Bob Stone, a self-described “depression kid” who co-founded one of the great direct marketing ad agencies and created a standard industry text, died on Monday at age 88. He had been in ill health for some time.
The news saddened colleagues in Chicago and throughout the country.
“Bob Stone made his mark in business, academia and in the whole of the direct marketing community,” said Ron Jacobs, president of the Jacobs & Clevenger agency. “He was a leader, teacher, mentor and writer.”
An avuncular man, Stone loved sharing stories about the old days in direct marketing, and he did so in an interview in Chicago ten years ago. He started with his entry into the field.
An Illinois native, Stone went to night school at Northwestern University and chose a marketing curriculum.
“I needed one elective, so I picked sales letter writing, thinking that ought to be an easy course,” he said. quot;But I had a teacher named Cy Fraeley, from Dartnell Corp.”
That was a life-changing event. Fraeley taught the young Stone how to write targeted sales letters, and Stone used what he learned to conduct mail campaigns for his father’s surgical dressings company.
His next mentor was Homer Buckley, the lettershop owner who headed what is now the DMA and is widely credited with inventing the term direct mail. Stone met him at Chicago DM Club meetings.
“He was around 55 to 60 then,” Stone recalled. “He was a gracious man, interested in helping kids, and very handsome. I called him up and asked to see him. He became my mentor.”
Stone’s first real DM job was with the National Research Bureau, a newsletter publisher that sold primarily through its sales force. But the firm was hit with a manpower shortage during World War II, and Stone was brought in to start a mail operation.
“Within three years time, we went from nothing to the point where 70% of our total sales were by mail,” Stone said.
The lists? Some of them came from the Jim Mosley, the legendary Boston broker (“Mosley has the lists,” said a 1945 trade ad).
“The number and quantity of mailings were nothing like they are today,” Stone said. “Today you’re happy with a 1% response. In those days, it was 3%.”
And yet, “They didn’t have any method of removing dupes until the 1970’s. Alan Drey came up with the system of running one list against another.”
The agency business was also different from what it is today.
“There were a few mail order agencies, like Schwab & Beatty, Max Sackheim, Huber Hoge—strictly mail order. Mail wasn’t a big thing.”
Why wasn’t direct mail bigger?
“There were no commissions on mail,” Stone said. “This kept the major general agencies out for so many years. Then it evolved into direct marketing, and we got the big accounts. Suddenly the general agencies were saying, “What the hell’s going on”?
Stone himself co-founded an agency with Aaron Adler in the 1960’s: Stone & Adler.
“The objective was to be he first full-service direct marketing agency in the city of Chicago,” Stone said. “Aaron was with a small general agency. He was the DM arm, and he had a few accounts. I was running a record club and had a few accounts, so we put our accounts together and (billed) 125 hours in the first month. We dealt with all media. As for clients, first Aaron brought American Oil Co., and I brought Sunset House.”
Then came Polaroid.
“We approached them with an idea: That they could establish a separate profit center and sell cameras by mail, and also through syndication,” Stone said. “We got Polaroid all kinds of tests, most hugely successful. For them to sell 1 million $40 cameras was nothing unusual over a six-month period.”
On BTB side, “Hewlett came to us with a Project X—the first scientific pocket calculator. It sold for $395. Hewlett had a small sales force, accustomed to selling products from $20,000 to $30,000. The only way to market was direct mail. Within two years, they were doing over $30 million worth of business via mail order.”
Allstate was another account Stone introduced to direct marketing. “The agents fought it tooth and nail. But they could not cross-sell other insurance.” But he recalled that the trouble with the insurance business was that “the acquisition cost kept going up because the cost of mail kept increasing. Most people don’t realize that economics drive direct marketing. You always have to know what it costs, what the investment is to get a lead and how long it takes to get the money back.”
Stone and Adler sold the agency 1983, and it joined Wunderman as part of the Y&R network.
In 1974, Stone came out with the first edition of Successful Direct Marketing Methods, the various editions of which have sold 250,000 copies. The most recent editions have been co-edited by Ron Jacobs.
(Not that Stone was new to book writing: His first title came out in the late 1940’s.)
Who were the greatest direct marketers he ever met?
One was Robert Collier, “the first guy that really sold merchandise by mail,” Stone answered. “He came up with 10-day, pre-trial guarantees, all the things we use today. He was a merchandising genius.”
Case in point? “He had a bunch of black raincoats that he couldn’t sell worth a damn. Who absolutely has to have a black raincoat? So he got a list of undertakers, and sold out the entire stock. It was a lesson I never forgot.”
Stone added that Collier “was a shy man,” and that “I don’t think he had a lot of pride.”
What were Stone’s own worst mistakes? One occurred when a lettershop failed to insert circulars in 200,000 pieces of mail.
“That was a lot in those days,” he laughed. “They got the envelope, a four-page sales letter and order form, but no circular. The mailing did alright without the circular, but we fired the lettershop.”
Stone offered a theory about why direct marketing is now more respectable.
“Young people are so much smarter than when I was a young person,” he said. “Papers say kids can’t read, but the fact is if you deal with people in their 20’s and 30’s, you’re impressed by their intelligence. Marketers can no longer use a lot of bull to sell something. Most of these kids go to college, but when I graduated, I don’t think 20% went to college. You succeed by respecting that.”
Stone, a member of the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame, has won many industry honors, including the Edward M. Mayer and Charles S. Downes awards, and various Echo and Caples awards for creative excellence.
He is survived by his children: Jeff, Rick, Will, Larry and Karen McFadden.
Stone’s funeral will be held Saturday, March 3, at the Chapel at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, IL. Instead of flowers, the family requests that a contribution be made in Stone’s name to the Chicago Association of Direct Marketing Educational Association.