In this episode…
Join David Hernandez, host of There’s Always a Lyric, in his interview with Alan Kraft, Chief Revenue Officer at The Media Horizons Companies. Alan shares the story about his company’s acquisition, the importance of working with good people, experiencing full circle moments, the state of direct-to-consumer marketing, and more.
David Hernandez (0:18)
Welcome to another episode of There’s Always a Lyric. Today, my guest is Alan Kraft. Allen among many things, besides being a man infused with the entrepreneurial spirit, is someone I genuinely love to be able to say is a friend. I’ve known him for a number of years. We met first professionally and then realized we had so many things in common that we became friends. Alan is the Founder and Chief Revenue Officer of Media Horizons, which was born in 1988, with the goal of building an agency whose core values are steeped in serving his client’s needs, and in nurturing the team’s professional development.
Over the years, he has led the company’s strategic expansion from its beginning as an insert media company to its current state of being a full-service digital and offline response marketing agency. Currently, Alan directs new business efforts overseas thought leadership positioning and content development, and partners with the senior management team on the company’s ongoing initiatives. And that is a lot. And that is only the tip of the iceberg of who Alan Kraft is, as both a leader as a person, and as a man. So welcome, Alan Kraft, how are you, my friend?
Alan Kraft (1:34)
Thank you, David. It’s great to be on with you. And gosh, that’s going to be a tough act to follow.
David Hernandez (1:44)
So, I want to start right now. Where are we now? Where are YOU now? What’s happening?
Alan Kraft (1:51)
Yeah, so David, I think the biggest thing that’s happened; in January of 2020, we were acquired. We are now part of a 10-and-a-half-billion-dollar global company, called Central National-Gottesman. CNG is I believe the world’s largest buyer, and seller of all things paper related, so in our world, in the direct marketing world, they have a very significant position with virtually all of the largest catalog companies, ecommerce, retail, companies, publishers, and all of that. And essentially, we were required to build agency services onto those relationships. So, we’ve spent the last, God, it’s three-plus years now, essentially, evangelizing what we at Media Horizons do in helping companies acquire new customers.
And we’ve been doing it with all of CNG’s customer brands, and it’s been amazing. It’s a group of good folks who run this business. Interestingly, we have been approached numerous times prior to this deal by other companies that were interested in acquiring us, and we never quite felt that it was the right fit. In this case, we sort of knew some of the folks and as we got to know them better, we felt better and better about the personal relationships. And I think if there’s one theme, you’ll hear from me, it’s business, but it’s personal. And it’s got to be a personal connection to make something successful. And, you know, we just got along famously, you know, the president of one of their divisions whom we were doing most of the work with on acquisition, he and I kept talking about the fact that us and them together was going to be one plus one equals three. And that’s become my favorite equation. I was never really a good math student, but one plus one equals three, I get. So much so that their general counsel and their CFO got wind of this and actually nicknamed our deal, our project, Project 113.
Even on that level, there was just such a sense of immediate familiarity, that we knew that this was going to be a, you know, a good situation for us. And, you know, we were not in it just for a “we’ll sell it, and we’ll get out.” You know, we love this business, and we love the company. And it’s been in a lot of ways my life’s work. And so the fact that you know, still here, three plus years after the deal is still flourishing, still enjoying, we do, I think, is testament to the fact that it was the right group of people coming together at the right time.
David Hernandez (4:24)
Yeah, and for me, and understanding the principles of how you work, it seems like what you did there was, you know, a major leap of faith/risk. You better than anybody knows what happens when acquisitions take place. And, you know, the track record on acquisitions is not always that great in terms of the one that’s being acquired, and losing culture, losing the really the spirit of the company once they’re taken over. But it seems like that’s not what happened here.
Alan Kraft (4:58)
Well, I mean, you It’s not to say that it’s all exactly the way it was. I mean, we’re a much larger company. Now, we’re a much more diverse company in terms of our client base and some of the activities that we’re engaged, engaged in. But the fundamental mission and values of the company have remained the same. And if anything had been sort of enhanced, being part of this larger organization, and seriously, we’ve always tried to be very philanthropic, as a company, the parent company really takes it to another level. And from a cultural perspective, you know, I think I think people of every generation like to be part of an organization that believes in giving back and being generous with people who are in need. So, it’s a really good feeling from that perspective.
David Hernandez (5:51)
That sounds amazing. And it’s, again, part of this long arc of your professional story, that this is where you are now. But this didn’t start this way. This is the start from some big corporate idea. And you were a startup at one point in your life. If we could just close our eyes for a second and go back to those very early days. What was that? Like? What was the spark that made you go, you know what, I think I know what I want to do. Here’s how I’m gonna do it.
Alan Kraft (6:23)
So, believe it or not, it all tracks back to October 12, 1987. Happens to be my wife’s birthday.
David Hernandez (6:33)
That’s a good omen.
Alan Kraft (6:23)
I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t home on her birthday; I was actually in New Orleans at an industry conference. I was hurrying out of the conference center on my way to dinner with what was then my largest client publishing company called Bantam Doubleday Dell, and on my way out, I ran into someone who, prior to our kids being born, my wife had actually worked for a great entrepreneur unto himself. And he kind of grabbed me, I was literally, I was kind of running for dinner, he grabbed me, and he spun me around and greeted me with a big hug and said to me, “Listen, I heard you switched agencies, I’m kind of disappointed. I always thought you and I would get together and start an agency.” Like, but you never mentioned that. Over the years we’ve never had this conversation, “well, maybe I thought I did. And I meant to and oh, well, I guess it’s too late now.” And I said to him, “No, it’s not.” So, this was literally weeks into this new engagement. And I knew early on that I had made a very bad decision going to work for another entrepreneur who, you know, was just proved not to be a good person. Okay. And to me working with and working for back then good people really, you know, it was making a difference, right?
So, he said, “Listen, let’s get together.” He lived in New Jersey at the time. And he said, “Come out to the house one day and we’ll go for a walk.” He was big on taking walks. We’ll go for a walk, it’ll be great. An hour later, I go to this dinner, and I’m sitting with my clients, and another hour goes by. We have a wonderful meal at a great restaurant that’s still in New Orleans called Mr. B’s Bistro, and dinner is over, and there were five people from Bantam there and four of them the senior level folks turned and said, “We’re going to walk back to our hotel.” The fifth one who is my contemporary looks at me and he goes, “We don’t have to do that.” We’re in New Orleans. We were in the French Quarter. Let’s go listen to some music and have a few laughs and a beverage or two. We walked over, we actually ended up at a very famous venue. We’re on the outdoor patio at a place called Pat O’Brien.
We’re sitting there having a good time in there and lots of people from the conference are there. And we’re saying hi to everybody and chatting with everybody. And then all of a sudden, another one of my very significant clients from that era, the Wall Street Journal, gentleman with whom we worked, came over to the table and sat down joined us, and leaned into me at one point and he said, “Listen, I gotta tell you, I don’t like this guy you went to work for if you want to start your own agency, I’ll give you the Wall Street Journal account.” So within hours on the same evening, my wife Cheryl’s birthday in 1987, I was offered funding investment, you know, from the first gentleman, and then ultimately, the Wall Street Journal was telling me they’d give me their account if I started my own agency… to me that was kismet. It’s pretty astonishing and, and to story tell often. I actually hosted a group of clients at Mr. B’s bistro about two months ago.
David Hernandez (9:46)
Talk about bringing it full circle.
Alan Kraft (9:48)
I was a little disappointed that the waiter didn’t remember me. But it’s a great story, it kind of sums up how I came to start the company in the first place.
David Hernandez (10:00)
It’s interesting, as you’re telling me that story and how you describe kismet, but it’s also about these relationships can we talk about who has helped you along the way, like mentors, or coaches?
Alan Kraft (10:10)
I always had a really strong interest in developing relationships with people who are older than me. Both in business and personally, there’s so much more to learn from people who have more experience, who’ve gone through things that we’ve yet to go through, and but ultimately will. And so from the very, very beginning of my career, you know, in the mid-70s, I had a couple of guys that ran the business that I first started out with, it was a mailing list company in New York, and a lot of direct mail, we still do a lot of direct mail today, you know, so things are full circle.
And rather than just hanging out with the others who are my age, maybe we did that on Friday nights, you have to work but I would try as much as I could to grab lunch with those guys, grab a cup of coffee with them, be a fly on the wall, just listen to them. And I learned so much. And then you know, as my career sort of moved along, I worked with three agencies altogether before I started. And so, over the course of about 12 years, I had a couple of bosses at agencies two and three, whom I learned from in terms of what not to do.
Up until the time I started the company, I learned a lot both good and bad from people who are older than me and had more experience. Looking back, the true mentor in my life was the person who spun me around in that conference center. In New Orleans, his name was Ed Cabaco, he ran a company called Media People, which ironically, we acquired about 12 years ago, is still part of our company now. And Ed was not a great entrepreneur, a great businessperson, super successful. But he really taught me a lot about life. He taught me a lot about parenting. One of his sons, Jim became my partner for many, many years. Jim has just recently retired from the business but Ed was the single greatest influence that I had in terms of not just how to be successful and how to build this into a really successful business, but how to treat clients, how to treat vendors, how to treat members of the team, he was just a kind soul, he wouldn’t give the shirt off his back to anybody who needed a shirt. He was a tough business guy at the same time. But you know, he just had a way about him that I’ve attempted to and continue to try to emulate. And so, I give so much of the credit for my success to him for his generosity.
David Hernandez (12:46)
It’s interesting that this person that was a business mentor for you, also was a mentor in terms of your personal relationships, family, and it sounds like a very rich relationship.
Alan Kraft (13:02)
It was on so many levels; he was very much part of our family. And we were very much part of his, and keep in mind, as I said, my wife had worked for him. So, she had a great relationship with him that ultimately led to my great relationship with him, and we would socialize all the time and see them socially, we become a sort of a product of what we learn, right? There’s a certain amount of genetics there. There’s a certain amount of environmental, but I think learning is everything. Not only did I get to learn from him, but I learned from a number of clients. Along the way, you know, our biggest client for 20-plus years was a company called Oreck Vacuums. David Oreck was legendary; just passed away a few weeks ago, I believe at 99.
David Hernandez (13:55)
Not a bad run.
Alan Kraft (13:58)
Not a bad run at all. He was an extraordinary human being. He was a World War II fighter pilot. He was an amazing entrepreneur. David and I, along with other members of our team spent many days and nights together you know, here in New Orleans in New York and shooting TV commercials together. You know, I just learned so much from him as far as being a great marketer. He was the best marketer and just a quick aside about him.
We probably over the years did a few dozen TV commercials with David and David would never need a second take. We used a studio in New Orleans, and he would drive, he used to drive this fire engine red convertible Jaguar and he would pull into this studio, and he had a very similar hairstyle to mine, put a little powder on his head. He would read the script. He would literally write the script on the fly he would go in front of the camera. One take he’d be in and out of the studio in 15 minutes over your shoulder as he’s pulling back out of the studio in that crazy car of his, “I’ll see you boys at dinner tonight”. Just an amazing pitch man, he was a brilliant marketer.
David Hernandez (15:06)
It was just natural. He was a natural at it.
Alan Kraft (15:10)
He also at one point, around the time that Bill Clinton had left office, David Oreck, it was reported in The Wall Street Journal, he was the second highest-grossing, lecturer on the college circuit, behind Bill Clinton. Every business school in America wanted to hear his story.
David Hernandez (15:34)
And so that’s a great story in itself, right there. When we look at the story like that, and Oreck Vacuums and the rise of Media Horizons, how do you view the current landscape?
Alan Kraft (15:50)
Because we’re you know, almost as equally engaged on the digital side as we are on the offline side, there are different challenges for each, right? So, on the digital side, I don’t have to tell you performance among core media, you know, social and search is not what it was a year or two ago. So that’s challenging, challenging for our clients. On the offline side, you know, there’s a tremendous amount. And this applies to digital as well, there’s a tremendous amount of state-based privacy legislation that’s becoming more and more problematic, which is on the minds of our clients. Postage continues to go up making it difficult for direct mail to be profitable. So, companies more and more are doing less prospecting, through direct mail, they’re doing more house file or customer mailing and marketing. So, there are lots of challenges. And then I don’t have to tell you, you know, we’re in a kind of a wonky economy right now.
I’ll share with you something I actually was talking about on a call earlier. Today, I have a client that’s in the gift business, gift food business, and you know, for people in the gift food business, you know, the fourth quarter is everything. And so, you know, he and I were at lunch a few weeks ago, and they were kind of wrapping up all of their fourth quarter, first quarter evaluations of the business. And we were talking a little bit about holiday performance. But he shared with me that response rates were extremely good. They were strong. So, the core group of customers that had always ordered from them historically, we’re continuing to order but were all spending less. Good customers are continuing to buy, continuing to be good customers, but maybe they’re cutting back a little bit because the grocery bill is as high as it is, or maybe because they are in need of refinancing their mortgage, and they’re looking at much higher rates than they would have, you know, a couple of years. Right? Well, I’ll tell you the one thing that’s true, though, of having been in business for 35 years, having been in this industry for I hate to say almost half a century. We’ve been through these cycles before, right? We’ve seen them, you’ve seen them. We started this business, in June of ‘88, on the heels of ‘87.
David Hernandez (18:05)
I was just about to ask you that, I mean, think about when you started.
Alan Kraft (18:10)
It was a disastrous year. And then we went through 2000, and obviously, we went through 2008 and 2009. We’ll come out the other side of it, or more importantly, and when I say we, it’s really our clients I’m talking about, and I think we’re beginning to see some signals that things are beginning to turn a little bit in the right direction. So, one thing that’s true about any kind of, you know, direct-to-consumer marketing, as we’re looking at results daily, online retailers who are reporting on a quarterly basis, we tend to have like an early read our consumer behavior. What I’m seeing and hearing from our clients and our account-facing folks, is that April is a pretty good month and things are beginning to turn back in the right direction.
David Hernandez (18:58)
That’s great to hear. So, along the lines of the challenges and all that. Can you point back to a particular time when failure became a great teacher for you?
Alan Kraft (19:13)
How much time? So, this was probably the mid-90s. I won’t mention the name of the company or our largest client at the time. I got a call one afternoon from their Chief Marketing Officer saying, “Listen, you guys have done great work for us. But we’ve decided we’re going to go in another direction and we’re going to bring in a different agency.” So I hung up the phone, and I don’t know we were a company of maybe 15, 20, 25 people at the time, like all right, well you got to walk out there and I got to talk to everybody and tell them exactly what just happened and there are gonna be people who are gonna be nervous about their positions because they were working on the account and I just sat there for a few minutes sort of thinking about what this meant for us as a business, and it dawned on me that they were a great client, it was a great brand to represent. But we really were not making a lot of money on the account, that it was very light margin, it was very, very work intensive. They were extremely demanding. It was a difficult account that was really kind of sapping our energy and bogging down our people so that they were not able to work on more profitable business.
So, I walked out into the office and gathered everybody together, and I told them exactly what I just shared with you. And instead of people with long faces, getting their resumes together, figuring out exactly what their next move was gonna be, they all came together, and they all rallied. And they all believed in the vision that I had shared with them. And I promised them during that talk, that don’t worry, we’ll replace this, and we’ll replace it with better business. And we did. It took time, you know, it took a lot of effort. You know, it’s not easy to replace, you know, big clients, as you know. But whether it was three months, or six months or a year later, we all look back on it fondly as being a turning point, a positive turning point in the company’s sort of progression.
David Hernandez (21:21)
So really, the goodbye was really an opening. It was like a door opened or a window opened to see things in a completely different way of saying, you know what. It’s great to have big clients, but they have to be the right clients for us. Right?
Alan Kraft (21:35)
Exactly. Like I said, there have been numerous failures over the years that as a business owner and entrepreneur, I’ve learned from. I mean, I think one of the most difficult things about having been around as long as I have is that the highs aren’t quite as high as he used to be, but the lows aren’t quite as low.
David Hernandez (21:52)
Because you know, it’s a cycle. This is kind of maybe a somewhat oft-repeated question. What’s your why? What’s Media Horizons why? But I think you just kind of gave me a good hint at what it is.
Alan Kraft (22:10)
I think why for us, always has been, and always will be, that the client comes first. That the client’s needs come first, that if we can make our clients successful, that they are, you know, successful in that relationship for us. And in order to make clients successful, you’ve got to have people on the team who are successful, people who are satisfied, who are invigorated. And so, I think that’s always been our why, and I think that will always be the case. I find that companies that put their own wants and needs ahead of those of their clients and their people are short-lived. Maybe they’re here today, but they’re gone tomorrow.
David Hernandez (22:51)
Yeah, in summary, you’re saying we’re only as you know, we’re only as good as our people. There’s no question about that. That’s it. Right?
Alan Kraft (23:00)
Somebody asked me years ago, what’s the secret of your success? And I said, “I hire well.” Truly, I mean, you know, hiring well is everything in my mind and then inspiring, right? It’s one thing to hire somebody. But it’s another thing to inspire them to be greater than they were the day they come through the door.
David Hernandez (23:22)
That’s so well put. This idea is that if you give people the right tools, the right environment, and the right learning opportunities too, they can deliver something more than the status quo. They can do something transformative in the work that they’re doing.
Alan Kraft (23:39)
No question. They can. Spot on.
David Hernandez (23:43)
Along those lines of going above and beyond and doing what it takes. Let’s talk about the flip side of that, which is how do you find balance?
Alan Kraft (23:51)
So funny. I mean, work-life balance is like, you know, to me, it’s become such an overused term in our society, it was around before COVID, but COVID really made it top of mind for people with working remotely. And now this whole, you know, “I’m gonna come back to the office, we’re here three days a week,” it’s a great balance. But, you know, for me, personally, I became a grandfather two years ago, and my grandkids are 15 minutes away. And so, you know, getting to spend time with them is a big part of my life. As you know, I’m still very much a foodie, I love whether it’s you know, going out with friends or going out with business associates, or just, you know, going out with my wife, which is the best, I continue to try to fight for their time by spending as much time as I can at the gym. So, you know, it’s amazing, you know, the days that I go to the gym, I feel like a whole different person. And then there’s music and entertainment in general. Let’s face it. There’s so much great content on television these days.
David Hernandez (24:49)
It’s like drinking from a fire hose at this point.
Alan Kraft (24:53)
You and I could spend numerous dinners talking about what series we’ve watched over the last few weeks and continue to enjoy. You and I are both very devoted Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band fans.
David Hernandez (25:04)
This is true.
Alan Kraft (25:07)
And still love going to live shows, and to me, those are the kinds of things that sort of helped to establish that balance.
David Hernandez (25:15)
I think that the way you’re describing it is those things, help reenergize and fill you in a way that nothing else can. With all of the living and all of the experiences that you had, from that day of getting grabbed in New Orleans to where you are now, is there something that you can share with those that are listening today in terms of advice?
Alan Kraft (25:41)
Yeah, so I think for me that the easiest advice to offer is don’t be afraid to learn from your elders, take the advice of people who’ve been through what you are going through. Learn from your failures, as we talked about just a couple of minutes ago. Now one of the biggest pieces of advice I give to young people is to get back to the office. Don’t be the person who wants to work from home, get in there, have the conversations, get yourself into that mix. Learn from all those who are willing to teach. I know too many entrepreneurs who failed because they thought they had all the answers.
David Hernandez (26:18)
And the reality is, first, you don’t have all the answers no matter who you are. And through that learning process, you learn about yourself, too, and about what works for you, and what doesn’t work for you. Just from listening to the experiences of others.
Alan Kraft (26:33)
There’s no question about it, I think, you know, I don’t care how old you are, how much experience you have. If you stop learning or you fail to try to continue to learn, then your kind of not giving yourself the best chance for continued success. There’s so much that we don’t know to your point.
David Hernandez (26:49)
And that’s something that struck me about your arc in terms of your career, you’ve always had this approach of a perennial student of the work that you were doing. Even in our first interactions, you always behaved as sort of this curious student personality. I think that has a big component of the success story of the company because you’ve maintained that.
Alan Kraft (27:13)
Thank you for saying that. I truly believe James Madison’s quote, “Education is the true foundation of civil liberty.” Learning is the true foundation of success.
David Hernandez (27:24)
That’s well said. Well, the title of this podcast is There’s Always a Lyric, and the reason for that is our final question is always, if there’s a song title, or song lyric that captures you or your story, what would it be?
Alan Kraft (27:39)
The song is Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin. And the reason why that song is so important in my life is I’m so much a believer in the relationships between parents and children. Ironically, as I’m answering this question, today would have been my father’s birthday. May 3, 1929. And he and I had something of a tortured relationship. And when I first heard the lyrics of Cat’s in the Cradle, I was the son looking up to the father. So, I’m guessing you know the lyrics of that song as a dad, and now I’m on the flip side of that. I’ve got two sons, where, you know, not just father and sons, but we’re best friends and we go to Bruce concerts together, and now we’ve got grandsons as well. And to me, there’s something about that song that you can learn so much from about the human condition.
David Hernandez (28:37)
I’m going to break the role of being the interviewer here and just give you a personal aside, a little context for us. My father is a Cuban immigrant right, as I am, I came over on the boat with them. His favorite American song was Cat’s in the Cradle.
Alan Kraft (28:45)
Wow. Oh, my goodness.
David Hernandez (28:50)
So, there’s a full circle moment for me with you.
Alan Kraft (29:03)
Wow. I would agree with you. That’s really the sum of all the songs, of all the artists. I will listen to it at some point today because it would have been my father’s birthday. At the end of the day, as much as I love what I do here at Media Horizons, as much as I love the company that we are, and what’s come of these 35 years of hard work. You know, it’s really about family to me and it’s really about my relationships with my sons, and now my grandsons.
David Hernandez (29:33)
Well, that’s a great way to close out our podcast today. Alan, thank you so much for your time and for those wonderful stories. And all I can say is I wish you many more years of success and good health and of course the love of your family.
Alan Kraft (29:49)
David, thank you so much. It’s been a wonderful experience. I wish you all the same and above it. Good to talk to you.
David Hernandez (29:56)
Thank you so much. Thank you.