With over thirty years of experience in promotional marketing, Mary Sells has a unique perspective on the industry and the undeniable impact–and ongoing relevance–of promotional products.
Mary Sells, ASI
I had the privilege of speaking with Mary Sells, VP of Supplier Services for the Advertising Specialties Institute (ASI). ASI is the largest media, marketing, and education organization serving the promotional marketing industry. Mary took some time to discuss the importance of relationship-building, why promotional products are such powerful marketing tools, and how Boundless has a competitive advantage. Read on to learn more from Mary’s expert insights!
Why did you start working in the promotional marketing industry?
Like many people in the business, it wasn’t something that I had initially set out to do. But when I found myself in promotions, I never left. My dad worked for General Electric, and growing up he would let me take his GE-branded pencil to school. I felt so special using it because no one else had a GE pencil. I also remember my mother had a GE thermometer in her kitchen that no one else had and then suddenly, as an adult, I discovered this “invisible” business. I really loved the people I met and worked with, and I could see the value of promo items as advertising. I have always been an advertising junkie―I was the nerd who commented on print ads or commercials that were really provocative. So promotional items really clicked with me.
How has your career in promotional marketing progressed?
I worked on the supplier side for the first nine years of my career and then went to the distributor side as Sales Manager and Head of Vendor Relations. I joined ASI over ten years ago, and I’ve never looked back. I’m in a unique position where I can understand all the constituents in the marketplace. This makes me a great representative of ASI because I can leverage my experience to help people work together to create effective marketing.
How has your experience affected how you do your job today?
I enlighten suppliers about the goals of the distributor—it’s not just about making a sale, it’s also about building a relationship with the client. It’s important that suppliers understand how distributors like Boundless make the real “magic” of the promotions come to life for clients. And the only way to do that is to really listen to what the buyer wants. If you don’t, you’ll only get so far. Once you understand the needs of the client, it’s all about identifying the creative solution, which makes the process fun and interesting. A distributor like Boundless acts as the voice of the client, and my job is to make sure suppliers can meet Boundless’ needs so that they can service their clients best.
Why are promotional products important for brands?
I think promotional products are the most valuable resource for a client to use if they have a target audience that they are trying to influence. There is nothing more powerful than giving someone something they find useful, that they will be continuously interacting with, and will thereby be exposed to a specific brand or message over and over. People can skip through commercials. People are constantly picking and choosing how they want content. You cannot deny that the promotional product medium has staying power—we are an industry that’s been around well over a hundred years. Every solution is tailored to the goal of the buyer and the needs of the recipient, and that’s what keeps promotional marketing relevant. We don’t have to jump to different kinds of media to be effective, we just have to apply the right creativity to make a product part of the user’s life. That’s exciting to me—the endless creativity.
How has buying behavior played a role in the promotional products industry?
I think the trend of buying online is huge and it’s a cultural change that must be recognized. The industry has really had to make an effort to keep pace with it. The expectation is that people can get access to information easily and at any time of day by going online. They want to go to your website and find out information about your company, your people, or the products you sell. Having a website is no longer an option for companies―it’s a given. I don’t know if we’ve fully addressed this need as an industry, but Boundless has made this kind of accessibility a priority, and that’s evident in its value proposition. It is mainstream now to see brick-and-mortar retailers who never close their doors, even on holidays. That “always open” culture seems to train us in other parts of our lives to think we can talk to people and do business at any time. Technology is the groundwork that makes this kind of connectivity possible.
We talk a lot about finding the right product for the right person – what is the importance of personalization in today’s market?
It’s critical. That’s the whole key. You have to understand who the recipient is and what they value. Because what they value is what they use. And it’s only by having usefulness that the promotional product proposition works. It’s all about knowing what the right thing is for that person or group of people.
What attributes give a company a competitive advantage in this industry?
It’s a combination of things. Technology is important because we want instant gratification, so having the technology available, both internal and customer-facing, helps people get what they want when they want it. But when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how much technology is involved if a company doesn’t have the right people. The people set the vision, values, and relationships. It’s critical to have the right people to represent what the company stands for, their service offerings, and the right business ethic. A company like Boundless is really invested in what its clients need and want. I know that Boundless has looked at some unique ways to approach clients and their needs, which makes the company higher profile in the industry. A lot of things flatten a client experience and I think it takes companies like Boundless that are truly committed and invested in discovering what it is that serves clients best. Everything in the company revolves around the client, which creates a great experience.
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