry.
vm-people: If you look back what was the specific context that made you develop the idea of Direct marketing?
Lester Wunderman: I was invited to speak to the marketing faculty of Harvard University and MIT in Boston. I was searching for something academic and theoretical to say to them, something that would explain what I was doing. It was in that first talk that I came upon the idea of Direct Marketing as a marketing philosophy that was different.
vm-people: How was your idea of Direct marketing perceived when you started to communicate it?
Lester Wunderman: That first talk was very well received. It was reprinted in the New York Times. And one of the senators of the United States government, the senator of the state of Indiana, entered it into the Congressional Record.
vm-people: How long did it take from that first speech until your idea reached “The Tipping Point”?
Lester Wunderman: It didn’t take very long. After one or two years our competition began to recognise and compete with what we were doing. But I think it took ten years before the general marketing community recognised that something very different was happening.
vm-people: If you compare your idea, your vision you had back then to nowadays would you say Direct marketing has made communication or marketing any better on a general basis?
Lester Wunderman: Well, in the United States more than 50 % of all communications could be categorised as Direct marketing. It’s growing everywhere. And the quality of messages has improved.
vm-people: Nevertheless in the last years there was a growing resistance among costumers against marketing messages. What went wrong?
Lester Wunderman: I don’t think consumers are resistant. I find they are as responsive as ever. Consumers are resistant to irrelevance. They are not resistant to anything that is relevant or helpful to them. The problem with the Internet is that is doesn’t cost anything to send an irrelevant message. So some people send messages without regard to their economic value.
vm-people: Viral marketing is meant to be a customer-friendly form of marketing. How familiar are you with this term? Does Viral marketing play a role in the Wunderman philosophy?
Lester Wunderman: I frankly admit I don’t know precisely what it is. We are not trying to infect people, we are trying to persuade them to make purchases.
vm-people: Basically Viral marketing is stimulating Word-of-mouth in social networks. Would you say planning word of mouth is possible?
Lester Wunderman: It always was. Word-of mouth was always the strongest form of advertising from the day that Adam and Eve had somebody else to talk to. I don’t know what’s new about it.
vm-people: A lot of people argue that Word-of-mouth messages have become more important, more powerful in the Age of Internet and Mobile.
Lester Wunderman: They have no more importance today than they ever had. Word-of-mouth was always a most important contribution. But it is something you can’t have a marketing plan for.
vm-people: Do you have an explanation why thought leaders in the field of Viral marketing like Seth Godin have referred to you?
Lester Wunderman: Well, I know Seth Godin. I was on his board. Seth is man who is completely facile with the English language. If he names it “Viral marketing” it is out of his marvellous imagination. But I don’t see anything new about is except the word. And the word comes from a brilliant word maker.
vm-people: Your work for the Columbia Record Club is mentioned in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Glawell, a book that provides the theoretical framework for Viral marketers all over the world.
Lester Wunderman: I like Malcolm. We’re friends. But again Word-of mouth has always been the strongest form of advertising . We always had ways encouraging it. Word-of-mouth just doesn’t sound as exciting as “Viral.” The theory is that an idea is so infectious that people pass it on to each other. I agree with it.
vm-people: What makes a Word-of-mouth-message relevant?
Lester Wunderman: Well, relevance is the key to good advertising. It doesn’t depend how it’s passed on. Something irrelevant is very hard to pass on. Something relevant for a person always passes on by itself. If you’re one of those persons susceptible to cold, warm coats recommend themselves. If you don’t see well, glasses recommend themselves. Relevance is to address the right message to the right person at the right time. If you eliminate anyone of those three factors, you won’t succeed. The right message to the right person at the right time – that’s the secret of marketing, it’s like Einstein’s formula. And believe me, no matter whether you call it “viral”, “infectious”, “bacterial” or “Word-of-mouth - it’s going to work.
vm-people: For what products or services is word of mouth relevant?
Lester Wunderman: Word-of-mouth can create a hit or destroy something. For theatre word-of-mouth is vital. Films, books television shows – they are not successfully advertised. They all depend on Word-of mouth.
vm-people: Would you say there are products or services that are not appropriate for Word-of-mouth-campaigns?
Lester Wunderman: No. I think, there are things you can advertise better than other things. It’s very hard for example to build up a customer base for a restaurant . It’s unaffordable by advertising. This is where Word-of-mouth or “Viral marketing” comes into play.
vm-people: In Viral marketing the seller addresses a few influential people at the beginning of a campaign, people who are meant to spread the message on to their peers.
Lester Wunderman: We always did that. We always had a group that we called Influentials to whom we sent messages. But we didn’t send them by virus. We send them by mail or by telephone. Or by Advertising. As I said, we didn’t infect people, we addressed them.
vm-people: Direct marketing is often associated with Viral marketing. In fact in Germany Viral marketing is seen as being a part of Direct marketing.
Lester Wunderman: It’s the opposite. Direct marketing is the business of addressing a communication from a seller to the buyer. Direct also means the lack of an intermediary. It’s trying to shorten the lines of distribution and communication. In Viral marketing the message is passed along from customer to customer through Word-of-mouth. There is no longer a direct buyer and seller relationship.
vm-people: The reason for the link that people make from Direct to Viral marketing may be that both strategies rely on a One-to-One communication. In Direct marketing it is a One-to-One Communication between the company and the customer. And in Viral marketing it is a One-to-One communication between two customers initiated by the company.
Lester Wunderman: You’re quite right, “Viral” is One-to-One.
vm-people: Actually the influential people are the media for a Viral marketer…
Lester Wunderman: I agree.
vm-people: Looking back on your career, would you say your idea of Direct marketing spread virally through Word-of-mouth?
Lester Wunderman: The first call I got when I opened my agency was from Leonard Bernstein, because he was a friend. I had a lot of influential friends, but none of them really helped me. If there was a viral process, I wasn’t aware of it. It was me being in communication with advertisers, me directly. Now, as I look back on it, I was helped a lot. There was a reporter in the New York Times who got to like us. And every time Wunderman got a new account he put it in the newspaper. Day after day after day. I never thought until this moment that this was Viral marketing. It was influential, and it was very effective. We gained respect instantly.