March 30, 2021

If you have been part of my online family for a while, you know I lament that too many of mentors are dead…but you also know that I quickly turn that apparent sadness into new energy…thanks to you. 

Because whenever I profile a great direct marketing practitioner or copywriter of the past, you have been quick to respond to me how valuable learning the lessons from these legends of direct response marketing need to be kept alive…and they will be as long as I am alive. 

I am also very appreciative when you write to me and tell me that this mission is a noble one and that you see that these marketing lessons are eternal and applicable to your businesses today. 

Net-net, my sadness always turns to gladness. 

I am much more saddened, however, that so many people I grew up with in direct marketing in the 1980’s and 1990’s—the people my own age at the time—have also died (more figuratively than literally) when they thought this “Internet thing” would never replace direct mail and print. 

And they also failed to embrace the fact that the Internet is the ultimate direct response medium…that is, everything is measurable AND you can get your results much faster (understatement). 

But I will note that despite the speed, accuracy still matters…we still need to use discipline when it comes to making the right tests and having them be statistically significant too. 

Read “A statistically significant virgin” for some insight on that expansive topic. 

When I was thinking about all of the mentors and friends I have lost over the past four decades, I started thinking about all of the not-so-secret secrets that created their staying power…assuming that the marketing superstars of today will need their version of the same thing. 

My topic today is about one of those things that originated in the world of direct mail that I believe is an eternal truth of direct response.   

From A-List copywriter John Carlton: 

“Pros grind; wannabes whine” 

There is the obvious “grind” of being willing to do anything to learn and get ahead, especially early in your career. 

And we all know that the learning should never stop no matter how old you are. 

As an example, the stories about the copywriters who wanted to study under Gary Halbert are legendary grinds…they would work for nothing as an apprentice for a year or more just to soak in Gary’s brilliance…and from what I understand, they also got to do some minor household chores too. 

They were copywriter cubs and butlers at the same time. ☺ 

When I started at Boardroom as a list manager in 1981, I remember telling the woman who didn’t want to hire me because she said the job was “beneath me”:

Beneath me?! I’m 23 years old, I’m making $9,000 a year in my current job, so nothing is beneath me.

For the $12,500 per year you are planning to pay me, I will scrub the bathroom with a toothbrush (although I would love some direct marketing education sprinkled in while I am scrubbing). 

Another “grind” and today’s topic: How you make money is not directly proportional to the number of hours you actually spend selling. 

When I began my career in direct marketing I was the “in-house list manager” at Boardroom and essentially sold the Boardroom Lists (despite the fact that lists were “rented” for one-time use and not “sold”). 

My job was to make sure everyone in the direct mail community was renting (i.e. mailing) the Boardroom mailing lists, some of the most responsive lists in the industry. 

I sold directly to mailers and marketers…but more often I sold to list brokers who represented the mailers…and if you think I knew what a list broker was on my first day in 1981, think again. 

I thought they worked on Wall Street (which of course they did not).  

Although many made as much money as many stock brokers at the time. 

The list brokers were among the most powerful (and wealthy) folks in the direct mail business…I recall flying  to the Direct Marketing Association annual conference every year  and all of the mailers and clients would be walking through first class into coach, passing the list brokers having their pre-flight cocktails. 

It was a boom time for the list business when direct mail was king…and the list brokers ruled the land (or so it seemed). 

I also remember, without bragging, that I became one of the top list managers in the country in a very short time. 

The fact that my lists were so responsive for so many different kinds of offers and worked for everyone didn’t hurt in terms of my popularity;  but I also believe that I earned my reputation because I figured out different ways to sell and present those lists which differentiated me from all other list managers at the time. 

It was not rocket science how I figured it out…and it was game changing. 

The most important thing I did (which seemed simple and obvious at the time) was that I made time to talk and meet with other list managers—my “competitors”—and not just the mailers and list brokers. 

On the surface these encounters took away from “selling time” to the mailers and brokers…after all, it was the mailers and brokers, not the other managers, who were responsible for my livelihood (i.e. making money). 

But I was playing a different (long) game…and I was willing to give up some short term income to spend time sizing up my competition, seeing how they were selling and presenting the lists in their portfolios. 

And what I found out was shocking. 

The language of the list industry was (and is) “data cards”…every list had one with (supposedly) all of the pertinent information any mailer or broker would need to make a decision whether to mail the list or not. 

And list managers made an erroneous assumption that those data cards had everything necessary for a mailer or broker to make that decision…so they would simply mail stacks of data cards in 6 X 9 envelopes to list brokers regularly. 

Even when they met and presented to the list brokers, they talked about the lists, repeated what was on the cards, but little else. 

What they didn’t talk about that was critical: The promotions and programs that created those lists

This element, among all others, was one of the secrets to whether a list would work or not and it was never on a data card. 

Surprisingly, most list mangers didn’t make that connection. 

And this lead to my further examination of the world of data cards which I’ll tell you about in a minute.  

Most list managers were “shuffling a deck of list data cards” instead of going deep to what was behind each list and then becoming a partnered direct marketer with their clients. 

Finding this out opened up doors I never would have imagined…and not just finding out how mediocre most of my competitors were (which was astonishing in itself). 

They turned their specialty product (i.e. a unique list) into a commodity (i.e. a quantity of names on a card) in a flash. 

And very rarely, if ever, would another list manager approach me to compare notes…they were too busy selling all day (or so they thought what they were doing was effective selling)…and they didn’t see the value in differentiating themselves…or the lists they represented. 

I had this approach of learning from my direct competition all to myself in the list business…although I always would have been willing to share everything and anything I was learning about this wacky little marketplace of mailers, brokers and managers with anyone who would have asked me. 

It is not relevant to think of two list managers as competitors…if a mailer/broker can make my lists work and your lists work, they will mail BOTH of our lists. Why not talk shop how best to sell? 

Direct mail was a business that was always an “and” rather than an “or” when it came to mailing as many relevant lists as possible. 

And interestingly, over the decades, direct mail is still an “and” as a medium that too many online only digital marketers continue to ignore. That’s not today’s topic.   

I became the guy who coined the phrase,“Data cards are guilty until proven innocent”

Clicking on the phrase above will bring you to a PDF of a cover story from a trade magazine in 1994 (and don’t let the year fool you)…it’s relevant to you in today’s list world too. 

It’s about a worksheet I created to make sure list selection for a direct marketing campaign was as thorough as it could be…before you put and address label on your mailing piece and added the postage. 

This work sheet became my secret weapon once I switched over to the other side of the desk as the mailer, taking what I had learned as a list manager. 

Every list broker who worked on my mailings had to fill out this worksheet for every list they recommended, forcing list managers to make a compelling case to my list broker, a case that they were not forced to make in the past…and my list broker would only bring me the lists that could survive the questions that needed to be answered on the worksheet. 

While it’s true that every list we mailed was a bigger risk than lists we mail today (i.e. we had to not only pay top dollar for the list but there was also something called printing and postage), I believe the same rigors of list selection are applicable to all lists whether you are paying for them or not, and whether you are marketing offline or online. 

My list brokers considered me a pain…but it was the only way to survive the direct mail world as I knew it. 

I also required my list brokers to attach a mailing piece (or a photocopy of one at a minimum) that showed me how the names were generated.  

I believe the logic behind this kind of list research applies to all media today even though most of the lists you use online don’t have data cards attached to them. 

Lists are people too…and finding out as much about them–how they think, how they respond, how they read, what they read—are components you can find out before you ever send a promotion to them. 

As a list manager, when I presented to list brokers, of course I brought data cards; but I came armed with a whole lot more. 

And that’s what I wanted my list brokers to be armed with when I became the mailer. 

I always brought the promotions that got the names on to those data cards…which led to discussions about the psychology behind how those buyers and subscribers got there in the first place, and how that related to the mailer’s philosophy of selling. 

As a manager or mailer, I was always in a direct marketing strategy session, not just figuring out which lists to mail. 

I even went as far as showing mailing pieces from a specific copywriter (or a copywriting style or direct mail format) and explained that the mailer’s copywriter was using a similar approach to ours…and therefore there was a synergy between the lists that would never be discovered on a data card. 

Later, as the mailer, I expected to see that “copywriter crossover” to be presented to me when applicable. 

This is all in addition to what’s behind the numbers and information on the data card…and I refer you back to “Data cards are guilty until proven innocent.” 

This initially came about by simply spending time with the salespeople who were doing the same job I was doing…and finding out all of the gaps in how they did it…and how I could differentiate what had become a commoditized selling process. 

Everything flowed from there. 

Realizing that there was no way that a data card by itself could tell the full story about a list was critical. 

Because, as you know, if you get the list wrong, no irresistible offer coupled with world class copy will make up for targeting the wrong audience. 

Remember the 41/39/20 rule? (Click here for short video if you don’t know what I’m referring to.) 

I believe the logic behind this kind of list research applies to all media today even though most of the lists you use online don’t have data cards attached to them. 

Fast forward to today where my obsession with list selection– and why 41% is a majority–is something that I can never get out of my head. 

The best news of all, from my selfish perspective, is that I didn’t die when the Internet came along. 

One way I made sure I would survive was first being a student of my competitors (which is something that never goes out of style). 

And second, one item that came from studying them—understanding “where lists really come from”—has not only kept me alive but somewhat relevant as well.   



P.S.  My good friend, Victoria Labalme is not a list manager…but she invented something so much better than data cards which I wanted to tell you about…cards of a different sort…that I use in my business every day. 

She invented “V Cards” which is a color coded index card system to organize anything…a blog, a book, a live event, a keynote speech…and I have used this system for years for all of those things…as have hundreds of other people…and now many more thousands will learn this seemingly old school technique because it is outlined in her new book, Risk Forward. 

Victoria is anything but old school, however…and she is not a one trick pony either. 

While this book has nothing to do with marketing (directly), it touches on everything about marketing under Victoria’s prescription for unlocking your hidden genius. 

Many of us live in a world that prizes planning, goal setting, and clarity. 

But how do you move forward in times when your goals aren’t yet clear, your project or plan is still unfolding, or you can’t quite see the path ahead? 

Victoria, who is a world renown performing artist and performance strategist, coach to some of the world’s top speakers (and founder of a landmark program, “Rock the Room”), and a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame, has an answer that’s reassuring…and radically different. 

In Risk Forward, you’ll find unconventional advice to help you find your way through moments of uncertainty or indecision to unlock your hidden genius and achieve remarkable results. 

Including V Cards! ☺ 

And what she shares throughout the book aligns so perfectly with all that I, and most of you in my online family, try to do when sharing our content with the world. 

Victoria shows up in the world as a world class marketer despite “marketing” not being part of her C.V.  

Aren’t those always the best marketers? 

When she endorsed my book Overdeliver what she said applies to Risk Forward:

A marketing balm to the sore business soul.

Risk Forward is also a trusted and friendly companion to guide you through whatever ails you whether you are always looking to the future or stuck in the past. It’s a guidebook for living. 

This brief, easy-to-read, full color “experience” is a treasure and a gift… for yourself or others. 

Click here to claim your copy and a host of exquisite bonuses worth more than $250. 

Of course I receive nothing for recommending Victoria or the book except the satisfaction that you will benefit from her genius.

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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