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Robbins Goes From Disney to Direct

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LOS ANGELES 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.

And her now adult sons -- one is president and COO, one is vp of operations -- are two of 42 employees, including a legitimate creative department headed by Jeffrey Love, who came from his own Love Agency in Atlanta to head up the SMS design group.

Robbins said her hardest lesson in starting a business from scratch happened after 9/11. "I got used to focusing on travel/leisure, high tech and healthcare," she said, "and that's where we put all our business-development efforts, because frankly clients hire category experience."

But SMS had become so narrowly focused that it lost 52 percent of its business overnight. "We were not being broader in our approach until then," she said. "What we discovered is that in direct response the principles can be applied to any client's business. As long as you are focusing on the art and science, DR can be applied to any category."

That art and science, Robbins said, comes down to a 40-40-20 percent formula of the importance of mailing-list development, the offer itself and the creative used to convey the message. "The art is marrying the right creative to the right audience," she said. "We can approach any clients if we stick to our motto: Deliver on time, on budget and overachieve expectations."

Robbins also learned that economic downturns "are the time to step on the sales and marketing gas. Most companies pull back, which makes it a great time to be investing in your company, if you really believe yourself and your business. The payoff can be huge."