When Gloria Robbins left Walt Disney Co. as director of sales and marketing for the Queen Mary
and the Spruce Goose attractions to start her own direct response marketing shop in 1988, direct mail was even less glamorous -- and less profitable -- than it is today.
Robbins recalls the difficulty of getting Disney's roster shops to prioritize her direct-marketing projects. "Within Disney, with all its priorities, we'd be pushed to the back of the bus," she said.
Twenty years later, Robbins' shop, SMS in Santa Ana, Calif., counts Disney as a client. "More agencies are seeing direct in the forefront of trackable ROI in multichannel campaigns," Robbins said. "We're not a branding agency, but we've gone from ugly stepchild to a premier position."
SMS' survival was not a given, even for the irrepressibly positive Robbins. Creating her first direct mail pieces for the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum and other early clients, Robbins employed her two (then) teenage sons, her mother as well as the retired mother of her original partner, Kris Drummond, who had been the senior promotions manager of the Queen Mary
. (Robbins bought her out in 1994).
They stuffed envelopes and sent mail-order tickets from a downstairs bedroom and ran a 20-year-old labeling machine Robbins bought for $3,500 from a company that had long since retired it. Conference calls with clients were "faked" by having a partner pick up a phone in another room.
"I thought I would start the business with Disney," said Robbins, whose new business plan reverted to relentless cold calling. "Instead, I heard, 'Who are you again?'" Not above playing the woman- and minority-owned business card, Robbins laughs that she would even offer to fill out the client's compliance paperwork herself.
Six years later Robbins got Disney. And after three moves through strip-mall fulfillment centers, SMS operates out of an 82,000-square-foot facility and handles the likes of LG, Stremick's Heritage Foods and Kerns, among others. Billings are on target to exceed $10 million this year, she said. A milestone for Robbins, Lufthansa flew her team to Europe for a meeting alongside McCann Erickson.