Direct Marketer of the Year: Brian Kurtz, executive vice president, Boardroom Inc.
March 30, 1981. To the world, this was the day that John Hinckley, Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, just 70 days into his first term. To the direct marketing industry, this was the day that Brian Kurtz stepped through the doors of 500 Fifth Ave. at 42nd St. in New York City for his first day at Boardroom Inc. (then known as Boardroom Reports Inc.).
For the few people who don't know Kurtz-and I do mean few; he's one of the most well-connected executives in the direct marketing industry-this job was not, as one might expect, in Boardroom's marketing department. Rather, Kurtz started his career as a list professional, something he firmly believes gave him an edge in understanding the intricacies of developing and selling products via direct channels. His knowledge of audiences ahow to sell to them has helped the privately held, family-run publishing firm's stable of products grow to include six print newsletters, with a combined circulation in excess of 1 million, and a whopping 36 book titles, which account for more than 2 million additional customers.
But Kurtz will be the first one to say that any success he's achieved is a direct result of hard work, yes, but also the education he's received from some of the best business people in direct marketing. He has devoted his career to becoming not only the ultimate student of direct marketing but also to the principles that drive business relationships, many of which he gleaned from his mentor of all mentors, Martin (Marty) Edelston.
Edelston is the founder and chairman of Boardroom Inc., and the heart and soul of the business. His passion for learning, his emphasis on efficiency and his devotion to people-both inside and outside of Boardroom-provide a compass for every activity at the company. After 26 years working for Edelston, it's no surprise that Kurtz has embraced these attributes, too, but in his own way.
Like All Good Marketers, Kurtz Started With a List
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University in 1980 with a degree in English, Kurtz naturally began prospecting for jobs with publishing companies, which is how he landed his first job with a play publisher. But it was merely a blip on his career radar, as he was approached not long after by a headhunter who had been successfully finding talent for a scrappy, young newsletter firm called Boardroom Reports Inc. The job the headhunter had in mind for Kurtz: list manager. "You could have knocked me over with a feather," recalls Kurtz. "If I could have told you what list management was in 1981 ... nobody I knew [had any idea] what it was. And while there were more in-house list managers back then, there still weren't that many."
And yet after meeting Edelston and other key people at Boardroom, Kurtz could see that a job in this company might lead to something bigger. "When I went to Boardroom, the thought was that eventually I would move into the editorial area. I figured, ‘Let me get into the door here, it looks like a great, cool company.' What appealed to me was that it clearly was a young, dynamic company ... and after meeting Marty, who was so entrepreneurial and so creative ... I said, ‘I'll take this job in list management and see where it leads,'" he says.
A year passed as Kurtz learned the ropes of list management and marketing. And then a junior spot opened up in the editorial department at Boardroom, the type of break for which Kurtz had been waiting. He went to Edelston and expressed his interest in changing departments. Kurtz remembers, "I'm what, 23, 24 years old, and Marty looks at me and says, ‘I think you have a nose for marketing. I think that you should stay on that side of the business.' It was crazy, because here's this tremendous guy telling me that I'm really good at what I'm doing, and he sees a better career opportunity for me if I stay in list management."
Edelston was certain of his advice, and says now, "He came [to Boardroom] at the right moment, and he applied his great intelligence-and he's very intelligent-to marketing rather than English. At first, he wanted to be on the editorial side, but I thought he could do better. He worked [in lists and marketing], and he learned everything."
At the time, however, Kurtz did not realize how advantageous it would be to learn direct marketing from the list side of the business. Rather than coming strictly out of circulation, with a head for numbers, or out of marketing, with a focus on media or creative, he got the best of all worlds by being immersed in lists. After all, you cannot market a list without understanding the circulation and marketing techniques that convince customers to respond to various promotions.
"It all started with being a list manager," Kurtz says, "and I'm really proud of that fact. I think it was a great way to come around."
Learning the List Business
For a young list manager, what better teachers could one ask for than Mike Manzari, then with The Kleid Company, and Dave Florence, founder and chairman of Direct Media? "Whenever I had any question about what I was doing on the management side, I knew I had two guys I could call and they would give me the legal argument, the ethical argument, how I could rework certain things, what was acceptable and what was not acceptable. I think without them, I wouldn't have gotten past step one," Kurtz recounts.
But the biggest lesson he took away from his interactions with them, as well as from Edelston, is the importance of paying close attention to what's going on around you in your industry.
"For instance, when I went to conferences early in my career, I would go to the booths in the exhibit hall and spend time talking to other list managers. Now most list managers wouldn't spend any time with other list managers; they would only talk to brokers," he notes, because that's who rented their list files. But through his mentors, Kurtz learned he could be more successful by widening the scope of intelligence he collected. "I talked to brokers, too, but I also wanted to see what my competition looked like. I wanted to see what some of them might be doing that I could incorporate into my own repertoire of sales techniques. And, interestingly, I realized early on that the brokerage and management community were so intertwined that the list manager of today could be the list broker of tomorrow and vice versa," he explains.
In addition to soaking up more perspectives, Kurtz also began honing the networking skills that have played a significant role in his career.
The Mentoring Continues
Just as he expanded his circle of experts on the list side, Kurtz sought the insights of every consultant on the Boardroom payroll. "And when he couldn't meet with them," says Edelston, "he read their books. He's read about every direct marketing book that's out."
One of the consultants he did meet with extensively was the late Richard (Dick) Benson. Certainly, there have been many incredible people who have contributed to the advancement of direct marketing-but Benson is a legend. He started Benson-Stagg, the first direct mail advertising agency, and was the circulation mastermind behind the launches of Smithsonian, Southern Living and Psychology Today magazines, as well as Boardroom's Bottom Line/Personal.
"One day with Dick Benson is a whole college education," says Edelston.
And so the mountain went to Muhammad, as Kurtz describes his first meeting with Benson. He and Boardroom's circulation director would travel to Benson's offices and then spend eight hours going through their marketing plans; they would ask questions, and the guru would rattle off answers based on his experience.
Two main points stick with Kurtz from his first visit. "I couldn't believe how much the guy knew. He had been in the business for 50 years, and it seemed like he remembered every test he ever made. So if you asked him about an idea, he would say something like, ‘Well, I tried that in 1969 and in 1972, and this is what happened. Even though it didn't work for me, I think you should try it.' He was never closed-minded, but he was able to have a frame of reference that was unlike that of any other person I was able to deal with," marvels Kurtz.
Second, Kurtz remembers asking Benson at the end of the day, "How do you know so much?" He continues, "I'll never forget this because I use it as a concept all the time with people. He looked at me and took his thumb and his index finger and he put them maybe two inches apart, and he said, ‘I know everything about this much.' The idea of being a jack-of-all-trades versus knowing everything about something was a really interesting concept to learn early in my career. And as I spent more time in the industry ... I didn't want to try to be a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And you could always move your fingers out a little more, go out four inches, six inches, maybe 10 inches ... knowing everything about whatever this much is, was a great concept. That's who Benson thought he was."
The other Boardroom consultant who influenced Kurtz's approach to direct marketing is another circulation wizard, Gordon Grossman. While at The Reader's Digest Association, Grossman pioneered many firsts in direct marketing: He was the first person to use regression analysis, mass personalization and a sweepstakes in direct mail campaigns-techniques that are all standard practice today. It was Grossman who convinced Kurtz and Edelston they needed to invest in the database marketing infrastructure to handle analytics such as modeling and segmentation. Kurtz remembers, "Gordon sent us a memo right around when I hired him in 1989 or 1990, which contained a comment like, ‘If you're not in database marketing, Brian and Boardroom, you're out of business in 10 years.' It was like getting scared straight."
Kurtz gives credit to Grossman for helping Boardroom become a state-of-the-art database marketing operation, and also to Edelston for seeing the value this investment would deliver in the future.
The mentor who Kurtz calls his "judgment consultant" was none other than Adolph Auerbacher, a top executive from publishing giant Meredith Corp. Two of Auerbacher's dictums are balanced against every business idea Kurtz considers:
1. Follow the anecdotal evidence. "I guess it's in the same genre as Denny Hatch's and Dorothy Kerr's ‘steal smart' concept. The idea of following the anecdotal evidence, putting together the puzzle that's right in front of you ... there are so many clues out there that tell you what direction to go in and what products to launch. This is so important for a marketer," Kurtz explains.
2. Where does the money flow? "In my opinion, this should be raised at every brainstorming meeting. Not to say you have to make money on everything, because you might want to do something altruistic. But you should be asking, ‘How does this idea work? Who gets what? Will everyone be happy? Is this something I want to spend my time on?' And if you just ask the question, ‘Where does the money flow?' it changes the discussion from a straight brainstorming meeting to an action meeting. If more people asked that in the late '90s, about where does the money flow, I have a feeling there would have been fewer bankruptcies in the dot-com world," he reasons.
The Man Who Exemplifies ‘Giving Back'
If you wanted to learn about postal issues or the ins and outs of lettershop work, Lee Epstein was your first phone call when he ran MailMen Inc. in the 1980s and 1990s. But he also meant a great deal more to the direct marketing industry, having been a loyal supporter of education programs through industry initiatives and the development of his own foundation, Direct Marketers Gateway Inc. (of which Kurtz was a board member and helped with its merger with the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation).
Kurtz says, "Lee taught me the most about what it means to give back. He never turned down a meeting with somebody, especially if it was career-oriented. Someone would call him, a kid out of school or someone who had been in the business for 20 years ... even if he had nothing in terms of leads or jobs, [he'd make time for them].
"I'm the same way. I hate putting this in an article-because now it means everybody is going to send me their resumé-but I keep a folder next to my desk with a stack of resumés. You know how people say, ‘I'll put your resume on file' ... I really do! And I have a file of job descriptions; people call me about a job opening, and I immediately say, ‘Send me a print-out of the job description' so I can keep it in that same folder. Then I have a place to go when people come to me for help, as opposed to saying, ‘I'll think about it.' Now it doesn't always work out, but I've always made the time to help."
And that, Kurtz underscores, is the ultimate lesson from Epstein: You can always make the time. Sooner or later, we're all dead, he reasons, so what else is there to do in this life except to make contributions and connections?
Lessons From Marty
Of course, Kurtz's daily mentor, Edelston, also imparted quite a few business and life lessons of his own, several of which echo this overarching concept of connection and contribution.
"Marty is famous for what I'll call ‘nice notes,'" says Kurtz. "He knows all the things I'm into: baseball umpiring, a loyal Rutgers alum, where my kid goes to college, that I'm a big tennis player. So he's always sending me stuff on those topics. There's no reason not to do that with everybody in your life, all the time."
And Kurtz stresses that the thought process behind this practice is not one of self-interest. Sure, he acknowledges, people like to do business and support those contacts with whom they feel close. But you're not going to make the time to stay in touch year-round if you're always looking to see what you get back for your effort.
"When I know that during the work week I've done four or five things that made a few people in my life's day, that's a pretty successful week. You add that up over a whole year, the amount of people you're responsible for ‘making their day' on a particular day because of what you sent them or what you connected them with ... I can't think of a better way to live life," he affirms.
The "win-win" might be talked about as the new paradigm in business, but Kurtz says Edelston has been practicing it for years in all of Boardroom's dealings. Pair this with another Edelston philosophy, "There is no ‘No,'" and you've got one unbeatable combo for driving a business forward. Kurtz notes that at times it can be frustrating working past what seem to be stalemates, but he's learned "You can always find the ‘Yes,' although you might have to rework the terms in some way."
One final key point Kurtz has taken away from his time spent with his first mentor: "The only things worth talking about are the things you can't talk about." What this means, he explains, is that someone should always play devil's advocate in business development meetings to make sure you're not going down the wrong path merely to appease the team. "If there's something that's really obvious and that needs to be discussed, get it discussed. If you don't talk about it, you're going to regret it later on," says Kurtz.
Rewarding Boardroom Milestones
It's safe to say that direct marketing has evolved dramatically from Kurtz's first decade in the industry to his second and the start of his third. While Boardroom's overall business hasn't changed, it has kept pace with the march of time by testing all means available by which to market its products efficiently-from direct mail and package inserts, to space ads, FSIs, radio and more recently, infomercials. "We always say there's not a medium we didn't like. I still take a lot of grief for testing the back of ATM receipts once. It ended up working for somebody I guess, but not for us, I can tell you," Kurtz laughs.
Leading the company's move into infomercials is something he's found satisfying-one, because it's been a big success, and two, because it gives Boardroom another strong channel outside of direct mail.
Looking back at the impact the Internet has had on direct marketing, Kurtz says he's glad the company always has asked Auerbacher's favorite question, "Where does the money flow?" when it came to online ventures. "We've not spent a lot of time throwing good money after bad. We have a great online program with e-newsletters and people buying on a regular basis. While it's not the highest percentage of our business that I'd like it to be, it's pretty good and [it's not draining capital away from other programs]," he says.
Of course, in working with consummate experts like Grossman and Benson, some big breakthroughs were achieved that Kurtz says took Boardroom's growth to a new level. He credits Grossman with helping the company convert its book sales division to installment billing. It was a calculated risk, taking on some bad debt. But with 70 percent to 80 percent pay-up, Boardroom got a much bigger business and customer file.
And he's particularly proud of his role in expanding the book division. Again, Grossman gave the initial push in telling Kurtz that Boardroom could do better if it moved beyond publishing just its own content. Before this venture, Kurtz says, "Most of our best-sellers were greatest hits of our newsletters: "Book of Inside Information," "Big Black Book," "Bottom Line Yearbook" and "The Book of Business Knowledge."
"We weren't paying a royalty, and it was a great business to be in. But Grossman's comment convinced me to spearhead a program that went out looking for trade books that we could turn into direct mail books. The trade book business was so archaic in how they looked at sales-if they sold 30,000 books it was a best-seller, where if we didn't sell 100,000, it was a book we'd probably drop."
Doing his homework, Kurtz realized that if he and his marketing team could find the right titles in the right categories, turn them into bigger hardcover books by adding more content, get the company's state-of-the-art database working for them, tack on premiums to improve the offer and get its top copywriters to develop direct mail packages to sell them, then it could create an entire new line of products.
"Now it just so happens," he explains, "that our greatest hits books are some of the best books we sell. But we've had some amazing winners that are written by other authors that were once small trade books."
Having touched on the subject of direct mail creative, Kurtz immediately emphasizes the significance of settling for nothing less than top-notch copy and design. "We've always been committed to the best creative, but over the last 20 years we've even committed more money and more resources to making sure that our copywriters and designers are the best in the industry. We don't cut corners because of one of Benson's comments to me a long time ago: ‘The best package is the best package.' The corollary to this is that breakthrough creative can solve a lot of ills. If you've got a piece of breakthrough creative, you can get through a lot more tough times than you can with mediocre creative from B copywriters."
Of course, bringing in the best consultants, copywriters and other support services is an Edelston legacy that Kurtz and Boardroom will carry on-after all, it's the philosophy on which the company was founded. "All of our newsletters are based on going to the expert to get the information that the consumer needs. We run our direct marketing the same way. It's very consistent with who we are as a company and what we produce. If I want to find out about what's state-of-the-art in automatic renewals, I'm going to go find the expert in the industry-and if I have to hire them or pay them, I'm going to do that, too," Kurtz says, adding, "that's probably what's kept me at Boardroom for 26 years ... we're very committed to what we're doing."
The Ultimate Compliment
Due to his achievements and his dedication to helping others find success in the industry, Kurtz's contributions have been acknowledged many times. To name a few, he's been inducted into the Direct Marketing Association's Circulation Hall of Fame and received its List Leader of the Year Award, and the Direct Marketing Club of New York has recognized him with a Silver Apple. These honors are both humbling and deeply appreciated, as he finds it amazing to receive recognition for work that already is enjoyable and so gratifying.
But of all the accolades he has garnered in his career, there is one that holds a special place in his memories. Going back to his first visit with Dick Benson, Kurtz remembers:
I'm down there after being in the list business for three or four years. I really caught on fast, learned the business really well and was living lists every day. I'm with the marketing director ... so throughout the day, I kept my mouth shut for the most part. But every once in a while, Benson would ask a question that had to do with lists, and I always was able to answer it. Not because I'm a know-it-all, but because that's what I was doing all day, and I did know "everything about that much" in my area. At the end of the day-I'll never forget it for the rest of my life-Benson (who was an intimidating guy for a lot of people) looks at me and says something like, ‘Brian, I didn't know you before today, but frankly I'm impressed.' I was done, I could have retired at that point.
Many years later, Kurtz got permission from Benson to add an asterisk to the end of the legend's most famous quote, "No one spends enough time on lists," that would make Boardroom the exception. "He gave me permission verbally. I don't have it in writing, but he absolutely said I could do that. To me, that was a proud moment, and also part of watching our program grow," says Kurtz.
Mr. Kurtz Goes to Washington
For someone so heavily influenced by his mentors to give back, it was a natural outcome that Kurtz would one day lend his support to the industry in which he has been so successful. When trying to decide where he should volunteer-government affairs, education or ethics-he approached Lee Epstein who convinced him to get involved in all three. "While it sometimes wears me thin, I don't think I'd want it any other way," Kurtz affirms.
On the subject of government affairs, he stresses, "Everyone should be much more involved in the things that can put them out of business." He ticks off the threats to the industry: do-not-mail, privacy issues, postal rate hikes, list rental regulation and more. Excessive legislation in any one of these areas could change the direct marketing business forever. "To stand by and hope that it doesn't happen or that someone else will get involved on our behalf is not acceptable," Kurtz states.
Working with congressional representatives has turned out to be more than fighting the good fight. It's been an education in its own right. "Every congressman and senator-even if they're in office for a long time-have staffs that change quite a bit, and the new assistants don't understand the new issues they might be involved in ... They don't know the history of the issue, so we have to go in and reeducate them. There's no rest for the weary. If you take a rest, you could lose your momentum on an issue with a particular congressman who could make or break the legislation down the road," Kurtz explains.
In addition to getting their issues in front of their government representatives, Kurtz also encourages marketers to understand how committees affect the legislative process, determining which key congressmen and congresswomen are on the committees that oversee different aspects of business that affect the direct marketing industry.
When it comes to education, Kurtz has put some sweat equity into his commitment, having taught a full semester at his alma mater in 1989. And he continues to devote time as often as possible to industry speaking engagements and teaching opportunities. He firmly believes that the daily practitioners of direct marketing will be doing the industry a disservice if they do not lend their insights and talents to the academicians charged with training the next generation of direct marketers.
"We want to attract the best and the brightest to this part of the industry," he says, "and to do that, I don't think the people in the academic world will have the experience and on-the-job training ... given the nature of our business, which is very practical."
Rounding out Kurtz's industry service is a seat on the Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) Committee on Ethical Business Practice, a group that helps self-police the industry both by initiating membership action against offenders as well as working with government agencies to address extreme behavior.
"What we do on the ethics committee at the DMA unfortunately is only the tip of the iceberg, but if you don't do something, you can't complain later on," he states.
Direct Marketing's Appeal
Having spent virtually his entire career at a company that sells all its products through direct channels, Kurtz undeniably has been bitten by the direct response bug. When asked what about direct marketing has kept him in the game for close to three decades, he responds, "Clearly it's the feedback. After 26 years in direct marketing, it's hard to talk to anybody about general advertising or public relations or anything that's not measurable advertising. I don't like to come off as a direct marketing snob ... but that is what kept me in the business, being able to have metrics that tell me if a campaign was a success."
And then he pauses for a minute-thinking, no doubt, about his mentors-before adding, "Plus, there's this whole heritage of the mail order business that is so cool. Direct marketing has been around forever, and I just love the history of direct marketing. It's so rich, and it's so packed, mostly, into the 20th century. It wasn't that long ago that we were doing things primitively, and now we're doing them at a state-of-the art level. To have lived through that ... to leave this industry would be a crime. It would almost be like if I left, I would be arrested for not filling out my time."
Spoken like a true direct marketer, always excited to see what the next test will reveal.