Marketing lessons from Esther Williams


In the early 1990s, when the job market was very bad, I had a college degree that was getting me nowhere. So my friend got me a job signing Esther Williams' autograph for fans.

Esther who? That's what I said. Esther Williams was an Olympic swimmer in the 1940s when the Olympics were cancelled, and she took her bathing-suit-clad body to MGM where she was the star of water musicals. If you've never seen a water musical think Ginger Rodgers with nose plugs. Esther was hot in her day, and believe it or not, she's still hot among nostalgic old people, young girls who like swimming, and gay men who like kitsch.

I worried that the job was illegal, but the person who hired me assured me this is a very common job in Los Angeles. After all, no one would squander life as a movie star by sitting around all day writing autographs for the millions of people who request signed photos.

At the time, I was very upset that the only job I could get wasn't even significant enough to have a title. (Question: “Uh, what do you call this kind of job?” Answer: “I don't know.”) But now I realize that even though I hated the job, I'd have to say that Esther Williams was my first marketing mentor, and I built my own marketing career around rules I learned from her:

Quality control is important.
During my first week, Esther gave me three copies of her signature (different pens, different sizes) and told me to practice. I submitted my best shot to Esther and she said, “Make the E's loopier.” I looped and resubmitted and then she gave me the go-ahead.

Give the customer what they want.
When I started working for Esther, she was well past 60, so when someone requested an autographed picture, you just knew they weren't asking for one she took the week before. So we had a stack of copies of old MGM promotional photos: Esther as Olympic swimmer, Esther as showgirl, there was even one of Esther in a sort of kiddie porn motif. But for the die-hard fans who requested it, I also had a photo of Esther when she was about 50 years old: A head shot.

Cut costs.
We had 8x10s, but I only sent those if the person enclosed postage. Otherwise, Esther instructed me to send a 5×7. Sometimes people would request an 8×10, and even if they didn't send postage, I'd send a big photo. I figured it would make a happy customer and it wouldn't break her bank — after all, she still received residual checks from Million Dollar Mermaid.

Stay out of court.
One guy sent three, pristine Life magazines with Esther on the cover. He wanted each cover signed, and he wrote a note that said, “The last time I asked for an autographed photo I am sure it was not you who signed it. You better not let anyone mess up these magazine covers or I'll sue you.” Esther had warned me to send professional requests to her, so she signed the covers.

As soon as I found another job, I quit working for Esther. But working for Esther Williams taught me that any job can help your career if you let it. Each person, no matter how weird, has something to teach you. And each business has a gem of genius because, hey, they're making enough money to pay you, aren't they? So don't be so upset about the crummy job market; you are about to start your own Esther Williams experience.

4 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Give the customer what they want.”

    William Shatner is doing this now in his new venture ‘Live Autographs’ (as an investor and partner). It’s a new video service in which celebrities appear on camera to deliver a personalized greeting as they sign an autograph. He gives the customer what they want (most of the time -sort of) for $149.

    Excerpted from the article –

    William Shatner sat in a drab office staring at a TV monitor displaying a message he was supposed to read to a fan while signing an autograph, but “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk wasn’t very happy.
    “I can’t do this, this is crazy,” Shatner said.
    “Are you nuts? You want me to say, ‘When I’m smoking and sipping whiskey with Allen’ — who’s Allen? — ‘I’m secretly thinking of you and your dog?’
    “I can’t say that,” Shatner added, glaring into the camera, his words dripping the trademark irony he has summoned in countless TV performances, including his Emmy-winning role as Denny Crane on the ABC courtroom drama “Boston Legal.”

    The complete news article can be found at .
    It’s high tech autographing for a princely sum.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This is not right – I’m commenting on a blog post twice and I’m the only one commenting.
    Anyways this comment is really my way to send you a link to let you know Google is archiving LIFE Magazine in Google books. I found an ad in the April 6, 1959 issue featuring Esther Williams in her Esther Williams pool – .

  3. matchmaker
    matchmaker says:

    Ah, you've got my very favorite sandwich of all time on here – €“turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce. This year I tried to make way, way too much dressing so that there would be plenty left over. No luck – €“it went like hotcakes. I think I'll have one or two sandwiches from it –

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