R.L. Polk: The American Marketing Pioneer

When young Ralph Lane Polk hopped a train in 1870 and went from town to town selling directories, little did he know that he was planting seeds for not only his company but also several industries.

Much like the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, America According to Polk tells not only how one man started a company but how that company helped create several industries which contributed to the growth of America and American business.

Obviously R.L. Polk & Co. helped grow the directory business which was their first and primary business.  As a result of its business directory business, Polk became one of the largest printing companies nationally. In fact, Polk grew to publish 80 percent of the directories in the United States and thus was challenged by the Sherman Anti-Trust regulations as a monopoly.

The information Polk enumerators gathered on individuals going door to door around the growing US led to research and direct mail industries.  Car dealers began using sales data to help them sell new products.  Other industries began using the data as well.

Polk pioneered what we today call big data, more than 80 years before IBM shipped its first computer.

As the automobile transformed American notions of freedom and commerce early in the 20th century, General Motors turned to Polk in 1921 to conduct the nation’s first automobile census. Polk grew to become the premier provider of data on automotive sales, pricing, tastes, and marketing for the auto industry’s first 100 years. 

For Polk, along with the rest of the nation, the 1960s were a time of rapid change and turbulence. Computers began to play a major role in data collection, storage and publishing. In 1961, a Polk city directory in Eureka, Calif., was first published with data processing techniques.

From community directories, printing, data collection, direct marketing, advertising, to industry analytics, Polk was the pioneer.

The book America According to Polk, will be released in 2019.

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