In 1996, Brent Kuhn recruited me to work at BKV in Atlanta.
I had gotten to know Brent and learned about his agency over games of 8-ball in his living room. “Ken, we don’t do advertising,” he confessed in his inimitable Chicago accent. “We’re direct marketers — and there’s a huge difference!” And indeed there was.
A Direct Marketing Juggernaut
Joining Bennett Kuhn Varner Advertising was a total immersion course in direct response marketing.
With clients like Save the Children, Dirt Devil, Stanley Tools, EarthLink and more, BKV was the largest DRTV agency in the Southeast.
Every meeting involved quantifiable metrics: response rates, conversion rates, costs per lead and more. After all, most of the clients had great brands already and didn’t need awareness; they needed sales! And if a client didn’t have a national name, the strategy still required getting customers today and building a brand along the way.
Pushing the Envelope
The creative, first led by Dick Bennett, had to touch on all the basics — compelling offer, persuasive selling copy, powerful design. Maribett Varner would pour over media spreadsheets looking for opportunities to optimize campaigns. Brent would attack the creative and argue that it wasn’t clear enough, there wasn’t a good enough offer or a unique selling proposition.
They weren’t just entrepreneurs; they were also visionaries.To wit: In 1997, Brent Kuhn required that everyone in the agency take HTML classes so we could learn how webpages worked. He saw the Internet coming as a new, viable channel for our clients.
A Culture of Continuous Improvement
More than just the client work, BKV was a training ground. Between the hundreds of millions of pieces of direct mail annually and dozens of DRTV commercials at any given time, along the print and eventually digital campaigns, BKV gave unlimited on-the-job training to hundreds of young marketing executives — teaching the principles of media analytics, strong benefit-oriented copy, list selection, tracking and measurement and optimization.
The Origin of Response Mine
In 2001, Brent Kuhn and Maribett Varner backed me in starting Response Mine Interactive. Along with Rick Skaggs and Brent Wheeler, they remain my trusted partners, advisors and friends two decades later.
The BKV Legacy
Today, some of the greatest hardcore direct marketers leading the industry are people I worked with at BKV in the ’90s and early 2000s — people like Angela Hilton, Roxana Shershin, Virginia Doty, Stacy Pierce, Jana Ferguson, Zachary LaVoy, Todd Chambers, Leah Farmer, Michelle Gunn, Jason Rhoades and so many more.