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#TBT: Oddly Modern Marketing in 1960s Rural Wisconsin

By Martin Kihn | August 13, 2015 | 2 Comments


I recently stumbled across an article from the December 1961 issue of a magazine called Business Automation (courtesy of the superfun retro-modern blog ModernMechanix). It blew what little of my mind is left since I took up trying to keep up with developments in advertising and marketing technology.

Provocatively titled “Faith, Hope and Computer,” the article featured a photo of an office building at the top of the page with the amusing (to me) caption:

“Society of the Divine Savior Data Processing Center”

Written for geeks rather than believers, the article starts with a bang: “Aided by the most sophisticated use of ultra-modern electronic data processing equipment, the world’s most efficient, most effective …” — but hold on a second! Pause tape. Rewind. The The “WORLD’S MOST efficient, MOST effective” [block caps and bold type used for incendiary diabolical effect] … high praise indeed from the piece’s author, Donald Young.

Young backs his bold assertion up by showing us pictures of the latest IBM 650 magnetic tape system and the Addressograph-Multigraph Series 900 data processing system, with its 943 processor that features, of course, “fully-transistorized arithmetic and logical devices in modular form.” (And costs $12,000 a month to lease.) The system is blazing fast, able to read 250 to 750 cards per minute and (through a its A-M 950 offline stylus printer) output 60,000 mailing labels per hour, while an A-M 960 high-speed line printer churns out 600-900 lines per minute of customized letter appeals. (Anybody else smell an IBM press release here?)

And he slips in: this operation is “the first of its kind in the country.” In other words, the Catholic Society of the Divine Savior housed the country’s most sophisticated [something] in the early 1960’s in an anonymous office park in rural Wisconsin. Wow. What?

You saw this coming: it’s a direct marketing operation. An outfit that claims “an unbelievable 80 percent response.” You read that right. How? Well, Young says the mission’s database:

“… is not a mere directory of names and addresses, but a carefully-controlled collection of ‘personal histories’ on every one of their past benefactors. Recorded and maintained on magnetic tape, each of these histories contains 341 characters of coded information on the donor, including when he was last solicited, how long it took him to respond, the type of appeal to which he responded, the size of his contribution, his total donations during the year …” etc.

Just wait till they start including women [sexist language “joke” – ed.]. But seriously: the mission’s technique will ring a tower of bells to those of us in the direct marketing business. It hasn’t really changed at all.

The data-center’s director, Father Alfred Schmitt, boasts like the oiliest Google rep:

“By electronically sorting through our files, we can pick out a choice mailing list comprising names of donors whose past histories indicate that they will be receptive to the type of appeal we have in mind.”

Trigger-based marketing! CRM! Dare I say it: segmentation modeling! It’s all there, fifty years ago. Right down to the illusion of personalization: both the monthly reminders to non-respondents and thank-yous to donors are put out by “automatic typewriters which produce ‘personally’ typed ‘thank you'” notes, which are then signed by … well, actually, “Father Alfred’s ‘personal’ signature is affixed to each letter by one of three Autopens.”

Aside from the scale and speed, this is a fully modern Direct Mail (DM) empire with what’s got to be the world’s-best-ever response rates (26% for a first touch!). And I’m struck — once again — that no matter how unique, revolutionary and special we think we are, we aren’t. We just aren’t. It’s all happened before. We are building on a lot of stuff we didn’t make up and deserve no credit for. What do you think? @martykihn

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  • Great read! Good reminder that business goals haven’t changed that much…it’s the tools we use to achieve success that have changed. Maybe all those years of Catholic school in my early days helped shape me into the data-driven marketer I am today :-).