Jayme & Ratalahti - Creative Team of the Century (3,454 words)
by Denny Hatch
If any organization has put a stamp on modern direct mail, it's not the U.S.Postal Service, but rather the recently retired, two-man creative team of Pittsburgh-born freelance copywriter Bill Jayme and Finnish designer Heikki Ratalahti.
In a four-decade partnership, their stylish direct mail solicitations launched some three dozen magazines including New York, Smithsonian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Cooking Light, Air & Space, Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street, Worth, Saveur, Tufts Nutrition Letter, Mother Jones and the Harvard Medical School Health Letter. In their heyday, Jayme-Ratalahti had a five-month queue of publishers and circulation managers, hats in hand, ready to pony up $20,000 to $40,000 for a single direct mail package—not bad for two weeks' work, but well worth it when the launch mailing brings in so many subscribers that investors will eagerly pop for $5 million to $10 million, or more, to start the magazine.
In the late 1940s, Jayme ran out of money during his senior year at Princeton and moved to New York, where he became a messenger at Young & Rubicam, a major Madison Avenue advertising agency. On the side, he wrote for television and had a drama produced at the old "Studio One." When he applied for a job at Time-Life, no editorial positions were available, but the legendary Frank Johnson offered him a job in the circulation department.
More than once over the years, Johnson has complained how he hates being famous for the so-called "Johnson Box"—that headline at the top of a direct mail letter, usually surrounded by a rectangle of asterisks. In fact, Johnson doesn't believe he invented it. He would much rather be remembered for the giant 17˝x22˝ circulars that he created for Time-Life and, later, American Heritage—those splendidly gaudy bed sheets that kept on unfolding until they dominated everything in the room.
Jayme's first assignment from Johnson was a subscription acquisition effort for Life magazine, then celebrating its 15th anniversary. What came out of Jayme's typewriter became known as the "Cool Friday" letter that broke all the previously accepted rules of direct mail.
First off, Jayme never got around to the offer nor why he was writing until the 16th paragraph at the bottom of the second page ("And today we are inviting you to join them as a regular LIFE reader at a very special introductory rate ..."). What's more, the price was not mentioned until nine paragraphs later on page three—the last page of the letter.
It was old-fashioned narrative rather than a sales pitch that flowed from Jayme's Remington manual typewriter. A letter filled with evocative images and nostalgia and written with such elegance and grace that readers were not only hooked immediately, but enough of them stayed through to the end and took the requested action ("Take nine months of LIFE for just $3.99 and send no money now"). It was Life's control for years.
Jayme did not need CHAID nor regression analysis nor focus groups to define his universe. Rather, he was intuitively able to visualize the person he was writing to and create an intimate, seemingly private letter that was so powerful it magically persuaded a person to respond.
Here's how another well-known freelancer, Harry Walsh, described the direct mail letter:
Even though it may go to millions of people, it never orates to a crowd but rather murmurs into a single ear. It's a message from one letter writer to one letter reader.
Many years later, after Jayme had crystallized his philosophy of direct mail, he wrote:
Why is Ben and Jerry's causing meltdowns in the sale of other ice cream manufacturers? Because everyone knows that these two guys not only make the stuff themselves by hand, but also personally examine each scoop.
Why is L.L. Bean the envy of Macy's? Same reason. Because everyone knows that old L.L. not only sews the shoes himself, but also sees that they fit.
The two basic tenets of selling are that 1) people buy from other people more happily than from faceless corporations, and 2) in the marketplace as in theater, there is indeed a factor at work called "the willing suspension of disbelief."
Who stands behind our pancakes? Aunt Jemima. Our angel food cake? Betty Crocker. Our coffee? Juan Valdez. Anyone over the age of three knows that it's all a myth. But like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, the myths are comforting.
CBS heard about Jayme's work at Time-Life and offered him more money. At CBS he became copy chief in the advertising promotion department. At the time, CBS had won all the radio ratings and on his first day of the job, Jayme pitched a no-hitter with an ad that depicted a radio with only a knob for volume. The headline: "The day they threw the knob away," implying that CBS was the only network worth listening to.
After three years at CBS, Jayme became an advertising copywriter for McCann-Erickson and hated the company, the products and the people. So he went to Europe for a year and "returned destitute" in 1950. It was Frank Johnson who suggested he become a freelancer. "What's that?" Jayme asked.
After Johnson explained, Jayme moved into the Players, a magnificent 19th-century townhouse on Gramercy Park that had been the home of the great actor Edwin Booth (brother of the notorious John Wilkes Booth) before being turned into a private club for actors and "men of the theater."
Jayme immediately landed a ton of work from magazine consultant Dick Benson and his partner, Chris Stagg, as well as garnering assignments from Frank Johnson for James Parton's Horizon, sister publication to Parton's groundbreaking American Heritage.
Until 1962, Jayme was forced to hand off his copy to any of a half-dozen designers who specialized in direct mail.
"Here," the writer would say, "do something with this."
The result was that designers—who knew art but not human psychology—would turn out packages so pristine and tidy that the prospect would glaze over with boredom, or so garish that the term "junk mail" was coined to describe them. Back in the 1950s, direct mail writers and designers seldom talked to one another.
In 1962, Jayme met Ratalahti, whose family owned bookstores in Finland and persuaded their American counterparts at Doubleday to hire their son to learn publishing. Ratalahti's first job was working as a sales clerk at the Doubleday flagship bookstore on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, where he immediately distinguished himself by catching a shoplifter.
At 5:30 in the afternoon he noted the crime and called the NYPD, who dispatched two traffic cops to make the arrest. Fifteen minutes later he and the perpetrator were driven way downtown to 100 Center Street, where the thief was found guilty by a night court judge and fined on the spot. Justice was deliciously swift, sure and sweet in those days.
Jayme (pronounced Jamie) teamed up with Heikki (sounds like flaky) Ratalahti, and together they transformed the medium, doing for direct mail what Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes and Eero Saarinen were doing for American industrial design.
One of their earliest assignments was to help launch New York, formerly the Sunday magazine section of Jock Whitney's "Herald Tribune," which Clay Felker and celebrated designer Milton Glaser rescued after the Trib folded. Jayme's radical idea: a sweepstakes. Felker went ballistic.
"You are not launching any magazine of mine with a sweepstakes," the publisher snarled. Glazer immediately echoed Felker's sentiments.
"Ah," said Jayme, "this will not be your typical sweepstakes—not a Winnebago stuffed with thousand-dollar bills. Rather, the grand prize will be a private dinner at Gracie Mansion where you can tell Mayor John Lindsay how you would run the city of New York."
Other prizes included attending a Broadway opening with theater critic Harold Clurman, a pub crawl with Jimmy Breslin, a fashion show with the reigning doyenne of chic, Eugenia Sheppard, and a Central Park bench named for you in the grand tradition of Bernard Baruch. Oh, yes, and a loser's prize: a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
The package worked and was mailed—with variations and updates—for years. And working with Felker made Jayme-Ratalahti fall in love with the business of launching magazines. Jayme:
Our typical client was a 28-year-old entrepreneur who didn't know what he wanted to do in life. The magazine business sounded intriguing, so he tried the idea out on his rich father-in-law who gave him $300,000 for a test. At that point he came to Jayme-Ratalahti. "What's the magazine about—what's the subject matter?" I would ask. He would reply, "Um, I think it should be ... about food. Food magazines seem to do okay." "What's the title?" I would ask. "You guys make it up," was the reply. And why not? This was my constituency. I knew what they wanted. I knew how to make them respond to me.
The result was invariably a magazine Jayme and Ratalahti would like to read themselves.
"I was writing to myself," Jayme said. "It was all very inbred."
In a feature article on Jayme-Ratalahti, "Junk Mail's Top Dogs," in The New York Times Magazine, Randall Rothernberg wrote:
Owen J. Lipstein recalls traveling to see Jayme and Ratalahti in 1982 with $150,000 and an idea for a health magazine. In about 30 seconds he told them its name, American Health, and explained that existing health magazines "worshiped death" while this one would be "life worshiping."
"Of course," said Jayme, agreeing immediately to write a test letter. "People want to live forever. Let's go to lunch."
Lipstein pulled out a sheaf of notes. "Don't you want to hear any of my story ideas?" he asked.
"I'll make them up," said Jayme.
Felker said it took a full year to turn New York into the magazine he originally wanted after Jayme-Ratalahti had set the tone and style and decreed what articles readers could look forward to.
The Secret of the Jayme-Ratalahti Technique
Jayme-Ratalahti threw out the old model, in which copy was written first and design came later—almost as an afterthought. Rather they conceptualized the package from outer envelope all the way through to the order device—the look, the feel, the sound of each element and how it worked to enhance the whole and sell the product.
Normally they started with two of the basic elements of a direct mail package: The carrier envelope (which is what the prospect first sees) and the order form (which crystallized in their minds exactly what the deal was).
The Outer Envelope
Sometimes they went with a #10 and once in a while a 9˝x12˝. But their hallmark was the 6˝x9˝ with a "FREE" token showing through its own round window. The show-through token gave them the added advantage of another color on the outer envelope without having to pay for a bigger, more sophisticated printing press. Whatever the size, a Jayme-Ratalahti envelope was always a grabber—a delicious teaser that got the envelope opened, whereupon the letter picked up on the theme.
Some examples of their envelopes include:
• McGraw-Hill's Business Week, a four-letter word in giant type dominated the envelope: "DAMN!"
The letter copy asked, "Do you find a perfect stock you are tempted to buy ... and you put it off for a day or two ... and it goes up ... and you find yourself saying, 'DAMN!' Well, now's the time to stop saying damn ..."
The mailing was a success and on its way to becoming a solid control when a priggish golfer at the local country club yelled over to Harold McGraw on the adjoining tee, "Hey, Harold, how come you are using profanity in your mail?" McGraw wimped out and killed it.
• For Psychology Today, the envelope teaser read: "Do you close the bathroom door even when you're the only one home?"
• Jayme and his client, Martin Edelston of Boardroom Reports, carried on a spirited and constant stream of private correspondence. Concerned that his letters would not get through the corporate filters to reach Marty, Jayme put on one envelope: "Deeply and Irrevocably Personal."
Edelston was so amused he put it up on the corporate bulletin board. Shortly thereafter the line found its way onto a Bottom Line/Personal promotional envelope and was the control for 15 years. Edelston paid Jayme a handsome bonus.
• For Earthwatch, The Jayme-Ratalahti envelope read:
Got some free time?
A week? A month? A summer?
Come volunteer for a conservation project in the wilds.
An environmental study in the tropics.
An archaeological dig abroad.
Or, if you're busy now, cheer us on from the sidelines.
As Jayme explains it:
Your outer envelope is where your prospect decides to stop, look and listen. It's the come-on—the headline on the ad, the cover of the catalog, the dust jacket on the book, the display window outside the store...
The same holds true for the business arena as well. Any competent secretary can recognize bulk mail. The secret to overcoming the "secretary barrier" is to create an envelope that looks interesting.
What Makes Direct Mail Different: The Letter
Jayme was truly the master of the direct mail letter—that intimate, personal, me-to-you communication that allows you to fire your message of any length at point-blank range in the privacy of the home or office, which makes direct mail unique. As Jayme has said, "Of all practical advertising media, only direct mail offers a sufficiently large canvas for telling a complex story." And the linchpin of direct mail is the letter.
Today, you are seeing an increasing number of direct mail efforts that do not include a letter—double postcards, self-mailers, catalogs, clever mailers sealed on all four sides printed inline—none of which pack the emotional wallop of an old-fashioned letter, in corny typewriter type, signed by a real person.
Oh, yes, sometimes these mavericks contain what could be called a letter—an abbreviated personal message, often printed in a Times-Roman font that conveys all the intimacy, wit, charm and emotion of a Harvard Business Review article.
Or, with the advent of sophisticated database marketing and computerization, many letters today attempt to make up for poor writing and lack of intimacy by the use of tricky computerized personalization. Jayme's take:
Personalize indiscriminately at your peril. Do you really want as a customer some boob who gets turned on by seeing his own name repeated nine times in a single page?
Jayme is a literate, urbane iconoclast with a wicked, raunchy sense of humor and an eclectic mind that can turn conventional wisdom on its ear.
At one point, the direct marketing industry was having a minor mental breakdown over the widening use of the term "junk mail." Hot letters were being written to the media by hurt members of the profession.
Back when it had some style and class, the Direct Mail Advertising Association (now The DMA) hired Jayme-Ratalahti to create a spectacular mailing targeted to every member of Congress. The package included a brochure with a full-sized mailbox with the headline:
"Anything beats an empty mailbox."
When this brochure was opened, out fell a personalized envelope and letter to each legislator touting the benefits of direct mail advertising.
Jayme, however, expressed his real feelings about junk mail in an interview I did with him for Who's Mailing What! many years ago:
I don't understand why the industry hates the term junk mail. I love it. After all, antique dealers love junk shops. Old car enthusiasts love junk yards. Until a few years ago, Wall Street loved junk bonds. Who among us doesn't like to head for the beach with a pile of junk fiction? And what's a Hong Kong fisherman without his j--k? Junk is a wonderful word. Of course, in Heikki's and my case, we spell it junque.
An Operatic Diversion
In the early 1960s, Jayme met composer Douglas Moore in Santa Fe, NM, and ran into him again in 1964 at the Century Club in New York.
"What are you working on, Doug?" Jayme asked Moore, best known for his "Ballad of Baby Doe." Moore went off on a long riff about the huge mistake he had made in accepting a commission from the University of Kansas to write an opera about a native Kansan. He had "gone through the grim, relentless history of Kansas" and decided John Brown had been done to death. And Alf Landon, one-time candidate for the vice presidency of the United States, seemed hardly a worthy subject.
That left Carry Nation, "a mean, nasty woman" who, against her father's wishes, married a Civil War surgeon whose only escape for the horrors of war was not letting a cork remain too long in a bottle of whisky lest the contents spoil. Forced to choose between the abusive drunk she married and her baby, she chose the latter and went on to become a radical temperance activist.
Moore needed a libretto and Jayme volunteered. Keeping the bill collectors at bay with his "junque" mail, Jayme started attending the Metropolitan and New York City Operas to pick up pointers on the craft of writing for that recherché and forbiddingly expensive art form and spent a year on the libretto.
When he handed the first act to the composer, Moore's only comment was, "The word 'throughout' is impossible to sing. Remember, the words have to be projected 500 to 1,000 feet."
"I can change that," Jayme said.
"Carry Nation" was produced at the University of Kansas in 1964 and, later, in San Francisco and by the New York City Opera where it was recorded (it is not available on CD).
When Jayme was asked if he made money on the deal, Ratalahti jumped in and said, "Are you kidding? Bill chartered a private plane to take all his friends out to the opening night in Kansas, put them all up in hotels, wined and dined them. Make money on the opera? It cost him a small fortune!"
The Move to San Francisco
In 1967, Jayme needed a change, so he and Ratalahti opted for San Francisco. Paul Goldberg, then circulation director for Consumer Reports, went to his board of directors and was allotted $1,500 a month to retain Jayme-Ratalahti.
"They did everything—acquisition efforts, billing and renewal series, space ads, everything," Goldberg said. "It was a steal."
For Jayme-Ratalahti, the Consumer Reports' retainer was a grubstake that kept them going until they built up a client base and a mythic reputation that persists to this day.
Always a heavy smoker, Jayme found the hills and stairs of San Francisco unmanageable, so in 1990 he and Ratalahti moved to a spectacular house on five acres overlooking the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley.
On a clear day they can see the towers of San Francisco 45 miles away. Visiting their Bart Road hideaway became a personal hadj for everybody who was anybody in direct marketing.
In the words of Felker: "Like pilgrims to the guru, we have to go up the mountain to see them." Jayme-Ratalahti continued to produce packages for a vast network of clients in Sonoma valley—Jayme on an IBM Selectric and Ratalahti rendering, cutting and pasting by hand even while everyone else
migrated to the computer.
On his 70th birthday four years ago, Jayme covered his typewriter and stopped taking phone calls. Partly, he was tired. And partly he was beginning to feel like a commodity. He would ask someone in the business if he knew a copywriter named so-and-so.
"Yeah, we used him once," would invariably be the reply.
The warmth went out of the business. So Jayme and Ratalahti went cold turkey.
Jayme does not think highly of today's copywriters:
I'll tell you what really irks me. Few copywriters today seem to care. How many times have I heard a colleague say to me, 'I'd love to have another drink with you, but I have to knock out a package tonight.' My God, Heikki and I spent two weeks getting it right. I cared about every single word. Heikki knew every single line and every typeface."
When asked if he had any advice or rules for modern day copywriters, Jayme replied:
The only real rule I know for success in life, business and even direct marketing is that there are no rules, including this one. If it all worked on rules, there never would have been Shakespeare. I have spoken.
Denny Hatch, consultant and freelance copywriter, founder of Who's Mailing What! (now Inside Direct Mail) and former editor of Target Marketing, is the author of "Method Marketing" and "2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success." He can be reached at www.methodmarketing.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bernard Baruch
- Betty Crocker
- Bill Jayme
- Chris Stagg
- Clay Felker
- Denny Hatch
- Dick Benson
- Douglas Moore
- Edwin Booth
- Eero Saarinen
- Eugenia Sheppard
- Frank Johnson
- Harold Clurman
- Harry Walsh
- Heikki Ratalahti
- James Parton
- Jimmy Breslin
- Jock Whitney
- John Lindsay
- John Wilkes Booth
- Louis Rukeyser
- Milton Glaser
- Norman Bel Geddes
- Raymond Loewy
- Santa Claus