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VALLEY BUSINESS | MASTERS OF MARKETING

Local Mail Advertising Veteran Says Finding Right Lists Is the Key

Services: Howard Oberstein's firm in Arleta designs and produces marketing plans for businesses trying to target customers.

February 27, 2001|LEE CONDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ARLETA — Howard Oberstein sends out millions of pieces of mail every year, helping companies solicit new business for everything from wine clubs to Barbie dolls.

But Oberstein insists that he's not in the junk-mail trade.

"I don't like to use the J-word," said Oberstein, who opened the Marketing Place in Arleta 18 years ago. "If you do it correctly, direct marketing really is a service. We want to make sure a marketing package is targeted correctly. We don't want it to be discarded within moments."

For each type of mail he designs and produces, his goal is to create something the recipient will be interested in reading, whether it is a credit-card solicitation or a colorful brochure.

He attributes his success in the business to his knack for finding the right mailing lists. If a company wants to market acoustic guitars, Oberstein said he can find the thousands of people out in the general public who are most interested in acoustic guitars.

"I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I can remember sources for lists," Oberstein said. "I know what works."

Diana Hill, president of J.G. Banks Inc. in Los Alamitos, has been a Marketing Place client for about seven years. Hill's company, which markets educational products and seminars, sends out about 1.4 million pieces of mail every year.

A large bulk of Hill's business involves selling products and offering seminars that teach people how to purchase assets available through probate and estate sales. Her target is typically 35- to 55-year-olds who are interested in investing in real estate.

Oberstein helps her create a mailing list that will get Hill the highest possible response rate.

"He gives me list recommendations for what he thinks my demographics would be," Hill said. "Howard has a very strong understanding of what a small-business person needs."

Oberstein, 61, has a staff of four people, including his wife, Roberta, the office manager.

His current clients include the Wherehouse Entertainment Stores, Universal Studios-Hollywood, Mattel, Fidelity Home Loan, the Peninsula Hotel-Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce and the Hughes Aircraft Credit Union.

He also created a niche for himself by working closely with advertising agencies. This part of his business has grown, he said, because many agencies have consolidated, downsized or do not have in-house direct marketing expertise.

The Marketing Place now serves as the production department for Los Angeles-based M/S Database Marketing, which has clients like BMW Financial Services and the Isuzu Truck Division. The Marketing Place also works with other advertising firms, including Rothstein & Memsic and Reckas & Franke.

The Marketing Place generates revenue of about $2 million annually, Oberstein said.

Henry Steenackers, president of the Printing Connection in Van Nuys, is one of several printing companies that Oberstein works with. Steenackers said Oberstein differs from others in the field because he handles most of his projects from beginning to end.

"His strength is the hand-holding he does for the whole project," Steenackers said. "He's very thorough. He eliminates any chances for error."

Oberstein has been a leader of sorts in the local direct marketing business, serving as president of the Direct Marketing Club of Southern California from 1984 to 1986. He received the club's "Elite Honor Circle Award" for lifetime industry achievement in 1997.

He helped start a six-part direct marketing seminar at Loyola Marymount University. The classes are run by the Direct Marketing Club of Southern California, and Oberstein gives a seminar on list management each year.

"I want people to be able to do good direct marketing. I want to dispel the notion of everything as junk mail," he said.

He started out in the business working in personnel for a direct marketing firm called U.S. Sales. Later, he worked as a salesman for a mailing house in downtown Los Angeles in the 1970s.

He opened The Marketing Place in 1983.

Over the years, Oberstein said he has learned the tricks to catch a reader's interest, including how to write an effective pitch letter.

Oberstein said readers will look to see who a letter is addressed to, who signed it, and will typically read the postscript.

For that reason, Oberstein always recommends repeating the heart of a pitch message in the postscript.

From his years of experience, Oberstein has concluded that the one magic word to catch the attention of readers is "free."

"There's no better four-letter word that exists in direct marketing," Oberstein said.

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