April 27, 2024

Growing up in the world of direct mail in the 1980’s, I had many role models.

Most were personal mentors; but many were companies (led by amazing leaders who became mentors) who I paid close attention to and watched everything they did.

We just lost one of those marketing leaders…and he deserves a lot of ink (which means that this is a long and meaningful post) …and he absolutely deserves our respect because he set many business models in motion “back in the day” that are followed by some of today’s most successful top marketers.

Tom Phillips passed away last week…but he lives on…and whether you know about this iconic publisher, marketer, and political powerhouse or not, I will tell you some things today that you don’t know about him…about the legacy he left us…including some lessons you can take to the bank. 🙂

During the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, the “newsletter industry” was one of the hottest areas in direct response marketing—both business-to-consumer and business-to-business.

There was a Newsletter Association along with a “private group” (dare I say a “mastermind” before its time?) of the best-of-the-best publishers, and I was privileged to be part of both as a business builder at Boardroom Inc.

Most of the companies (including Boardroom) are no longer in their previous “form” …except for Agora who I have written about in the past and is still going strong.

You can read about them in my post, “We ARE the bubble.”

While Agora is now a $1.5 billion juggernaut, they were a distant third (in terms of revenue at that time) in the newsletter hierarchy…Boardroom was number two …but the big kahuna was Phillips Publishing.

We were all pioneers…but Phillips was literally the elephant in the room (which was 100% earned based on the work ethic and vision of Tom Phillips).

To set this up, I need to tell you a story to give you some background on this legendary founder…and my personal experience of him:

I go out of my way to never get “political” in these weekly posts…or anywhere for that matter…and I won’t start now.

But this story took place in Washington D.C. and there were politicians involved–but they are only the supporting actors and actresses in this tale.

I attended a gala dinner circa 1994 in the nation’s capital which on the surface seemed like it was all about politics…but for me, it was about best-in-class direct marketing.

The dinner celebrated the 50th anniversary of Human EventsMagazine, which at the time was as far right as any publication in America…and quite influential in conservative politics.

I was invited because a good friend of mine was a key player at the magazine…and I found myself that night in a room filled with the most outspoken and enthusiastic Republicans and conservatives in the country.

Now I’m a Jewish kid from New York…not affiliated with either party…and I have to admit that I felt like a fish out of water…yet I was still very excited to be there.

For the record, I flip-flop registering Democrat and Republican depending on which primary in my state is more exciting and where there is some kind of competition (i.e. usually the non-incumbent party).

You see, I’m more a sports fan than a follower of politics so when voting feels more like an evenly matched sporting event, I’m all in.

Anyway, the speakers at this gala included Phylis Schlafly, Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, Oliver North, and Jack Kemp (considered the “liberal” of the group) who introduced a video from none other than “The Gipper” himself, Ronald Reagan.

If you don’t know who any of these folks are (and if you never heard of Reagan, it’s time for you to go back to school), Google them.

They are all “conservative rock stars.”

Also in the crowd were some celebrities:

Judge Robert Bork who almost became a Supreme Court Justice; and none other than Sonny “I Got You Babe” Bono (at the time the former Mayor of Palm Springs, California, and a future Republican Congressman).

He did some singing before the Palm Springs gig too. 🙂

As each speaker came to the podium, they were greeted with a rousing standing ovation.

Not being a fan or foe of the speakers, I sat in my seat and politely clapped with each introduction.

I must admit that I was a little nervous that I would be found out as an imposter in the crowd (i.e. just not as enthusiastic given by apolitical nature).

But my continued politeness (and excellent table manners) kept me from getting evicted.

One other thing you need to know:

Human Events
 was published at the time by the previously mentioned Phillips Publishing…one of the truly great direct marketing companies ever; and as previously expressed, the founder, Tom Phillips, is one of my marketing heroes.

The final speaker of the night was none other than Tom Phillips…and when he was announced, I was the first person who jumped out of my seat to give him a standing ovation.

As far as I was concerned, Tom was the true rock star of the evening…everyone else served as a warm up act for a man who is direct marketing royalty.

My buddy looked at me incredulously and said:

“You’ve been sitting on your butt all night as one all-star speaker after another came to the stage…and now you stand up?”

I replied:

“I am not standing up for Tom’s political influence; I am standing up for his direct marketing prowess.”

With all that power in the ballroom of The Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. that night, there really was no one more powerful than Tom Phillips.

Direct marketers trump everyone in my world.

It should be noted that at the time, he saved Human Events from going under by buying it when it was struggling—making it his own labor of love.

He was able to do that because he had spent his career creating and building some of the most iconic publications and businesses in the history of direct marketing.

Now to the lessons I learned from Tom Philips, the entrepreneur and publisher:


They worked with only the best-of-the-best copywriters…the folks we today call “A listers.”

They also understood that with all the work and research they did on lists and offers (see below), to leave the copy to amateurs would be the biggest mistake imaginable.

They were also always willing to pay top dollar and regularly had those “A listers” compete against other “A listers.”

 virtually invented the “pay to play” model.

Since we had the same philosophy at my company at the time, Phillips (along with Agora) were my chief competitors to get the best creative talent to write for us.

And most importantly, Phillips never saw copy and creative as an expense but rather as the most consistently successful way to create marketing breakthroughs.

Making sure they were always mailing the best promotional copy was seen as paramount for the company to grow and expand their reach.

They never compromised in this area.

And the numbers proved that their priorities were in the right place.

I know this because when I couldn’t get an “A lister” to write for me it was because they were tied up writing successful promotions for Phillips.

In addition, they also required their entire marketing staff to become students of copy and the result was that many of those folks went on to become top level freelance copywriters themselves.

Two of those stalwarts, Kim Krause-Schwalm and Carline Anglade-Cole (and there are others), eventually became A-Listers themselves who I hired at Boardroom.

Tom’s commitment to excellence—and knowing in a profound way that copywriters are created by understanding marketing (in addition to knowing how to write) has created an exclusive club of some of the best writers in the industry.

Those who still write and market; and many are also teaching the next generation to do the same.

Thanks Tom. 🙂


 understood at the deepest level that once they invested all that money in creative, they better be mailing to the right lists.

From Dick Benson (my direct mail guru), from his “31 Rules of Thumb”:

#23 Lists are the most important ingredient to the success of a promotional mailing.

If you have been reading these posts for the past 9 years–or if you just joined my online family–you know about the “41/39/20 Rule” (outlined in this short video).

Having a friendly competitor (“competition is coexistence”) like Tom Phillips leading the charge on this most important ingredient of any campaign made me even more evangelical about it.

Thanks Tom (again).

 was committed to list research more than any direct marketer I have ever known.

Well, Boardroom wasn’t too shabby either. 🙂

They asked more questions about a list before putting it in the mail–to the chagrin of every list broker and list manager in the industry.

But they knew that spending over $500 per thousand pieces mailed (direct mail was not cheap, especially at the level they did it, with elaborate formats like magalogs and bookalogs…not including the copywriter’s fee) came with huge responsibility, discipline…and risk.

They mitigated that risk with precise and exhaustive list research.

Watching Phillips and emulating them in this critical area of direct response marketing (i.e. list segmentation and research) was the motivation to write Chapter 3 (“How paying postage made me a better marketer”) and Chapter 4 (“List Building and RFM”) in my book, Overdeliver.


Another Dick Benson “Rule of Thumb”:

“No mailer [marketer] tests enough”

This is a call to arms for all direct response marketers; and something that is more critical to success than any other rule on his list as evidenced by how many of his rules refer to testing.

 would not be one of those marketers Benson could ever call out as not testing enough.

They tested offers (in addition to copy and lists) aggressively but intelligently.

They followed the rules of scientific A/B testing and single variable testing.

They only tested big things that could yield big results.

And most importantly, they knew how to act on those results (which were always reliable) since they understood statistical significance and could call every winner with confidence.

They also invested in the best analytics, which was as important to them as investing in the best copywriters and selecting the most appropriate lists.

Without reliable numbers, they knew they would be lost.

I have covered all these core issues in previous posts, and they are all included in Overdeliver… much of which was inspired by watching Phillips for decades.

Diversification from Related Verticals

also diversified into multiple product areas innovatively but always based on their expertise and existing assets.

They only went wide after they mastered the narrow.

This led to success in specialized niches in both consumer and business-to-business marketing which was rare back then…and I think it is even rarer now.

They had a philosophy and strategy behind everything they did, and it wasn’t all about tactics.

Tom was always a man with a plan.

They were also able to succeed with information products and hard goods/physical products…while always keeping an eye on their core audience…and never going too far from what they knew best.

And they never drifted away from what their customers wanted most.

Simply put, the Phillips Publishing secret sauce was that they merged their expertise, skill sets and knowledge with what was working best in the marketplace already…and then followed anecdotal evidence every step of the way while never trying to be something they were not.

And all with unwavering discipline.

That’s why they ended up as leaders in so many different categories including health (newsletters and nutritional supplements), personal finance and investing, business-to-business niches…and, yes, even politics.

Phillips Publishing
 was the gold standard in direct marketing for well over two decades.

And they followed yet another Benson rule:

#21 Direct mail should be scrupulously honest.

Benson never worked online but of course this rule applies to all media, offline and online.

I encourage all of you to study Phillips as a direct marketing case history for the ages.

I continue to study them (and all the newsletter publishers of the “period”) …and I have an offer in the P.S. related to a monumental “study guide.”

At their peak, they were the envy of the newsletter publishing industry and many other industries as well; and at their peak I believe they approached $300 million in sales…maybe more.

Also notable: Phillips perfected a model to sell nutritional supplements under a doctor/guru, using content as the anchor, well before it became a business model for so many others.

Kim Krause Schwalm, in her tribute to Tom, which is titled, “The man who cracked the guru code,” explored this aspect of Tom’s impact in detail.

Sign up for Kim’s Copy Insider newsletter and blog here so you can read what she shared about her experience from the “inside” of Phillips Publishing…and a lot more.

That one division alone, re-named Healthy Directions, was eventually sold by the folks who bought it from Tom for $195 million.

So many of today’s most successful marketers in this category owe a huge debt of gratitude to the pioneering efforts of Phillips.


Getting a job at Phillips was not easy…and Tom is often credited with the line:

“Hire the best and cry only once.”

And as mentioned before, he not only “hired” many of the top copywriters on a freelance basis—but then he incorporated ways to train many of their own staff to become expert copywriters as well.

They also treated their employees with love and appreciation…ask folks who worked there about the time Tom took his staff of 400 hundred people to Disney World on a “company retreat” as a reward when they hit $100 million in revenue.

Kim talks about this in detail in her tribute post as well.

History will show that the number of superstars who came out of Phillips to become some of the most successful copywriters, marketers and entrepreneurs is testament to their unique culture and philosophy.

The lives that were changed for the better because of Tom Phillips and his powerhouse company–his ability to communicate as a world class direct marketer–and put him on the same stage as Ronald Reagan (literally) are testaments to his influence on the world.

Whatever your politics might be, there is no arguing that the impact we can make as direct marketers is mammoth.

Tom Phillips proved that many times over.

The products and promotions the company produced live on in every swipe file worth collecting…I share many of those promos in my Overdeliver Copywriter’s Toolkit (a 400+ page PDF which is one of the free bonuses when you buy the book here).

And, in “Read This or Die” (see the P.S.).

Kidding aside about how I ended up at that dinner that I had no place being at, I really wanted to emphasize what real “power” is all about.

The more we think about it–and the longer we work in this wonderful industry–the more we should embrace the power (and responsibility) to make a huge impact in the world no matter what we sell or how we sell it.

We are lucky to have a skill set that transcends every industry…and one that works in every medium.

To bring it full circle, ask any politician how important direct marketing is to them to get re-elected (direct mail, TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter etc.).

(And while you’re at it, ask them why they get the lowest postage rates for their direct mail) 🙂

But here’s the good news for you no matter what media you use and even if politicians won’t admit that marketing is as important to them as anything:

You never have to run for re-election.

However, your customers will let you know regularly (and not just every 2, 4 or 6 years), in no uncertain terms, whether you can “stay in office” (or not)—as their trusted adviser– based on the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

They will vote with their loyalty…and their wallets.

Our reward as marketers will be that we can change lives for the better while still being financially successful…Tom Phillips proved that time and again and in a wide variety of markets.

Rest in peace Tom…you are a hero of epic proportions.



P.S. “Read This or Die” is the ultimate collection of one of the most successful (and quirky) copywriters of all time, Jim Rutz.

He’s famous for being one of those A-Listers in the middle of the newsletter boom of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s…and one of the most sought after talents by Phillips, Agora, Boardroom (and many others).

One of Jim’s quirks was to use “promotions as furniture” …promotions he wrote and those written by copywriters he looked up to, piled up in every corner of his house.

Note that this group of writers was small and mighty and Jim was at the top of that pyramid.

And this “product” has rearranged all of Jim’s furniture in one place, indexed with critiques too.

When he died, his wonderful sister Ginger (we call her “The Copy Sista” and she is an original member of Titans Xcelerator), sent me three huge boxes of all of those samples that Jim wrote and collected…many from Phillips (and all comers)…and I created (with the help of a team of awesome copywriter fan boys of Jim) a swipe file for the ages.

Plus…interviews, letters, a webinar (with me, David Deutsch and John Carlton waxing poetic about this direct marketing poet) …and more.

It’s called “Read This or Die” (a headline Jim made famous).

If you want to own every piece Jim wrote and collected (based on his very high standard of excellence), you can buy it here.

You know I rarely sell stuff within this blog…but this product is perfect to honor the legacy of Tom Phillips…and a golden era of direct response marketing that will live forever.

Through Jim and everything he observed in the marketplace.

You want this for your direct marketing library…trust me.

I encourage you to look at everything that’s inside this one-of-a-kind swipe file.

Click here to read all about it.

P.P.S. And once again…thanks Tom. 🙂

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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