Barry Blau of Westport, who started a business in his basement that became one of the world’s largest direct marketing firms, died March 28 in Norwalk Hospital after a short illness. He was 89.
Barry Blau: led No. 1 direct marketing firm. Contributed photo
A native of the Bronx, he preserved traces of the borough’s beloved melodious accent throughout his long life.
He was a member of the first graduating class of the elite Bronx High School of Science, later making grueling interborough subway rides to attend Brooklyn College, where he met his future wife at a Trotskyite gathering.
He began his career as a copy boy at Time Inc., working alongside Henry Grunwald, who became the magazine publisher’s editor-in-chief. Barry, however, soon forsook journalism for advertising to feed his growing family.
First writing copy for the mail order pioneer, Cecil Hoge, he moved on to executive roles at ad agencies SSC & B and Ogilvy & Mather, growing the fledgling O & M Direct division into a worldwide profit center.
While a successful Madison Avenue executive, Barry was ever the entrepreneur. Moonlighting during his 1960s “Mad Men” days, he sold tropical plants via mail order ads in national magazines, employing his teenage children and their friends to open stacks of mail containing “cash, check or money order” — and the occasional complaint.
One customer demanded a refund because, as she opened the box containing her palm tree, she said “a snake jumped out — very much alive. P.S. plants look terrible, too!”
In 1978, tiring of the New York commute, he left Ogilvy to launch Barry Blau & Partners out of his Westport basement.
The agency grew rapidly, winning clients like American Express, Avis, Citibank, IBM, Merck and UPS. Over the next 20 years, the agency opened offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, Frankfurt and London.
By the time he sold the firm in 1998, it was the world’s No. 1 independent direct agency, employing over 400. The executives he trained went on to lead major advertising firms, including Ogilvy, the agency he left in 1978.
In retirement, Barry devoted himself to family — especially his beloved and loving grandchildren — as well as continuously perfecting his elaborate, serpentine gardens surrounding the same Westport home where he launched his business. He also built a magical vacation house in Hawaii, where his extended family spent many memorable winter vacations.
He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Eileen, four children — Shawn, Peter, Emily and Juliet — and eight grandchildren.
The immediate family will be having a private ceremony. They will be inviting friends and family who would like to celebrate Barry’s life to an open house reception on Sunday April 2, from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Birchwood Country Club, 25 Kings Highway South, Westport.
In lieu of flowers or food baskets, donations may be made to a foundation Barry established at Fairfield’s Sacred Heart University to further interfaith studies: The Community Foundation for Christian-Jewish Understanding, Inc., Suite 10, 2452 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, CT 06825.