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Two Young Men That Made $1 Billion

The Holy Grail of Direct Mail

January 2007 By Denny Hatch
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In the News

Making Snail Mail Still Matter
Not so long ago, pundits predicted that the Internet, and in particular e-mail, would lead to a paperless world. Reports, marketing materials, photos, greeting cards—and, of course, letters—would all be reduced to electrons zipping through wires. Residential mailboxes and corporate in-boxes would interest only curators, and Pitney Bowes, the quintessential mail company, would join buggy whip companies as historical artifacts. Not quite.
Claudia H. Deutsch, The New York Times, Dec. 30, 2006

Martin Conroy, 84, Ad Writer Famous for a Mail Campaign, Is Dead
Martin Conroy, an advertising executive who without recourse to glossy paper or fancy graphics created one of the most enduring ad campaigns of all time, died on Tuesday in Branford, Conn. He was 84 and lived in Madison, Conn., and Captiva, Fla.
Margalit Fox, The New York Times, Dec. 22, 2006
On the Mount Olympus of direct marketing, two figures stand at the summit looking down at everyone else that followed:

* Regnault de Mouçon, Bishop of Chartres, France.

* Martin Conroy of Madison, Connecticut and Captiva, Florida.

On the night of June 10, 1197, fire raged through Chartres, destroying many of the buildings and severely damaging the cathedral. At first, it was believed that the city’s precious relic—the Sancta Camisia, the robe that Mary wore when giving birth to Jesus—was lost in the flames. Bishop Regnault de Mouçon wanted to rebuild, but without their relic, the citizens of Chartres gave in to despair.

Two days later, Cardinal Melior of Pisa—who happened to be staying in Chartres—was exhorting the dispirited towns people to rebuild when suddenly a procession of priests and nuns emerged from the smoking crypt, bearing the reliquary containing the sacred robe intact. The cardinal immediately saw it as a direct sign from the Mother of God to build an even more magnificent church.

Bishop Regnault de Mouçon sprang into action and wrote letters to all of the noble families of Europe. Even though France was at war with England, he received permission from Richard the Lion-Hearted to raise money in England.

Regnault de Mouçon pioneered the first direct mail campaign in history. The result was the creation of an architectural and artistic masterpiece that has awed pilgrims and worshippers for 800 years.

“Of all the formats used in direct mail,” wrote the late guru Dick Hodgson, “none has more power to generate action than the letter.”

No one used the humble letter with more prodigious effect than Bishop Regnault de Mouçon.

And Martin Conroy.

The Greatest Advertisement in History
I started collecting direct mail in earnest in about 1982—noting, cataloging and filing it in what became more than 200 categories in 40 file drawers.

From the beginning, I started noticing a simple letter from The Wall Street Journal that kept coming in month after month with the regularity of the moon. In a small No. 7 envelope, this simple mailing contained a two-page letter printed front and back, an order slip and a BRE. It was written and first mailed in 1974. The lead of the letter:

Dear Reader:

On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both—as young college graduates are—were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

Takeaway Points to Consider:

* The “Two young men …” letter slavishly follows the rules of direct mail.

* Amazingly, the letter never says that the man who became president read The Wall Street Journal while the other did not. It was implied.

* “Letters should look and feel like letters,” said the late guru Dick Benson. This does.

* “Use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.”
—Andrew Byrne

* “Avoid superlatives and brag-and-boast language. Wherever possible, incorporate anecdotes, testimonials, success stories and other believable elements of human interest.”
—Don Hauptman

* The order form offers six payment options: (1) Payment enclosed; (2) American Express; (3) VISA; (4) MasterCard; (5) Diner’s Club; (6) Bill me.

* “ ‘Bill me later’ is the basic payment option used with free trial offers. The bill is usually enclosed with the merchandise or follows a few days later. And it calls for a single payment. Because no front-end payment is required by the customer, the response can be as much as double that of a cash offer.”
—Jim Kobs

* “I think that some of the direct mail I get is spoiled by the old-fashioned sin of pride. There’s really only a handful of us writers, and, face it, we lead pretty nice lives in pretty up-grade places with pretty smart friends and it’s all too easy for us to start to feel superior to the great multitude of readers out there. And sometimes, without really meaning to, we write down to them. I think that this shows through in the finished product and turns readers off. So when I’m working on my stuff, I try to keep in mind two things from the Good Book of Direct Response. One: Write unto others as you would have them write unto you. Two: Pride goeth before a flop.”
Martin Conroy

Update on Prior Stories

Women Take Over at Last!
With Couric and Logan on Board at CBS, Maybe the Evening News Will Come Alive
This was the headline and subhead of my June 6, 2006 column that discussed the excitement that I felt for the long and overdue giant leap for network news—the accession of a woman, Katie Couric, to the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News. In the 6:30 to 7:00 p.m. time slot, my wife, Peggy, and I watch six news shows at once—ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, MSNBC and CNN—jumping from one to another when they cut to commercials or have a story of no interest to us. We watched Couric’s September 6 inaugural newscast pretty much in its entirety. Alas, in the days that followed, we found ourselves switching to other newscasts. In a year-end round up of TV news, a critic from The Philadelphia Inquirer described Couric as presiding “over a schizo show that regularly wastes precious time with uninformative opinion pieces and drawn-out interviews featuring numerous shots of her legs.”

Ratings tell the story. From the Media Bistro blog, “TV Newser,” on Dec. 27, 2006:

Evening News Ratings: Week of Dec. 18
NBC Nightly News is back in first place … NBC had 950,000 more viewers than ABC … and ABC had 1,090,000 more viewers than CBS.
For the week of Dec. 18:
Total viewers: NBC: 9,480,000 / ABC: 8,530,000 / CBS: 7,440,000
25-54 viewers: NBC: 2,888,000 / ABC: 2,733,000 / CBS: 2,349,000

A fascinating aside: Compare the number of 25-54 viewers to total viewers and it’s immediately obvious that network news is mostly watched by AARPers. The string of dreary commercials by adult diaper manufacturers and pill peddlers that show animations of stomachs, colons, prostates and toenail rot confirm that analysis—an indication that network news is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the majority of the population.

Meanwhile, rumors are swirling throughout the industry that former MSNBC news chief, Rick Kaplan, will move to CBS to help boost Couric’s ratings.

A Gross Uproar
A Month That Has Shaken the Art World
My Nov. 21, 2006 story described how Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University privately sold for $68 million an artistic masterpiece, The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, to one of the Wal-Mart heiresses for her new museum in Conway, Arkansas. If Philadelphia could match the price by December 26—a 45-day window—the painting would be allowed to stay. Philly’s culture vultures went ballistic, but sprang into action and formed a committee to keep The Gross Clinic in town. Peggy and I received a desperate postcard from the doyenne of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Anne d’Harnoncourt, asking for financial help. We declined, because she failed to guarantee that our gift would be returned if the necessary funds weren’t raised and the picture went to Conway.

Web Sites Related to Today's Edition:

The Wall Street Journal
www.wsj.com/
 
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COMMENTS

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Most Recent Comments:
David Garfinkel - Posted on January 05, 2007
Denny, great analysis -- as usual. One thing to consider is that the Journal actually ran a HUGE, if unofficial and possibly even unawares integrated campaign. No doubt in my mind that the copy was superb and Conroy wrote a letter that rang true on every note to the demographic and psychographic slice that was - is - the biggest part of the newspaper's market. But think for a second of people on the train from Westport to Manhattan... or the boss in the morning... or the guy who approves and denies loans at the bank. What do you see them all doing? Reading the Wall Street Journal! So while those of us who write copy that has to pull could never say that *any letter would have worked,* I do think this one had a huge marketplace advantage by dint of all the social proof implied by the widespread daily use of the product itself.
Gordon W. Grossman - Posted on January 04, 2007
Denny:

I love your newsletter, not least because when you're dead wrong, you're so certain about it. The "two young men" letter is ok copy, even it it's obvious stuff.

The string of numbers that you put together to make it sound like something fantastic are based on pure fancy. WSJ has always had about the lowest response rate of anybody who's still in business. They have never tested anything useful or interesting, and just kept mailing this letter for decades because they're lazy. (no tests = no winners = no change, does not = great copy).

Counting how long something stays in play is a lousy way of keeping score, when you're trying to compare active mailers who test all the time with slugs like WSJ.

Gordon W. Grossman
Lou Schuyler - Posted on January 04, 2007
Denny, One of the early lessons in AWAI's copywriting course refers to the "7 Deadly Sins." Mr. Conroy's way of converting them to a positive was brilliant. As to the cultural elite...they will always talk down to others because they desperately need that feeling of superiority. After all, what do the great unwashed masses know? Lou Schuyler
don - Posted on January 04, 2007
Regarding your comment:
I received a desperate postcard from the doyenne of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Anne d?Harnoncourt, asking for financial help...
I'd say this too was a pretty successful direct mail solicitation. $30 million bucks in 45 days? Not too shabby!
Keep up the good work!
Carl Street - Posted on January 04, 2007
Denny,

Your story illustratest the vast culteral gap between the middle ages and today. In the middle ages successful direct mail used a woman's garment to promote religious fervor; today it is used to promote Victoria's Secret catalogues... :)

Carl Street
carl_street@cjstreet.com
Adam Moskow - Posted on January 04, 2007
Denny,

Happy New Year! Another interesting piece. The WSJ "Two Young Men" letter is always so fascinating to hear about. I've seen several other marketers attempt to use that same exact approach -I wonder how it works for them since it could be to different markets for a first time. On another note, I firmly believe direct mail is here to stay and will (is!) going through a rebirth of strength. Of course, I'm talking about good direct mail - which is and will always work.
Sean Giorgianni - Posted on January 04, 2007
Click here to view archived comments...
Archived Comments:
David Garfinkel - Posted on January 05, 2007
Denny, great analysis -- as usual. One thing to consider is that the Journal actually ran a HUGE, if unofficial and possibly even unawares integrated campaign. No doubt in my mind that the copy was superb and Conroy wrote a letter that rang true on every note to the demographic and psychographic slice that was - is - the biggest part of the newspaper's market. But think for a second of people on the train from Westport to Manhattan... or the boss in the morning... or the guy who approves and denies loans at the bank. What do you see them all doing? Reading the Wall Street Journal! So while those of us who write copy that has to pull could never say that *any letter would have worked,* I do think this one had a huge marketplace advantage by dint of all the social proof implied by the widespread daily use of the product itself.
Gordon W. Grossman - Posted on January 04, 2007
Denny:

I love your newsletter, not least because when you're dead wrong, you're so certain about it. The "two young men" letter is ok copy, even it it's obvious stuff.

The string of numbers that you put together to make it sound like something fantastic are based on pure fancy. WSJ has always had about the lowest response rate of anybody who's still in business. They have never tested anything useful or interesting, and just kept mailing this letter for decades because they're lazy. (no tests = no winners = no change, does not = great copy).

Counting how long something stays in play is a lousy way of keeping score, when you're trying to compare active mailers who test all the time with slugs like WSJ.

Gordon W. Grossman
Lou Schuyler - Posted on January 04, 2007
Denny, One of the early lessons in AWAI's copywriting course refers to the "7 Deadly Sins." Mr. Conroy's way of converting them to a positive was brilliant. As to the cultural elite...they will always talk down to others because they desperately need that feeling of superiority. After all, what do the great unwashed masses know? Lou Schuyler
don - Posted on January 04, 2007
Regarding your comment:
I received a desperate postcard from the doyenne of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Anne d?Harnoncourt, asking for financial help...
I'd say this too was a pretty successful direct mail solicitation. $30 million bucks in 45 days? Not too shabby!
Keep up the good work!
Carl Street - Posted on January 04, 2007
Denny,

Your story illustratest the vast culteral gap between the middle ages and today. In the middle ages successful direct mail used a woman's garment to promote religious fervor; today it is used to promote Victoria's Secret catalogues... :)

Carl Street
carl_street@cjstreet.com
Adam Moskow - Posted on January 04, 2007
Denny,

Happy New Year! Another interesting piece. The WSJ "Two Young Men" letter is always so fascinating to hear about. I've seen several other marketers attempt to use that same exact approach -I wonder how it works for them since it could be to different markets for a first time. On another note, I firmly believe direct mail is here to stay and will (is!) going through a rebirth of strength. Of course, I'm talking about good direct mail - which is and will always work.
Sean Giorgianni - Posted on January 04, 2007