“I Was Cable Before Cable Was Cool”

ted turner 3

Ted Turner is one of my heroes. My first encounter with Ted, or shall I say his persona,  was while driving through Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza en route to a national sales meeting for Rollins, one of the South’s true media giants back in the 80s. I glanced up from the taxi window at a towering 40 foot billboard displaying a bold declaration:

“I WAS CABLE BEFORE CABLE WAS COOL.” Signed, Ted Turner.

“Who would do that? Who would have the gall to think they invented a whole industry and publish their bravado on billboards scattered throughout their own home town?” I asked myself. A few years later I learned the answer. Only Ted would do something like that. Why? Because back in those days only Ted had the courage, insight and legitimate ownership rights to a field that would swiftly turn the entire entertainment industry on its ear.

In the mid-80s I temporarily left behind my executive sales career to stake my claim of fame and fortune in the direct marketing industry, a relatively obscure business back then simply known as direct mail (the ugly step sister to the glamorous advertising industry). My plan was to briskly hop three stepping stones–the first to the drab DM industry, then to the emerging cable business, then into the sexy world of entertainment advertising.

Little did I know that first stepping stone, direct mail, would one day become the mother lode of marketing, the true darling of today’s fast-morphing interactive, social media, direct response marketing industry. As luck (or fate) would have it, I was blessed to hire on as an Account Supervisor and assistant to the iconic Freeman Gosden Jr, one of the pioneers of modern direct marketing as we know it, and chief architect of the legendary 40-40-20 Rule (the de facto formula for direct marketing success).

For several years I was Freeman’s shadow. He took me everywhere–to the boardroom of Hilton Hotels, to Universal Studios executive lunchroom to the publisher’s penthouse at Architectural Digest. He even sent me to New York one time with the expressed purpose of meeting John Yeck, the brilliant copywriter and founding chairman of the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation.

Anyone who ever worked for Freeman owes him a debt of gratitude. He was brilliant, a mad scientist trapped in an ad man’s body. A simple glance of those piercing eyes over the rims of his reading glasses could set legions of AEs aflight. He was a tyrannical perfectionist, yet merciful to a fault when you cost the company $20,000 due to a simple proofing error or missed drop date. “How else are you going to learn?” he would often say to those of us mistaken-prone AEs who were moving at mach speed in the West’s  largest direct marketing agency.

To this day I have the utmost respect for those who have graduated to the fast-pitch league of social media, email marketing, “two-step” landing page strategies and the like from the hallowed halls of direct mail. Want to create the perfect order page? Take your queue from a well-designed reply card. Looking for the ultimate hook in a subject line? Search no further than a clever outer envelope teaser.

Note to hiring managers: On the lookout for the most talented direct marketers to help you win the war on branding and customer acquisition simultaneously? Hire direct mail specialists—the foot soldiers of direct marketing. You can never go wrong.

One day we’ll look around and see precious few of the founding fathers of direct marketing among us. Yet in my dreams I see a 40 foot billboard along the Santa Monica Freeway sporting a familiar headline in quotes…

“I WAS DIRECT MARKETING BEFORE DIRECT MARKETING WAS COOL.” Signed, Freeman Gosden Jr.

Except Freeman would never do that. First because he doesn’t own a billboard company. And second because he’s just too humble a guy.

Hats off to our direct marketing forefathers whose tried and true techniques help us serve clients in the digital world to their most strategic, profitable advantage.