Insert Man

Class of ’54 | “Clevelander, 25, Clicks With Salesbags Idea,” reads the headline for a story from the business and finance section of The Cleveland Press of August 14, 1957, about how young Leon Henry W’54 “conceived the idea of using space on grocery and drugstore bags to promote products.”

Fast forward a half-century and Henry’s initial $1,000 in capital has blossomed into Leon Henry Inc., which employs more than 30 people and which he runs with his wife and business partner, Thelma. His simple marketing idea—“find a given marketing situation and see if there is an opportunity for another marketer to partnership for mutual profit”—has mushroomed into a major, though largely invisible, advertising format. Insert media is the term coined by Henry and others to describe the blizzard of offers that today spill out of catalogs, magazines, bank statements, and bills from utilities, department stores, and credit-card companies, among others—all of which can trace at least some of their beginnings to Henry’s grocery bags.

The idea came to him on his first job out of Columbia’s graduate business program, where he went after Wharton. (Despite the hometown note sounded in the newspaper headline, the Henrys were living in Buffalo, New York, at the time; the company is currently headquartered in Hartsdale, New York.) It was 1955 and he was exempt from the draft because he was married, with a child on the way, Henry says. The job was in market research—doing site surveys for supermarkets, asking people, if a supermarket were built in a certain place, would they shop there. “Usually the answer was yes—because there wasn’t a supermarket” anywhere in the area yet, he recalls.

A contract to print subscription offers for Esquire and other Conde Nast publications led Henry to move away from bag-advertising and into direct-mail inserts. One major type of customer was catalog companies—there were about 50 then, as opposed to the thousands out now, he notes—looking to acquire new customers. Others included book and record clubs. Leon Henry Inc. currently represents more than 1,500 insert-distribution programs, “from American Stationery to Zoysia Grass plugs,” along with retailers that accept inserts and banks that send them with their credit-card statements. In the past 25 years or so, he estimates, the company has placed “close to 50 billion” inserts and done “over $300 million in gross volume.”

A lot of the growth in insert media has been driven by rising postal rates. It has always been a low-cost way of reaching potential customers, he says.

The price of a stamp isn’t likely to ever go down, but a new challenge to the business bypasses the mails entirely. Henry admits that the company is struggling to decide how to approach Internet advertising, which, if not exactly in its infancy, is “not at the bar mitzvah stage” yet, he says.

He’s confident, though, that it “won’t knock out other ad formats”—enough so that, rather than sell the company, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2006, he is preparing to hand it over to the next generation. The Henrys have three children, who are interested in continuing the family tradition.—J.P.

©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/05/06

Profiles : Events :
Notes : Obituaries

Leading litigator John Gross W’64
“Unstoppable force” Elizabeth Prostic C’96
Celebreality star Schatar Sapphira Taylor C’92
Documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock C’85
Direct-mail pioneer Leon Henry W’54

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