Kicking Off Belardi Wong's 20th Anniversary

As I sit on the train taking my daily commute into Manhattan, I flip open my laptop to get online. I get a glimpse of the looks from those seated around me as the voice on my speaker announces to all within five feet, “You’ve got mail.”  They are not looks of annoyance as I jolt one or two of them out of their morning doze, or the kind you get when you violate train etiquette as your cell phone rings and your conversation is too loud.  They are looks of surprise, amazement and bewilderment.  The look that says, “OMG, I can’t believe you are still stuck in the 20th century. AOL, really?”

But as I quickly get back to what I am doing, I smile and reflect a bit.  I think about the last 20 years and how much has changed, but also how much has not.  Twenty years ago, I would have looked over at my fellow passengers and seen their faces buried in newsprint — The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.  Today those are still very much the news sources of choice with recycling bins filling up as passengers exit their train each morning.  But, more often, the same news is now read on tablets or cell phones, skimmed from articles on CNN.com or Bloomberg.com or from the customized lists on Apple News or Google News.   

In 1998, I recall the dazed commuters staring out the train window, thinking about the day ahead, sipping a $.50 cup of coffee from the local market; vanilla or hazelnut the most exotic flavors of the day.  Today many of my fellow passengers practice the same routine, but it’s a $5.00 Starbucks cup in hand, filled with a smoked butterscotch decaf latte, a half-caf double cappuccino, or more than a dozen other java combinations that kick off their day.

In 1998, those long commutes to NYC were welcomed by some as novels from John Grisham or Danielle Steel provided a bit of an escape before beginning the hectic work day. I recall seeing colorful hardcover books scattered throughout the train, which often prompted me to pick one up at the local Barnes and Noble.  Mr. Grisham still releases bestsellers year after year, but today the intriguing covers are often hidden from the rest of us, 400 pages downloaded on a tablet or read on Kindles.  

As I think about the changing times I realize that it is not so much about what has changed, but about how we build and expand upon a foundation of what is consistent. News, coffee, books — these are staples. The real difference is in the variety of choices we have as consumers, and for those of us in business to market, service and deliver.       

I think back to when we first started our business 20 years ago: We were excited, nervous, hopeful and always confident that we would succeed.  Why?  We loved our work, had great relationships, and even though our business at that time was focused primarily on mailing lists, we knew we had something compelling to offer. More than that, we also had a vision for the future, one that built on what we already did best but would provide our clients with so much more.

One of our first clients was Williams-Sonoma, Inc.  As I rode the train each day back in 1998, I would often see a woman browsing the latest Pottery Barn catalog looking for design ideas, or gifts from Williams-Sonoma catalog of premium cooking gadgets. We knew how fortunate we were then to have the opportunity to work in partnership with great brands and innovators like Williams-Sonoma, Inc. We were excited to support, collaborate and even learn from them.  Over the next 20 years, there would be a lot of changes in our industry, driven by technology, the economy and even changing attitudes.  The opportunities to market and to service clients were like a Starbucks menu — so many options, so many choices.  Williams-Sonoma knew it, and so did we.  Catalogs were the thing back then, and still are very much today. The difference is it is just one slice of the pie: one of the options, one of the choices. Our services have expanded to include consulting, advanced analytics, creative, social, and digital marketing. Still, you cannot ignore the fact that almost 10 billion catalogs were mailed last year.  I am proud to say that we continue not only to be a part of it, but to help drive it. It is an amazing marketing tool built on a foundation of success, which has evolved over time; one that has online retailers jumping at the chance to launch into this space every day. New and emerging brands and long existing retailers have discovered the sustainability of what we always knew worked and still does! The difference is it is not the only part of the marketing mix — now it helps to complement and drive the rest.  It is these different channels working together that provide consumers with so many choices and businesses with so many options to drive brand awareness and sales. 

Growing and evolving a business is about knowing how and when to balance innovation (looking to the future), efficiency (having the resources to accomplish your goals) and customer intimacy (listening to what your customers need).  It is also about building on what is proven and what works.  Providing more choices, more options to integrate online and offline is our future.  At Belardi Wong, we are excited to be entering our next phase of innovation in digital marketing, measurement, new customer acquisition and advanced analytics. But, we are building on our core and recognizing what still works. This is what will allow us to take big leaps forward in our business.

As my train gets ready to pull into Grand Central Terminal this morning in 2018, I look over at the woman across from me: A 30-something professional who first shot me a look of disapproval when she heard my AOL announcement.  As I pretend not to notice her, I can see her still glaring at me.  She is flipping the pages of the latest Westelm catalog with Pottery Barn and a few others waiting in her lap. Yes, things have changed a lot in 20 years, but there is something to be said for what still works.