Day In The Life: Setting Precedent

Above photo: Margaret Custer Ford, MAS, with some of the many awards she's won since starting MARCO Ideas Unlimited 60 years ago.

The promotional products industry is vibrant, innovative and full of exceptional creativity thanks to the professionals who keep its wheels rolling, and who represent all demographics, backgrounds, genders and personalities.

But the industry wasn’t always this diverse. Rewind 60 years earlier and the industry looked a lot different. It was largely male-dominated, with little room or invitation for women to participate, grow and prosper. Yet this is when Margaret Custer Ford, MAS, founder of distributor MARCO Ideas Unlimited, Inc., in Portland, Oregon, stepped boldly over the status quo, surpassing societal standards to make a name for herself, and all women, in promotional products.

Ford’s journey has been covered by PPB many times before, including following her induction into the PPAI Hall of Fame in 1994 and presentation of PPAI’s Woman of Achievement Award in 2010. But hers is a story that deserves to be relished, remembered and retold, especially in an industry that has come so far since its start.

In 1959, when MARCO was founded, women were not allowed to have a credit card in their own name; the account had to be established and funded by a husband or father. In the 1950s, women were just starting to branch outside of their traditional roles as teachers, nurses and secretaries, but for the most part, “ladies did not work outside the home,” Ford says. Women were turned down for jobs simply for being female—Ford included—and women who headed companies were not only rare, but they weren’t taken seriously. But Ford didn’t see this as her fate—she saw it as fuel to start her own company.

Ford, who had just experienced a failed marriage and found herself singlehandedly responsible for two children, experienced discrimination due to society’s standards, but she didn’t allow herself to fall victim to it. When she founded her company, she applied for product lines using her initials, “M.C.,” when signing letters, and when she received phone calls from prospective clients, she acted as her own secretary. She learned to disguise her femininity so that other businesses would take her seriously. She entered banks dressed in pencil skirts, but was sure not to be “too dressed up” when calling on safety accounts, her predominant area of business. And she focused every effort on her business, never missing an opportunity. “I remember typing and filing correspondence one evening after the children were in bed. As I closed the file drawer, I gave it a gentle, affectionate pat, and when I looked at my watch, it was 2 am.”


Above, left: Ford joined the promotional products industry in 1959, a time when the industry was largely male-dominated,
paving the way for generations of future female-led businesses and professionals to work in promotional products.
Above, right: Tom Gudekunst, MAS, sales manager of MARCO and Ford's grandson; Ford, and Nancy Gudekunst, MAS,
president of MARCO and Ford's daughter, are all smiles at the distributor's Portland headquarters.

Purposeful Projects And Creative Campaigns

Ford’s first taste of promotional products came in 1957, but it was a taste that quickly became her savor of choice. A friend of hers was a representative—then referred to as a “hostess”—at Welcome Wagon International, Inc., a Memphis, Tennessee-based business that provided new homeowners with coupons and advertisements from local businesses. At its peak in the 1950s the company employed 6,000 hostesses and represented 100,000 sponsors in 2,000 communities nationwide. When the friend announced her desire to quit her position, Ford “eagerly” applied, and was hired as a hostess. It was here that she was introduced to “the wonders of what we called ‘advertising specialties,’” or “perfect little gifts for newcomers.”

As a hostess, Ford was responsible for visiting new homeowners to help them acclimate to the community. She’d bring small gift baskets filled with information about schools, churches and community events, the most effective of which, she says, were printed with advertising to help recipients recall the names of businesses. To handle the increased business, Ford hired two assistants who helped her publish a monthly newsletter and organize a club for neighborhood newcomers to meet one another. And having tripled the number of advertisers—then referred to as “sponsors”—during her time at Welcome Wagon, she quickly noticed a scarcity of sources available for printed products. “I found a limited few from a local Brown & Bigelow salesperson. That was my ‘aha’ moment.” After applying for a job at Brown & Bigelow in Portland, Oregon, and receiving a response of “We don’t hire women,” she remained undaunted. “I was determined to do it myself and start my own company,” she says.

Ford’s first office was her dining room table—the early start of a company that celebrated 60 years in business on June 6. To her table she added stationery, a hand-operated adding machine and a second-hand L.C. Smith typewriter with quirks and kinks of its own. She also leased a car and proudly advertised her services on the inside rear window. She acquired business from local community members whom she knew, and eventually reached out to larger companies, whose decision-makers she didn’t know, earning their trust and impressing them with her dedication and quick decision-making. MARCO’s first order was for 250 carpenter pencils for builders and repairmen, with ample space on the side for advertising.

Ford also led interesting, multi-dimensional self-promotion campaigns for her company. During election years, many years ago, she recalls people being bombarded with political advertising via mailers, TV, radio and billboards, but hardly any promotional products, because they were then illegal in Oregon, with the exception of bumper stickers.

MARCO distributed a mailer that enclosed an oversized campaign button, themed in red, white and blue, that featured the recipient’s name in handwritten letters, followed by “For President,” as an invitation to attend an open house and vote for their favorite products from a selection of executive gifts. When attendees arrived, they saw the building draped in political bunting and heard Hail To The Chief played from speakers in the parking lot. They were treated to miniature hot dogs and tap beer served in handled glass mugs that read, “Vote for MARCO—the company that CAN handle it!” Attendees had their photo taken as they entered the building, and again after sliding their vote into the ballot box, and the photo was later framed in a desk calendar to take home.

Ford, now 90, no longer works for MARCO, but she lives in a retirement community just a mile from MARCO’s offices in Oregon, where she is a frequent visitor. “I am warmly welcomed when I do [visit],” she says, “and everyone there calls me ‘Grammy.’” The company is now in its third generation of business, with her grandson, Tom Gudekunst, CAS, working as sales manager, and her daughter, Nancy Gudekunst, MAS, as president of MARCO and Higher Promos, a division of MARCO catering to the cannabis industry. A lifelong learner and devoted writer, Ford writes for her community’s magazine and interviews other residents; an opportunity she truly enjoys.

She recalls her early days in the industry in minute detail, from the products associated with her favorite projects to the precise color of the banners used for a focused campaign.

”I love our industry, and I am proud that I was able to play a part in the growth and development of a strong, creative, viable advertising medium,” Ford says. “And yes, I wish I could do it all over again!”

Her experience wasn’t only a life-changing one for Ford, but for all women who followed her footsteps into promotional products, including her daughter. “While growing up, I saw how [my mother] operated, which gave me confidence to start my own business in 1984, which I sold in 1991 to join her company,” says Gudekunst. “I never really realized how difficult some women had it, and was able to forge my way ahead by following her example.”

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Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.

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Comments (1)
Daryll Griffin
July 30, 2019
Margaret Custer Ford is a true trailblazer and such an inspiration not only for women, but for anyone in this industry! Her story is amazing. Congrats to her daughter and grandson for keeping her vision and legacy alive. She is truly a living legend!
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