Bill Gohring

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at dennyhatch.com.

A number of stories in the Sunday newspapers made my few nape hairs stick straight up—the Wall Street crash and the election to name two.

But the worst was the story of Google shutting down e-mail service and leaving consumers and businesspeople to twist in the wind for hours, days and weeks with no recourse. It won't publish a phone number to a live person for help.

This is a case of IT people making marketing decisions, which can wreck a business.

It nearly happened to me when I was running book clubs at Meredith. I found rampant incompetence, made the necessary changes and saved the book clubs.

And then I got out.

A great deal of palaver comes out of business schools and think tanks about the need of the CEO to spend time with customers and respond to customers' needs.

Customers don't have needs; they have wants. And marketing people are in the business of creating wants, not serving needs.

This is the story of how 200,000 customers managed to rip off a bunch of stupid marketers.

The year was 1969. After a meeting with Jack Barlass, president of the Meredith Book Publishing Division and Bill Gohring, head of Meredith mail order in Manhasset, Long Island, I was hired to run book clubs at a salary of $15,000 a year.

It was my eighth job in nine working years since I got out of the Army.

On my first day at work in the Manhasset offices, I was handed a binder with a black pressboard cover. It was the annual report of book clubs for the prior years.

The bad news: The clubs had lost $250,000—a lot of money in 1968. My orders: "Fix this and make a profit."

The good news: Gohring told me that Meredith—with its massive magazine empire in Des Moines (e.g., Better Homes & Gardens) and legion of space salesmen—expected its various divisions to have expense accounts. With virtually no T&E in the mail order division, where we worked with computers rather than clients, it was incumbent on all executives to generate expenses just like every other division of Meredith. Therefore all lunches were to be expensed. We could eat anywhere—alone, with colleagues, outsiders or spouses—and charge it to the company.

I quickly acquired a taste for two- and three-martini lunches, gained lots of weight and had a splendid time with convivial company from noon to two every business day at the best eateries on Long Island's North Shore.

Best of all, the vodka anesthetized the perpetual pain in my gut.

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