IMRA History, Over 50 Years In IMRA Incentive Industry


IMRA’s First Fifty Years Sets Stage for the Next Fifty

by Karen Renk CAE

IMRA is celebrating its 50th anniversary! In the course of five decades, the organization has evolved and adapted to stay relevant in an ever-changing marketplace, but amazingly, IMRA’s purpose has stayed steadfast. From the beginning, IMRA has existed to promote and advance the rep/manufacturer relationship in the incentive field.

On the eve of my retirement from the incentive industry and IMRA, I was asked to share my recollections about IMRA’s important role in the incentive industry. Contrary to popular opinion, I was not around when IMRA was born. I became IMRA’s Administrative Director in 1986 and over the years served as IMRA’s Executive Director and Senior Staff Advisor. I was fortunate enough to meet many of IMRA’s founding members and to work with the leaders who have shaped the course of IMRA’s first fifty years. IMRA’s history is rich and reflective of the incentive industry’s evolution.

When IMRA was founded in the early sixties, the New York Premium Show was in the fall and the Chicago Premium (Motivation Show) was in the spring. Both Shows were robust, reflecting a prosperous and consumer-driven economy. Sales incentives and consumer premium offers were on the rise. A group of entrepreneurs began to specialize in selling products direct to corporate customers for promotional purposes. These "premium” representatives needed a way to explain their unique role to manufacturers entering the field and potential customers alike. In July of 1963, six reps and Larry Bell, the publisher of Premium Practice, the leading trade magazine in the field, met in Chicago to launch the National Premium Manufacturers Representatives Association (NPMR). The reps, Lee Arter, Ev Bentley, Bob Dewalt, Jim Pardick, Bob Sanford, and Chuck Wiebe, recruited about two dozen of their colleagues and they held their first official meeting at the New York Hilton in September, 1963. First NPMR President Bob Dewalt, [Johnson Dewalt], and these charter members declared themselves "Certified Premium Specialists.” The value proposition they promised their customers was "product know-how”, "direct-factory prices”, and "sound counsel and assistance in setting up effective promotions.” Thirty-three sales managers were welcomed as Associate Members and IMRA’s legacy as the only organization in the field dedicated to the rep/manufacturer relationship began.

In the beginning, the Shows were the stomping grounds for the Association. In 1964, IMRA had its first headquarters booth at the Premium Show at the New York Coliseum. Throughout the "sixties” "Rep Rumbles” were held at various NYC night spots to provide a venue for rep/manufacturer networking and Rep Roundtables were held in advance of the Chicago show. As more manufacturers entered the premium arena, the number of sales meetings held in the aisles at the Shows in the early morning hours increased, causing frequent schedule conflicts for the reps. NPMR stepped in and the Marketing Conference was born.

As early as 1969, there was talk of holding a sales conference in the Bahamas. That idea was scaled back and Chicago was considered as a more reasonable location. Finally, in 1971, sixty-six representative and manufacturer members, spouses, and trade press, convened in Biloxi, Mississippi, for several days of sales meetings, round table discussions, and informal meetings at the pool and hotel lounge. Not unlike the Marketing Conference of today!

In the early seventies, a Mideast oil embargo and widespread inflation had made all business difficult, especially in the premium arena. Rather than looking inward, IMRA undertook several initiatives to bring greater attention to the Association and the value the reps and their manufacturers brought to their customers. In 1973, IMRA created the "Premium Man of the Year” Award to recognize prominent industry leaders. The "Rep Rumbles” evolved into the New York Event, a party for members to entertain their customers who attended the New York Show. This popular event, held at the Water Club, the Copacabana, and The Tavern on the Green, attracted as many as 700 people. IMRA also created the Gold Key Awards to recognize IMRA members and their corporate customers for implementing outstanding incentive programs.

One of the most significant of these efforts was the decision to change the organization’s name. As business was shifting away from consumer premiums to dealer programs, NPMR leaders recommended the association’s name reflect the growing use of the word "incentive” to replace the term "premium”. Initially, the name "Incentive Representatives & Manufacturers Association” was considered until it was pointed out the group’s acronym would be IRMA. A quick change was made, and NPMR officially became the Incentive Manufacturers Representatives Association (IMRA) in 1977.

More sweeping changes were in store for IMRA in the "eighties.” Reflecting the expanding role of women in the incentive industry, the Marketing Conference tennis and golf tournaments became coed. The "Premium Man of the Year Award” was renamed the "Golden Achievement Award” in 1982; the first recipient was Mary Kay Cash, CEO of Mary Kay Cosmetics. In 1986, IMRA’s first woman president, Barbara Koch, Marketing Motivators, was elected. In response to bank deregulation and the impact on bank premium programs, in 1984, IMRA joined other industry associations to form the Incentive Federation. The Federation, supported by many IMRA members, continues today as the industry’s advocate and legislative watchdog.

The profound impact of deep and widespread corporate downsizing in the "nineties”, took IMRA and its members in new directions. Major brands in the channel looked to Multiple Resource Coordinators (now called National Marketing Companies) to manage their B2B business and a new IMRA member category was created to accommodate these companies. End buyer attendance at the major industry trade shows started to decline and the search for new customers became a quest for survival. IMRA promoted its members at trade shows in the safety arena and the Association was instrumental in creating the Awards and Incentive Pavilion at the Society for Human Resource Management Expo (SHRM). In 1996, IMRA reached out to the Promotional Products Association International and the seeds for IMRA’s strategic alliance with PPAI were planted. The following year, IMRA conducted its first educational session for distributors on "How to Work with Reps” at the PPAI Expo in Dallas. On another positive note, RepLink worked through IMRA to introduce a computer based data system to assist reps in providing faster and better service to their customers.

Beginning in 1998, a group of industry leaders, including several IMRA members, started a series of discussions to suggest ways the industry associations could better promote the use of incentives to decision makers in the business community. They concluded one voice, representing all segments of the incentive marketplace, was needed. In late 1999, the Association of Incentive Marketing (AIM) and the Association of Incentive Gift Certificates (AIGC) dissolved and reorganized as the Incentive Marketing Association. IMRA past president Greg Canose, IP, Award Marketing Services, was elected the first president of IMA, and IMRA past president Murray Barrett, Barrett Incentives, was the first IMA paid member.

IMRA chose not to join IMA, concerned it would lose its identity as an industry leader and its ability to further the rep/manufacturer relationship. Many reps and manufacturers retained memberships in both IMA and IMRA. In 2001, IMA representative members formed the Independent Representative Council, a strategic industry group, to advance their interests under the IMA umbrella. Individuals who elected to join both organizations petitioned IMRA to reconsider joining IMA. After many member surveys, debates, and strategic discussions among IMRA leaders, the decision was made to join IMA as the Incentive Manufacturers & Representative Alliance in 2002.

Regardless of the name, after fifty years, IMRA remains the only organization in the incentive field dedicated to advancing the rep/manufacturer relationship. The Marketing Conference continues to be the most cost-effective and productive venue for sales meetings and rep/manufacturer specific education. As the roles of reps and manufactures have changed to address the needs of new customers, IMRA has responded with new resources to help its members prosper. Central to IMRA’s success is its core of loyal members who still focus on providing their customers with "product know-how”, "direct-factory prices”, and "sound counsel and assistance” in setting up effective incentive programs. The Alliance is fortunate to have a savvy leadership team dedicated to your success. I am honored to have been a part of IMRA’s journey. No doubt IMRA will continue to evolve as the marketplace and technology advances. So here’s to IMRA’s next fifty years!