Too many of my mentors are dead.
I had a lot of friends early in my career who made fun of me for having so many mentors, all of whom were in their 60’s and 70’s when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.
Looking back, it was a great move. I got the best from the best. Hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom from a handful of greats.
That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news: Many of my mentors are dead now…which saddens me at some point almost every day.
However, I have turned much of that sadness into new energy thanks to you—because you have been interested in learning the lessons from these greats of direct response marketing who need to be kept alive…and they will be as long as I am alive.
I am 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 has turned to gladness.
I am much more saddened, however, by the fact 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) 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.
When I was thinking about all of the mentors and friends I have lost over the past three decades, I started thinking about what kinds of things were needed to create staying power for them…since I assume that the superstars of today will need their version of the same thing.
For starters, I’ll quote copywriter John Carlton who just said this on Facebook:
“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…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.
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)”
But there’s another “grind” I am reminded of which is equally important and powerful…the one I’ll call, How you make money is not directly proportional to the number of hours you spend selling.
When I began my career in direct marketing I was the “in-house list manager” at Boardroom and essentially I was a salesman.
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…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 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 was known as one of the top list managers in the country.
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.
And it was not rocket science how that happened.
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 list brokers.
On the surface these encounters took away from “selling time” to the list brokers…it was the brokers, not the other managers, who were responsible for my livelihood (i.e. making money).
But I was playing a different 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 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 assuming that the data cards were complete and accurate, list managers would simply mail data cards in stacks to list brokers…and even when they met and presented to the list brokers, they talked about the lists but not about the marketing behind those lists…which was the key to whether a list would work or not.
Most list managers were playing a game of “list sales” instead of being a partnered direct marketer with their clients.
Finding this out opened up doors I never would have imagined.
Just finding out how mediocre most of my competitors were was astonishing in itself…that they could turn their specialty product (i.e. a unique list) into a commodity was a lesson for a lifetime.
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)…and they were not in the business of differentiating themselves.
I had this approach of learning from my competition all to myself…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.
In fact, it is really not relevant to think of two list managers as competitors…if a mailer/broker can make my list work and your list work they will mail BOTH or our lists…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.
In an online launch you don’t just work with one affiliate do you?
I became the guy who coined the phrase,“Data cards are guilty until proven innocent”; and when I presented to list brokers, of course I brought data cards but I came armed with a whole lot more.
I also brought the promotions that got the name on to those data cards (i.e. the lists)…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.
We were in a direct marketing strategy session and not just figuring out which lists to mail.
I even went as far as showing mailing pieces from a specific copywriter 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.
All of this was made possible 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.
Plus…there was no way that a data card by itself could tell the full story about a list; and 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.
Fast forward to when I was on the other side of the desk as a mailer.
I created a work sheet that every list broker who worked on my mailings had to fill out for me on every list they recommended, forcing the list managers to make a compelling case to mail their list to my broker, a case that they were not forced to make in the past.
I required my list brokers to attach a mailing piece (or a photocopy of one) that showed me how the names were generated.
This is a PDF of a cover story from a trade magazine in 1994 about the worksheet I created. Let me know what you think.
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.
And fast forward some more to the present 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 simple way I made sure I would survive was being a student of my competitors (which is something that never goes out of style).
And neither does knowing a ton about the lists you promote to.