Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline was launched in 1958 and quickly became one of the largest direct-marketing agencies in the world. The agency and its founder, Lester Wunderman, are credited with coining the term "direct marketing" as well as with inventing several techniques of the trade, including magazine response cards, free-standing newspaper inserts and direct-response TV spots featuring toll-free numbers.
Prior to founding WRK, Mr. Wunderman and his brother, Irving, owned their own agency, Coronet Advertising Service, in New York; they subsequently joined forces with a direct-mail specialist, Cap Pinkster. Mr. Pinkster and Lester Wunderman were key figures in the early use of comic books as an ad medium; thanks largely to their work, comics became one of the most important ad media during World War II, especially for Army recruiting.
The two brothers joined Maxwell Sakheim & Co. in New York in 1947. In 1958, they founded WRK with two other Sakheim employees, account supervisor Harry Kline and art director Ed Ricotta. The previous year, Lester Wunderman had helped found the Columbia LP Record Club, which became one of the new agency's first four clients.
WRK was one of the first agencies to focus on mail-order advertising, becoming the largest mail-order agency in the U.S. within a year of its founding. In 1961, it became the first direct-mail agency to be invited to join the American Association of Advertising Agencies, symbolizing the industry's acceptance of mail order.
New concept: "Direct marketing"
Lester Wunderman believed that mail order had to evolve into a new concept he called "direct marketing." He first used the term in public in 1961, forecasting that mail order would be replaced by direct marketing. His idea did not attract much notice until 1967, when he made a speech outlining his vision of direct marketing to a group of professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His tenets made their way into the trade press, and within a year, change was in the air. Reporter of Direct Mail, a trade publication, renamed itself Direct Marketing; the Four A's started a direct marketing committee; and Direct Mail Day became Direct Marketing Day.
WRK continued as one of the world's largest agencies in the field now known as direct marketing. Its partners began to seek a buyer to provide the agency with more resources and give it access to the largest advertisers, while allowing it to remain autonomous. They ultimately decided on Young & Rubicam, which purchased the agency in 1973 and remained its parent into the 21st century.
Through the 1990s, WRK continued as a major direct-marketing specialist, shared such Y&R accounts as Ford Motor Co., Philip Morris Cos., Xerox Corp., AT&T Corp. and Taco Bell. One key moment in the evolution of direct marketing was when General Foods Corp., a large mass-market advertiser, introduced Sweden's leading coffee brand, Gevalia Kaffe, to U.S. consumers through an upscale direct-mail subscription service developed by WRK.
In the late 1980s, WRK changed its name to Wunderman Worldwide to reflect its international capabilities; one of its first global accounts was American Express Co.'s Optima Card. In 1992, Y&R merged Wunderman with Cato Johnson Associates, a sales-promotion agency. The new entity, Wunderman Cato Johnson, specialized in both direct marketing and sales promotion
By 1998—the year Lester Wunderman retired at age 77—WCJ was offering what it called "integrated solutions" to its clients, providing database marketing and Internet-based services as well as traditional direct-response advertising. Direct marketing still represented 75% of WCJ's $2.14 billion in revenue, and the agency maintained a vibrant business in infomercials, telemarketing and mail order.
Y&R acquired Capital Consulting & Research in 1998 and folded it into WCJ, giving the agency additional consulting services, branding capabilities and database marketing expertise. In 1999, WCJ underwent a restructuring, closing some of its international offices and laying off employees. The intent was to transform WCJ from a direct-marketing and sales-promotion agency into a full-service customer relationship company.
The reorganization culminated in the merger of WCJ with Knowledge Base Marketing, an e-commerce and database company acquired by Y&R in 1999. The new company also received a new name, Impiric. As part of its repositioning, Impiric launched a worldwide research and development unit called Marketing Lab and entered into strategic alliances with Digital Impact, an e-marketing services provider; EchoMail, an e-mail management service; and ValueFlash.com, an Internet direct marketer, among others. The agency offered integrated marketing solutions through 80 offices with 4,000 employees in 40 countries.
The Impiric name was dropped in 2001, and the company renamed itself simply Wunderman. In 2003, Wunderman said it would merge its media buying and planning services with Mediaedge:cia.