In the 1970s—before telemarketing, infomercials and spam—direct mail was the main response medium. And like every medium, direct mail had its stars—a charmed circle of brilliant copywriters whose names were synonymous with big results and big fees. Among them: Bill Jayme, Chris Stagg, Frank Johnson, Linda Wells, David Ogilvy, Maxwell Sackheim and Ed McLean.
With the passing of Ed McLean on Aug. 13 at age 77 after a long illness, the last of the great stars has ceased to shine.
McLean was a very special guy—short, funny as hell, with a small mustache and an impish smile. He was enormously supportive when my wife, Peggy, and I launched our cranky, little newsletter, WHO’S MAILING WHAT! (now Inside Direct Mail), in 1984.
McLean got into direct marketing in 1958, and in the course of a dazzling career generated nearly $1 billion in sales for his clients. Of the thousands of mailings, inserts, off-the-page ads and radio scripts he wrote, two letters are his signature classics:
1. The 15-year control for Newsweek that began, “If the list upon which I found your name is any indication, this is not the first—nor will it be the last—subscription letter you receive.”
2. An off-the-wall effort for Mercedes under the aegis of the legendary David Ogilvy that started, “’Forget it, Heinz,’ the experts told me. ‘It just won’t sell here.’”
As well as a pioneering copywriter, McLean was a great teacher who could hold an audience spellbound at an all-day seminar on direct marketing without PowerPoint slides, overheads or even notes. Many of his secrets of direct mail copy were revealed in his classic, “The Basics of Copy,” a monograph so successful it went through five editions.
With do-not-call and Can Spam laws on the books, direct mail is again the workhorse of direct marketing. This was confirmed by a Winterberry Group whitepaper issued in October that forecast a 7.5 percent increase in direct mail in the coming year.
Much can be learned from McLean, who divided copywriting into three parts: prewriting, writing and rewriting. He wrote in “The Basics of Copy”:
If many direct mail copywriters believe that skillful rewriting can ensure the success of a direct mail package, I’m just as convinced that most of the failures in producing direct mail copy can be traced to inadequate attention or none at all to the prewriting stage.
The prewriting stage calls for you to learn as much as you can about your 1) reader; 2) product; 3) reader benefits; 4) goals—immediate and long-term; and 5) offer.
You know your reader so well you can almost see her. You know your product so thoroughly you could get up now and deliver a half hour talk on it, without notes. You know how your product features can benefit your reader, and you haven’t rejected any one reader benefit because it doesn’t seem as important to you as the others. You know what you want your reader to do immediately, and what you hope she will do eventually. You know the cost of your offer and are sure it will attract serious prospects.
Now you are ready to write!
Prewriting is when the basic thinking about a mailing should be done. The writing stage should be a fast, almost mechanical, act of getting something on paper. Rewriting should be more than merely a polishing process. It should develop the copy and make it flow.
“Only direct mail copy enters the home or business through the same channel as personal and business letters and is viewed as part of the day’s mail,” McLean wrote. “Magazines or newspapers—although welcomed—are never viewed as mail.”
The coda of “The Basics of Copy” is worth remembering:
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY,
BUT WHAT IS BELIEVED.
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU MEAN,
BUT WHAT IS UNDERSTOOD.
Denny Hatch is a freelance direct marketing consultant and copywriter. You are invited to visit him at www.dennyhatch.com, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.