A master of market research
Ralph Lane Polk II was a trendsetter for direct marketing in the 20th century. Born in Detroit in 1882, Polk II attended Detroit Public Schools and later the Shattuck Military academy in Faribault, Minnesota. He was the son of Ralph Lane Polk, the founder of R.L. Polk and Co. in 1870, which published city directories across the United States.
From the age of 10, Polk II spent his summers delivering Detroit city directories for his father’s business. When he turned 18, he became a full-time assistant to his father. Under the senior Polk’s guidance, he quickly learned the business skills that would enable him to assume leadership of the firm in 1923 after his father’s passing. Polk II had already begun to take an increasingly important role in the company’s direction, and had made the decision in 1921 to branch his company into the automotive industry. It was a conversation between Polk II and Alfred P. Sloan, then Vice President of General Motors, that prompted the expansion. Sloan wanted to benchmark Chevrolet’s sales against those of Ford Motor Company, and had repeatedly asked his cross-town rival Henry Ford how many cars he was selling. Predictably, Ford wouldn’t give him a straight answer. Sloan asked if Polk II would independently track car and truck sales. Polk complied, and his company published their first Passenger Car Registration Report in 1922. Polk II realized the value of this information to auto dealers and manufacturers, and continued to expand his vehicle sales reports. Within a few years, the “direct mail division” of R.L. Polk & Co. had become heavily involved in all types of automotive marketing efforts, such as literature programs, which localized promotional materials to individual dealers for clients like General Motors, Ford, and Oldsmobile.
R.L. Polk & Co. quickly became a world renowned resource for compiling large volumes of data. By the 1940’s the company was delivering over 2 million pieces of mail a day, with more than a dozen different publications in circulation. By the time of his passing in 1949, Ralph Lane Polk II had built his father’s company into one of the largest and most successful direct marketing firms in the world.