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Wilen Group — Adapting To the Times

April 2007 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
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IN THE world of business, sometimes recognizing an unprofitable trend is as important, or perhaps more so, as spotting a lucrative one.

Take the Wilen Group, a family owned and operated company based on Long Island, NY. Founded in 1972 as a publishing firm from the basement of Richard Wilen’s house, the company quickly made a name for itself as a publisher for the cable television industry and an original vendor to the cable TV circuit. In fact, it produced the first HBO guide in 1973.

When the pay-per-view craze hit in the late 1980s, Wilen Group took the lead in producing booklets for that sector, as well. At its peak, the company churned out more than 12 million cable books that populated thousands of cable systems throughout the country.

But when the Internet age began to rear its head, it didn’t take Nostradamus to predict a change in the future for the printed TV guide.

“The transition was simple. It was either evolve or perish,” notes Darrin Wilen, son of the company’s founder and president of Wilen Group. “We were facing extinction. We specialized in the in-the-bill cable guide business, but then more clients were paying their bills through credit cards and not receiving a bill, or paying their bills online. In-the-bill messaging or marketing had matured, as well.”

The reaction has been equally appropriate and highly effective. The company evolved, bringing previously outsourced printing in-house, with a dedicated division—Wilen Press—based in Deerfield Beach, FL. Headed by Kevin Wilen, Darrin’s brother, Wilen Press recently added its third web offset press, a six-color Goss M-110 with in-line finishing capabilities that went live in February.

Sprouting New Wings

Wilen Media, based at the parent locale of Farmingdale, NY, has sprouted a new set of wings, taking its marketing messaging from bill insertable communications to another level as a vertically integrated agency, providing brand strategies, direct marketing, custom publishing, advertising, promotions, digital and Web database management, media planning and buying, and brand identity.

A new feature, W3, is a Web browser-based tool that allows users to log in, create and send creative on-demand, track progress and run reports related to multiple mailing campaigns.

What pleases clients most is Wilen Group’s evolution into a full-service, fully integrated marketing services provider. Wilen takes over at the beginning stages, all the way through providing consumer insights, marketing plan development, design, printing, fulfillment, logistics and data services.

“Naturally, clients were looking to send out messaging by direct mail,” Darrin Wilen says. “Plus, our clients have a lot more to say. So they were finding static space and needed to break out. Being able to use big pictures and effects was a natural extension for us. Because we vertically integrate, we’re able to provide one bundled price, which is a lot less than if customers go to a myriad of different agencies.

“When a customer needs a million direct mail pieces, we go from the initial creative to home delivery within days,” he adds. “That includes all design, logistics, printing, imaging and mailing.”

The company has come a long way since its days in Richard’s basement. At heart, it still provides marketing-based solutions for the entertainment industry, including cable television. But it also boasts an impressive client roster for the publishing and retail segments. And Wilen Press, originally positioned to address the needs of Wilen Media, has blossomed into commercial printing and produces catalogs, magazines, brochures, bill inserts and, of course, direct mail.

The growth is certainly reflected in Wilen Group’s vital statistics. The company has 200 employees, 130 based at the 90,000-square-foot facility in Florida, which recently garnered a new 25,000-square-foot addition. Combined sales exceed $40 million, which also includes WILopEN Products, a 2002 spinoff that provides specialty products for direct marketing and retail needs.

Now at the age of 10, Wilen Press doesn’t appear to be suffering from growing pains. With the new web press, Kevin Wilen notes the firm is in the process of incorporating Kodak Versamark inside/outside ink-jet print heads; previously, personalization capability was limited to the outside of the printed piece.

“Our digital output is more data-driven imaging, with the ability to address one-to-one marketing on a high-volume basis,” he adds.

What enables Wilen Group to be a true concept to destination provider is its ability to monitor mailed pieces through the use of PlanetCode, the USPS mail tracking service. Wilen’s real-time information allows customers to anticipate in-home delivery, which can be invaluable for response-driven campaigns that may require additional staffing for call centers.

The tracking system, as Yogi Berra might say, really works when it’s not working. A few days into a recent mailing, Kevin Wilen recalls, the printer noticed it wasn’t getting any scans from the post office. After a short investigation by the USPS, it was learned that the mail had been dropped off by the freight company, but had sat in a corner, untouched, at the post office. The USPS quickly moved the load through the mail stream and still made the in-home date.

Software Differentiator

The W3 software has been a real differentiator for Wilen Group, providing key statistical analysis for all who need to know within a given customer’s heirarchy. From projected in-home date, response rates and all other tale-of-the-tape information germane to a mailing campaign—or many campaigns—the real-time software “allows us to be more of a partner with customers,” Darrin Wilen explains.

He says the addition of mailing and database management came naturally. “With telemarketing, the Internet and spam filters, the clients had a natural progression to start direct marketing. But they wanted to get more bang for their buck, so the data management side was a natural extension.

“Our customers could find out which of their customers had a higher or lower propensity to buy. Once identified, we were able to focus our customers’ spending and marketing tactics on only those clients, and they were able to get much higher ROI with their print and marketing projects.

“The more we would do, the more success the customers have, the deeper we would go into (data). We helped navigate many of our client customers into data modeling and segmenting by leveraging more than simple demographic data. We hit them with convergence of demo and psychographic data that really helped get an extra lift in ROI.”

Managing growth in a chaotic environment will be the key to Wilen Group’s future. For a company that evolved when change threatened its very existence, that shouldn’t be a problem. PI

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