Are You Writing for Spiders?
I have spent the past 50 years as a copywriter. OK, I also ran book clubs, started a newsletter about junk mail, wrote eight books of fiction and nonfiction and launched this publication.
But my bread-and-butter has always been writing copy. I learned to start with a headline that grabbed the reader by the throat, and then create copy that won't let up until I get the order, inquiry or donation.
Look at the Google entries IN THE NEWS at the right. Search Engine Optimization is the current rage—grabbing the attention of spiders and crawlers in the hopes that the message will surface all over the Internet.
Yet it's flesh-and-blood people that want information, spend money on goodies and give to charity—not emotionless, pre-programmed electronic robots.
Go ahead, fascinate robots. But if your message is a bore, you are a mouse click away from oblivion.
Call me Luddite or troglodyte, but I will continue to write headlines and copy for people, not robots.
And I'll study the work of the great copywriters, such as Mel Martin.
"Mel was one of the world's greatest copywriters, and nobody has ever heard of him." —Brian Kurtz, Vice President, Boardroom, Inc.
Mel Martin, master of Fascinations.
Fascinations. Teasers. Taking an old-fashioned teaser—usually found on an envelope—and stuffing an entire mailing full of them, nakedly appealing to the emotions that scare people and drive them to action.
The tortuous trek of Mel Martin from laborer in the vineyards of advertising and publishing to rarefied heights in the pantheon of the greatest direct mail copywriters who ever lived began modestly enough at the Sussman & Sugar agency and, thereafter, at the Friend-Reiss agency.
It was at Friend-Reiss in the late 50s that he used to be called on by Martin Edelston, an aggressive young advertising salesman for Max Ascoli's now defunct Reporter magazine. Two decades later, that meeting would be to newsletter publishing what Ben & Jerry were to ice cream.
In the early 70s, Mel Martin was hired as a copywriter by Herb Nagourney, the toothy publisher of The New York Times book division whose business was built on running coupon ads in unsold space in the Times. While there, Martin created what Edelston considered to be some of the greatest book advertising ever written. "I would love to go through the Times on microfiche and find those ads," Edelston says. "Each was masterpiece."
After Nagourney and Mel Martin parted company in 1974, Marty Edelston hired Mel to write editorial material on a per diem basis for his fledgling newsletter, Boardroom Reports. Quite simply, Mel Martin detested the work. So Edelston went along with Martin's idea to create a contents page. From 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. one day every two weeks, Mel Martin would boil down the contents of the newsletter into a one-page table of contents, which ran on the cover. In Edelston's words: "Each contents page was a glittering jewel—far and away better than the rest of the publication." These contents pages were the birthplace of "fascinations." A sampling:
Advance warning on longer lead times in major areas.
Consumer discontent: How management misjudges it. A four-step program
for keeping out of trouble.
Which U.S. and foreign cars hold their value longest.
Danger to executives using company lawyer.
When a raise is not a raise: Why young executives are unhappy.
Premiums that work.
How to use visuals.
When customer list can be classified as a trade secret.
Premiums women want.
Inducements to move your business.
What office colors work best.
Easy way to speed letters.
Useful book for retailers.
How to handle sales call reports.
Easier T&E accounting.
Overcoming the fear of flying.
Attire for women managers.
Traps in issuing checks.
Trend to watch: Retort pouch.
How to stay out of court: Part 2 of Fred J. Halsey, Jr.'s series on avoiding litigation. The mistake that is the biggest single cause of business lawsuits; how to soften a potentially damaging statement made on the phone; ways to defuse an angry customer.
The front page of a single issue of Boardroom Reports might contain 60 to 80 of these teasers. You had to take a look!
Moving Into Direct Mail
Edelston proposed that Mel Martin try a direct mail package to get subscribers for Boardroom Reports. The writer did not have a clue where or how to begin; he had only written ads—never a package. So Martin created an ad, and the two of them converted it into a direct mail package.
Here's Mel Martin's #10 envelope for Boardroom's Bottom Line:
Bills it's okay to pay late
- Supermarkets: Shocking new rip-offs
- How to buy a house with no down payment
- How to slash your property taxes
- What never to eat on an airplane
Sometimes Martin's envelopes used a single fascination in jumbo type, covering most of the envelope face:
WHAT CREDIT CARD COMPANIES DON'T TELL YOU
Here is the letter lede for seven-year control for Bottom Line/Personal:
• What never ... ever to eat on an airplane
• The dirtiest, deadliest airline in the whole world
• How to get VIP treatment in hospitals. (All patients are not treated equally.)
• How to find out if someone has a "past" — criminal record ... bankruptcy ... or whatever they're hiding.
• The little-known casinos in Atlantic City and Nevada that offer the best odds.
• Deduct the cost of your hobby as a business expense, even if you never show a profit.
• How to get an Oval Office tour of the White House.
•Get a hotel suite ... while paying for a room.
• How competent/incompetent are your lawyer and accountant? Check ‘em out...secretly.
(And other surprising secrets you're not supposed to know.)
Dear Fellow American,
This letter is about information that's "none of your business".
Did you know that certain specific foods they serve you on a plane will lower your blood sugar count at high altitudes — leaving you tired ...
Mel Martin: Up Close and Personal
"He was a very gentle man who did not like interacting with people. Rodale wanted him, and they just couldn't come to terms. He worked in his apartment at 81st Street and First Avenue. We talked a lot—mostly on the phone on weekends. He had a huge terrace and several thousand plants; he was an accomplished gardener and an aficionado of classical music." —Marty Edelston
Mel Martin was also a very sick man—for years. "By my count, he had over a dozen doctors aside from his internist," Edelston said, "one specialist for each thing that was wrong with him." Brian Kurtz, Edelston's brilliant young vice president, added: "He was an incessant smoker. In fact, if he ran out of cigarettes, he had to quit writing and run out for cigarettes."
The image that Kurtz and Edelston painted was reminiscent of Marcel Proust who suffered terribly from tuberculosis and resided in an cork-lined room in Paris, venturing out occasionally in the cool of the evening when the lower humidity did not aggravate his delicate lungs. The difference between Mel Martin and Proust: Proust produced torrents of prose.
"Mel Martin was the world's slowest copywriter," Edelston says. "It would take him three or four months to write a direct mail package. He could get stuck for a month on a letter opening."
In the beginning, Mel Martin used to do pencil sketches of how he wanted the packages to look. Eventually he taught himself to use the computer and, in Edelston's words, "became a first-rate, second-rate computer artist." He would design each mailing with tiers of fascinations, the most powerful ones appearing in the largest type. When he wasn't writing copy, Martin would read all of Edelston's newsletters—Boardroom Reports, Bottom Line/Personal and Tax Hotline—and turn the various stories into fascinations. He maintained a massive database of fascinations, including full annotations of which article appeared in which newsletter on which page and where on the page and on what date. When it came time to create a book for past newsletters, the Master would go into his database of fascinations and cook up a mailing; Edelston's editors would then create a book based on Mel Martin's mailing package, not vice versa, as is the usual case in publishing.
Because he was so slow, Mel Martin could not support himself as a freelancer. Early on he asked Edelston for more money. The answer was no; cash flow wouldn't permit it. Finally, Edelston agreed to buy 25 percent of Mel Martin's time. Edelston increased the percentage as Martin's other clients died off and he kept writing winning packages.
"He loved what he did. He used to deliver the finished copy to our offices himself—always perfect. The writing invigorated him. It gave him energy." Kurtz said. "I remember once right after a serious operation, he started writing a package and positively exuded energy. It was his best package. Think of it! He wrote his best package within days of being operated on!"
In 1990, guru Axel Andersson suggested a feature for my WHO'S MAILING WHAT! newsletter—that awards be given to long-term control direct mail packages that continued to work year after year, beating back all tests against them. Edelston's organization won a staggering 10 Axel Andersson Awards. An amazing 16 million of the seven-year-old Mel Martin package, "Bills it's OK to pay late" (née "What never to eat on an airplane") mailed in 1994.
Because Edelston was so protective of Mel Martin—paranoid that some direct marketer might discover his name and phone number and offer him a writing job—he would never reveal his name. As a result, Martin received no Axel Andersson Certificates of Excellence. Every time I did my Axel Awards slide show, I was forced to talk about "Marty Edelston's mystery copywriter."
Mel Martin died in 1994. His legacy: a powerful copywriting technique that made it possible for Martin Edelston to build a $125-million-a-year business and an extraordinary oeuvre of direct mail that continues to generate profits well into the 21st century.
P.S. All reader comments are welcome. However ... some changes
Over the seven years this e-newsletter has been published all correspondence has been automatically forwarded to my in-box, email@example.com. I read every word of every letter, and did ultra-lite editing—correcting spelling, typos and tangled syntax—before posting the comment. The only comments I did not post were spam, potential libel, expletives or anonymous messages with no name or email address.
I have always made it a point to reply privately with a thank you to everyone who took the time to send in a comment and, as readers know, often I would add a backstory as well as try to answer any questions. Replying individually—as opposed to posting replies—is based on my belief that in the column, I’ve had my say and the comment section is for you to have your say.
A new system has been put in place. All comments are automatically posted without my seeing them first. So please run you comment through Spell-Check and self-edit.
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