As I prepare for my Titans Mastermind meeting this week—only our second live event since January of 2020 (and I am looking forward to it!), I wanted to share one of my favorite posts of the past about one of the greatest copywriters of all time…and there’s a good chance you have never heard of him.
First a little history.
When talking about the greats in anything—sports, entertainment and yes, even direct marketing—thinking about creating a “Mount Rushmore” is a convenient way to narrow the choices to only four…putting the best of the best on a pedestal…or better yet, etched into the side of a mountain.
At the “Titans of Direct Response” event, in 2014, we created a swipe file from the four top copywriters writing for Boardroom over a 20 year period (basically the second half of my stint there).
These four guys were responsible for over 650 million pieces of successful direct mail over that time. So…I put them on Mount Rushmore:
For those of you who don’t recognize these four monumental writers “in stone,” they are Eric Betuel, David Deutsch, Parris Lampropoulos and Arthur Johnson.
Parris happens to be speaking at Titans Mastermind this week—where we will engage in a “fireside chat” on how he teaches the next generation of copywriters…and also, how he has advanced his career when not writing (i.e., how he has become an expert student of media and marketing to make his writing, and the writing of his students, so much more powerful).
Maybe I’ll share the session in a future blog post if you are interested. Let me know.
Also, David Deutsch is a member ofTitans Mastermind…what goes around comes around, I guess. 🙂
But if I go back to my first 20 years at Boardroom, Mount Rushmore consisted of four other greats, and it’s interesting to note that the four guys mentioned above acknowledge these previous four as their mentors.
Three of them you have probably heard of–Gary Bencivenga, Jim Rutz and Eugene Schwartz–and all three are icons I have written about many times in the past.
Click on their names to read more about them.
The fourth you probably never heard of…his name is Mel Martin…dubbed by some industry historians (who actually knew him!), “The Master of Fascinations.”
You’ll need to keep reading to learn about him…and learn what a “fascination” is too if that term is new to you.
Mel was Boardroom’s secret weapon behind the scenes for over two decades.
This is from the eulogy Marty Edelston (founder of Boardroom) gave at Mel’s funeral in 1994:
“We had lunch regularly…to dream about changing stupid systems…which ultimately led to [some of the most famous headlines which we called fascinations] in the history of direct marketing.”
If some of the “fascinations” below that Marty cited in his eulogy sound familiar, it might be because you have been around for a long time and studied them.
But they also might sound familiar because variations of them have been repurposed, re-worded and copied over the decades since the time Mel originally penned them:
- What never to eat on an airplane
- How to collect interest from two different banks at the same time
- The two most forgotten tax deductions
- Bills it’s Okay to pay late
- What credit companies don’t tell you
Note: I could mention hundreds of other institutions, industries and companies Mel cited as hiding stuff from consumers—i.e., what “‘THEY don’t want you to know or don’t tell you” –and you should know that Mel was an original (or close to it) writing copy like this–which you see and hear regularly today on the Internet, TV and radio.
Mel also pioneered what I call the “bloodhound approach” to writing copy (which I will elaborate on shortly).
Allowing readers to know who is ripping them off and who is there to save them works like crazy online or offline despite being pioneered in the olden days (i.e., direct mail in the 60’s through the 90’s).
Mel created his own brand of this world, beginning with the most titillating fascinations. He turned it into an art form.
Fascinations like those above were used as subheads in sales letters, body copy, envelope teasers…anywhere and everywhere they fit into a particular promotion.
Without being too hyperbolic, Mel Martin changed copywriting forever in profound ways…and he understood as much as anyone who has ever written promotion copy how to truly get under the skin of his audience.
Or as Marty liked to say:
“Mel wrote copy that made you vibrate.”
Getting under your skin with vibration…I guess that’s the definition of making your skin crawl?
But in a good way. 🙂
While I thought Mel was most influenced by Gene Schwartz, who was known for his famous “bullets” (previously mentioned as “fascinations”), Mel told me it was actually Ralph Ginzburg who influenced him the most…and Ralph’s story is one worth telling…and reading about.
For brevity today, click here to read Ginzburg’s very colorful Wikipedia page.
Pay particular attention to the “hit” Ralph took for all marketers in 1972…by taking his case for free speech to The Supreme Court…and serving 8 months in prison.
In the words of playwright, essayist and screenwriter Arthur Miller, regarding the sentencing of Ralph Ginzburg:
“After all the legal, moral and psychological arguments are done, the fact remains that a man is going to prison for publishing and advertising stuff a few years ago that today would hardly raise an eyebrow in your dentist’s office. This is the folly, the menace of all censorship—it lays down rules for all time which are ludicrous a short time later.”
This is something that Mel admired…as we all should when someone stands up for principles that change history.
And Mel also admired Ralph’s writing style.
But I digress.
Back to the legend of Mel Martin.
What Mel (and Gene) also innovated was to perfect the simple yet powerful technique of adding page numbers after every fascination (referencing a book or premium).
While this technique may have been done before them, no one did it with the same acumen and precision.
What was fascinating (pun intended) was how buyers from those famous packages would call our customer service representatives after receiving the product telling us when the fascination from the promotion didn’t match up (or satisfy them) on page whatever of the book.
They actually saved the promotion for weeks after ordering to check up on us.
We learned that not everyone threw away their junk mail–especially when they were proud owners of a Mel Martin masterpiece.
I maintain that this was an unintended “stick strategy,” keeping readers and customers in our orbit for a longer period of time, before, during and after ordering…which translated into higher lifetime value.
We learned the valuable lesson that there are no such things as customer complaints only engagements with your family of buyers.
And that goes way beyond buyers checking up on the accuracy of our page number references on our fascinations.
All profit, cash and otherwise, begins (and never ends) with engagement.
My favorite Mel Martin story is the one about The Book of Secrets…which began as a flop…but it became one of the most successful books ever sold via direct mail by us (or anyone else for that matter).
Marty and I loved checklists…I still do…and one of the most therapeutic things we do as humans is cross stuff off our checklists.
We created a “Book of Checklists” for consumers…and we even printed the book in a different shape (longer and narrower than a standard book to mimic a checklist) …and we assumed the book would be a blockbuster success.
We were wrong.
Our incorrect assumption was that the book would “sell itself” (just saying that makes me cringe).
We didn’t invest in an “A+ copywriter” to write the package. The thinking was that since WE loved this idea why wouldn’t our customers be in love with it too?
Hence, we hired a B-/C+ copywriter (something we rarely did) because we were so in love with the product.
Did I mention we were wrong?
But we weren’t going to give up so easily…we knew the content was something our audience wanted (based on some limited editorial research) …so maybe the title was the problem?
That is, “checklists” implied there is work involved (despite our premise that everyone loved to cross things off their checklists).
The new title we tested in a follow up mailing:
“The Great Book of Inside Knowledge.”
And lo and behold…
…the results were worse…and by a wide margin.
Now giving up might have made sense at this point…but since we believed in the content, we finally made the assumption that we had a creative and copy problem.
We were slow learners at the time.
So rather than kill the project, we called in our secret weapon, Mel Martin.
Mel took that same book–“checklists” that had become “inside knowledge,” all of which no one seemed to want—and he turned it into The Book of Secrets.
He wrote an entirely new package, all fascination driven, with questions and problems answered inside the book…and he took one of the biggest losers we ever had and turned it into one of our biggest winners ever.
We mailed in excess of 20 million names for that book…and I recall one single mailing of 9 million names which was by far the single biggest mailing Boardroom ever did for any one book.
I remember Marty calling our lettershop who was preparing that 9-million-piece mailing to ask how many semi-trailer trucks it would take to transport 9 million pieces.
The answer was 36 and he loved the mental image of 36 huge trucks driving all over the country to post offices with our direct mail.
The Book of Secrets sold over 500,000 copies over its lifetime.
Mel wrote some of the most intriguing fascinations for this book and I think more importantly, he hand-picked the 4 fascinations that would go on the outer envelope (which he felt would create “maximum vibration/skin crawl” for readers):
- How to refund airlines’ non-refundable ticket
- How to make your car very, very hard to steal
- Vitamins never to buy in a health food store
- How to know when a slot machine is ready to pay off
Lessons from this story and Mel’s unique writing style:
1. Multiple entry points for a reader or prospect, focusing on universal fears and concerns that consumers need solutions to, is a very effective method to capture a very large audience…or…” fascinations rule” …or as I have said before, quoting venture capitalist Frederick Adler, “Paranoia is not a psychosis, it’s survival.”
2. The outer envelope is your welcome mat to your direct mail package…just as your subject line is your welcome mat to the emails you send…see the P.S. for more about this connection Mel created going from direct mail to email (without ever writing an email).
3. If your product or service is good and you believe in it, there is always more than one way to spin it…and to make it more powerful. As Gary Halbert famously said, “Every business problem can be solved with a great sales letter.”
4. While tweaking a promotion leads to marginal improvements, the idea of blowing up what you have and starting with a brand-new copy platform and approach is where the really big breakthroughs happen. I am saying this in contrast to what I talked about previously with “Deeply and Irrevocably Personal” which was the exception, not the rule, regarding a small thing creating a big breakthrough.
5. The concept of the “bloodhound”—someone seeking the truth on your behalf—is an approach we took to the bank for decades without Marty being a true “guru”…but rather being the man behind the secrets, finding the experts to back them up, becoming the reader’s guardian angel. It was Mel who figured out how powerful this could be for consumers. And if you don’t think the “bloodhound approach” is something that could work for you in today’s world, think again.
6. Did I say fascinations rule? 🙂
There are many more lessons from this humble, behind-the-scenes copywriter. I learned so much watching Mel “reassemble copy” rather than simply write it.
It’s something all the greats are able to do…and no one did it better than Mel Martin.
I have this picture hanging on my wall next to my desk:
This is Marty, in his prime, a black belt in karate, splitting a board on a stack of copies of The Book of Secrets.
When Marty passed away, his wife Rita was so generous to give me this photograph and it reminds me every day of the story of The Book of Secrets, and in particular, Marty’s marketing stamina and Mel Martin’s creative genius.
It’s a story of “persistent marketing” (i.e., never giving up when you believe in a product that you know there is desire for it the marketplace) while marrying the most appropriate copy with the perfect list.
This is far from being bullheaded or stubborn…and it is never a waste of time.
It’s at the core of being a world class direct marketer…which both Marty (and Mel as his secret weapon) epitomized.
I have such fond memories of Mel…pacing in the office in his white buck shoes, chain smoking (when you could still smoke indoors!), all the while working like a mad scientist figuring out what fascinations would titillate the largest number of consumers possible.
It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest teachers of copywriting today actually have their students master this technique of writing, whether they call it fascinations or bullets, even before they learn how to write headlines, leads, body copy or anything else.
Parris Lampropoulos is one of those teachers and he will share his perfection of this technique at Titans Mastermind this week.
Mel didn’t look like a trendsetter (or a “professor”) …there’s a picture of him in the link in the P.S….he simply taught by showing rather than telling.
He taught a generation of copywriters and marketers an important subset of the craft…by example….and through an incredible series of successes.
With a lot of sweat and toiling.
And in doing so, he created some of the most successful promotions in the history of direct mail without fanfare or publicity.
P.S. I found a wonderful blog post in my archives, all about Mel Martin, written by direct marketing hero and historian, Denny Hatch.
It repeats some of the things I’ve mentioned above (since I was interviewed for the article along with Marty) …but Denny adds even more color to this once-in-a-generation writer…including the link between fascinations and subject lines…despite Mel not being alive to enjoy the fruits of email marketing.
Also included in the piece are a lot more of his most famous fascinations.
I hope you will read it when you get a chance…click here.