Letters to the Editor
Benson’s Fan Club
Your interview with Brian Kurtz [October 2007, “Direct Marketer of the Year”] was a great reminder of the influence mentors play in our lives, often without us even realizing it at the time.
Brian has been a mentor to many, as was his early mentor Dick Benson. A few weeks before the article was published, I had gone to search for Dick’s photo on the Web, and I was shocked and upset to discover that it was nowhere to be found.
How could someone so influential in our industry vanish so soon after his passing? This was a man who at any given time was continually on the phone with numerous marketers, always willing to give a tip, always speaking the truth whether the client wanted to hear it or not. (He was so straightforward that he never said “hello” or “goodbye” on the phone. He just got to his point and moved on.)
I sent a note to Dick two years after he had finished consulting for me at Sports Illustrated to thank him for all he’d taught me. I was at a key point in my career, changing to the software industry, apprehensively moving into a huge new job on an opposite coast in a city where I knew absolutely no one.
A few weeks later the phone rang at my new job, and there was silence at the end of the phone. And of course, I knew who it was. To my surprise, my curmudgeonly mentor simply wanted to say hello. Years later I realized that Dick’s brusque manner was due to nothing more than shyness (unless he was talking about direct marketing, which he knew so well).
Dick was generous to us all in his later years. And that’s the way the best mentors are. So, I encourage other readers to think of someone who’s influenced you, make a donation to the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation (www.the-dma.org/dmef) in his or her name, and tell your mentor why you did it.
And then, like Brian and Dick, seek out a younger colleague for whom you can become a trusted source of wisdom, advice and challenge.
It’s the least we owe our own mentors. Ultimately, our pictures disappear in the wind—but a legacy of mentoring and shared wisdom lives on forever in the lives of those we leave behind.
BAIRD DIRECT MARKETING INC.
After he built and sold Contest Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter of the day, Dick Benson went on to create the even larger University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter newsletter. By then, he had accumulated some 100 clients, most of whom were publishers. Children’s Writer, a client of mine for creative work, was one of them. Dick’s fee was $10,000 a year, including unlimited phone consultation but no written reports. As for meetings, “Come on down anytime, but don’t expect me to visit you.”
Dick had developed a unique business model: He was the unofficial U.S. Intelligence Center for Direct Mail with a vast network of clients, and was also one of its most successful practitioners. I had met Dick 12 years earlier at the office of a mutual client and had witnessed and experienced his legendary gruffness and monosyllabic responses. I was dumbstruck by the way he treated the client. But that was before I understood how limited and precious his time was to him, and how many pearls he had to bestow. I warned my colleagues, and we reviewed our questions carefully before we placed the conference call.
The voice on the other end said, “Yeah.”
“Hi, Dick. This is Prescott Kelly at Children’s Writer. I’ve got Bryan Judge and Mal Decker on the line, and we’ve got a few questions for you.”
After an awkward pause, we asked our questions and got replies as long as 11 words: “It’s test-worthy.” “Just run the numbers and you’ll see it can’t pay out.” “It didn’t work for me, but it might work for you.”
“Any other questions?” he asked. We said we didn’t have any more.
When we visited Dick on Skidaway Island, he was gracious and hospitable, yet characteristically brusque when discussing direct mail. But when we went to lunch, he opened up. And when he discovered that Prescott was a car buff and was familiar with the ins and outs of the Rolls Royce mark, he was almost loquacious. (He later imported a Rolls Royce from England.)
Dick Benson was elected to the Direct Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame long after he qualified for that honor. I don’t know anyone more deserving. His methodology and discipline in developing an invaluable body of knowledge is a treasure he left to all of us.
Mal Decker & Associates
Editor’s Note: Many of the lessons mentioned in the above letters can be found in Dick Benson’s book, “Secrets of Successful Direct Mail.” Republished by Boardroom Inc., it can be purchased from the TM Group Bookstore, http://bookstore.napco.com/tm/
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