The Copywriter Closest to God
Read This Or Die. The Lost Files of Jim Rutz.
Jim Rutz was one of the greatest copywriters of all time.
And he was one of the most colorful characters this business has ever seen as well.
If you are a working or aspiring copywriter, you owe a debt of gratitude to Jim whether you have ever heard of him or not…he was a pioneer in creating win-win royalty arrangements for creative talent that many of you use today in your businesses.
More on that shortly.
And if you are a marketer of any product or service, studying the work of this one-of-a-kind talent will be equivalent to a graduate course in direct response.
When Jim passed away a few years ago, his sister Ginger sent me two enormous boxes of his work and all of the work he admired most.
She entrusted me to know what to do with such treasures…and my plan was to create an educational product for the ages with the working title:
“The Lost Files of Jim Rutz”
Side note: One of the incredibly rewarding things that came about when I decided to create this Jim Rutz product was that three copywriters emerged from my online family—readers of this weekly blog just like you—volunteering to work on this product since they had learned so much from studying Jim their entire careers.
I thank my lucky stars every day that Jim Rutz chose me…
Anyway, now that I can say that this Jim Rutz product is taking shape—it will be an incredible swipe file with supporting material, interviews and lessons—I wanted to share the post I wrote about him after he passed away.
In case you missed it the first time, I want you to understand why I am committed to having his work shared broadly with a new generation of copywriters and marketers.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it…I miss Jim terribly…but he left an awesome legacy and body of work.
Here is the story of the “Copywriter closest to God”—let me know what you think after reading it:
I don’t mean to be disrespectful when I say that organized religion owes its success, at least partially, to great copy.
No matter how many times I brag about my previous company Boardroom selling 3 million copies of The Book of Inside Information in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it will never be the all-time bestseller on the planet.
We can’t even come close to Atlas Shrugged much less The Bible.
I bring this up because Jim Rutz understood the power of religion–he actually organized his own church–one that was true to the very early origins of Christianity, when people met in each other’s homes in small groups.
He was VERY serious about it and had quite a following.
He used his incredible talent as a copywriter to build his “Open Church” with story and messaging that was as persuasive as the best magalogs he wrote for the largest marketers in the world.
For me, reading his copy and then watching it perform in the marketplace was truly a religious experience.
Jim liked it when I said that.
I believe his incredible faith is what made him unique among all the great copywriters.
He had faith in God.
He had faith that the products he was selling which he knew could help people.
And he had faith in the intelligence of the reader.
I used to kid him about the fact that I thought he had a two person copywriting “agency” in his house…himself and God…and it just wasn’t fair to have a partner with that much power.
The fact that he knew how to invent a religion and move people at that level, I have to assume that writing copy to sell books and newsletter subscriptions probably came easy to him.
Although as far as I know he never admitted that.
Well…why would he?
Throughout his career, he was able to charge the highest fees of any copywriter this side of Gary Bencivenga and Gary Halbert.
And he was worth every penny.
In fact, every copywriter today who collects a royalty on pieces mailed or a percentage of sales based on performance, owes a debt of gratitude to Jim.
Jim could beat anyone.
In his early days as an “A list copywriter” he wouldn’t even charge an upfront fee but rather collect royalties based on the number of pieces the client was able to mail.
He was confident he could write the package for “free” because he knew he would get the winner and collect more than any upfront fee he could charge.
And we are talking about a royalty of a nickel or more PER PIECE MAILED.
That may not seem like much, but when you’re client is mailing in the millions, it adds up.
I want to make sure you understand the magnitude of those numbers:
Jim wrote winning packages that became controls for some of the biggest mailers in the country…many of his winners mailing millions of pieces…and basically, he got a nickel for each one the Jolly Postman delivered.
I’m guessing that for Boardroom alone, we mailed Jim Rutz controls to the tune of 20 million pieces (probably more but I don’t want to exaggerate…could have easily been 30 million…or more).
And we were (by far) NOT his only client.
Folks waited a year or more to get on his writing calendar.
And as I mentioned above, he usually won the control and collected royalties whenever he competed.
Now do the math…just for Boardroom, 20 million pieces at $50 per thousand is a cool million (dollars).
Then figure he had dozens of clients, many of whom mailed as many (or more) of his control packages than we did.
Pretty nice way to make a living if you’ve got the talent.
Over time, he started charging an upfront fee since the waiting list for his services was so long…he had to go to the highest bidder…gotta love America…he did…and it was all about supply and demand.
So later, he routinely charged $50,000 as an upfront fee for those who wanted to hire him.
He even charged as much as $60,000 or $75,000 on occasion.
In fact, my mentor, Marty Edelston (and I), on behalf of Boardroom, once paid him $100,000 as an upfront fee for a new package because he needed additional money to fund a school for his church in Nebraska for homeless boys.
Keep in mind that if the package bombed, that’s a non-refundable $100,000 sunk cost.
Marty and I had a good feeling he’d earn out the $100K with a killer control (winner) but in that particular case I remember Marty and I discussing that we didn’t even care.
Marty said to me, “Brian…given how much money Jim has made for us with his breakthroughs, I would GIVE him the $100,000 just to help him out. And we’re getting another package for it? Advantage Boardroom!”
Well that was Marty…understanding that if Jim (or Gary Bencivenga or any of our top copywriters) made more money than anyone in the company including himself, it was good news.
Marty would often say things to me like, “These guys are super human with a talent few people have…and if they are making more money on royalties alone than any of our salaried employees, think about how much money their packages are contributing to the bottom line of the company, making sure we HAVE a company. Our employees will get over it when they continue to get their paychecks…raises…and bonuses…because of Rutz and others.”
Did I have the best mentor or what?
The big lesson for all of us:
Never be a cheapskate with copy and creative…it’s just not the place to cut costs…it’s the place to invest in world-class resources.
Put another way: Don’t leave this make-or-break area of your business to amateurs.
And as I’ve said in a previous post, you gotta pay to play.
Thanks to copywriters like Jim Rutz, mailers like Boardroom learned the lesson of true partnership with creative talent.
You can also see why I’m not joking when I often say I wish I could be a copywriter!
And I’ve always wanted to be a great copywriter beyond the jokes about how lucrative it can be financially.
It’s such a position of supreme power and contribution.
Think about the millions of people that a copywriter of Jim’s caliber can move to action…and in my case, the action was buying products that improve the health or finances of buyers and subscribers in significant ways.
He saved lives while being paid as much as anyone in the world to do what he did–as his livelihood.
Now that’s a good way to go through life.
Jim was also a little eccentric but always his own man.
About his love life:
Before there was online dating, he searched for years for a “mail order bride.”
He ran a great ad–the headline was something like:
“Knight in Shining Armor Seeks Damsel…Distress Optional”
The ad was accompanied by a picture of Jim as Sir Lancelot.
He once sent me a picture of a potential bride he chose but “the deal fell through” for some reason.
I didn’t ask questions.
About decorating his home in Colorado Springs (where I visited a couple of times):
He had no furniture in his living room…just neat piles of successful direct mail from EVERY significant direct marketer at that time. Very organized too. He would give me a “tour” when I visited:
“Here’s the Boardroom pile…the Phillips pile…the Agora pile…the Rodale pile.”
He wrote for ALL the biggest and most successful direct marketers.
He knew and studied deeply every package in all of the categories he competed in.
This is a something all of the greats do and it is what turns a “B copywriter” into an “A.”
Put a different way: He was a swipe file junkie…which most of the great copywriters are (as we learned at the epic event “Titans of Direct Response” in 2014, an event I wanted so badly to have Jim as an honored guest but his health was not great at the time).
Back to his living room,: I always wondered why he didn’t have a file cabinet.
I joked with him that he saved a lot of time shopping for a couch and a coffee table by having his swipe file as furniture…more time to write, I guess…
Or maybe there was something divine in what he was doing with his swipes: Jim being such a spiritual man, having those mailing pieces in the open might have allowed their true essence to emit brilliance into the air (and then into his head) without a steel cabinet blocking that part of the creative process.
I repeat…the guy had direct mail as furniture!
How’s that for dedication?
As I mentioned above, Jim was in touch with me in the months leading up to the “Titans of Direct Response” event…we even started planning to have him show up as a surprise guest…but it was not to be.
When he knew he couldn’t make the trip, he said:
“Announce at ‘Titans’ that Jim Rutz is open for business…and I’m ready for an assignment!”
He hadn’t done much for years but in those phone calls, he was getting excited to jump back in.
He loved this business and his craft so much.
I remember feeling re-inspired on those phone calls, not knowing he would be gone a short time later.
I made an announcement from the stage about Jim being ready to reignite… I’m sad now thinking that he never got to fulfill on his comeback.
But Jim’s work lives on and if you’re serious about becoming a better marketer/copywriter, you want to learn from the best.
The product will hopefully be completed by the end of the year but today I would like to give you two of the most successful direct mail packages he ever wrote for me at Boardroom…consider these a special gift from me and from Jim…and a teaser of what is to come.
They are both “classic Rutz”:
“What will you do with your $12,000 Tax Cut This Year?” was for Boardroom’s newsletter Tax Hotline (and on this package, we discovered future Titan copywriter David Deutsch who worked on this promotion with Jim)
“Limo Larry and Champagne Cherie” was a big winner for the largest circulation consumer newsletter in America at the time, Bottom Line/Personal
About trying to emulate him:
My good friend and one of the best copywriters in the world today, Parris Lampropoulos, the man with more file cabinets of mailing packages than anyone I know, said of Jim (and I am paraphrasing from a phone conversation):
“Most of the great copywriters are easy to read, study and pick up things that you can incorporate into your own style…but not Rutz. You read his stuff, don’t understand how he came up with the concept or the execution of the concept, and all you can do is sit back and marvel at it.”
But as we spoke further, we realized that there were so many things in Jim’s copy and the way he weaved a story that could be applied despite the fact that we knew no one could ever write like him.
I’ve never been to Mount Rushmore…I will get there someday…but I love using that particular monument to talk about the copywriters who have made me (and so many others) look so good as marketers all of these years.
Frankly, if I tried to mail a billion promotion pieces (like I have in my lifetime) without world class copy from the greats like Jim Rutz, I would have been out of business before I mailed a million.
To understand the magnitude of Jim Rutz’s contribution, my original Mount Rushmore of copywriters are four of the greatest Americans ever (to me at least):
- Jim Rutz
- Gary Bencivenga
- Eugene Schwartz
- Mel Martin
Jim’s passion for everything he did should be a lesson to all of us, whether you are a copywriter, marketer…anything.
He also trained many of the greats.
John Carlton, one of my heroes and now “Mount Rushmore worthy” himself to so many, posted this about Jim after he passed away:
“Jim was a brutal taskmaster, an over-the-top great teacher, and one of the most skilled ‘pure’ writers I ever met. Also one of the most eccentric.
And while he and I existed in completely different worlds, his advice for me to let my freak flag fly (not his words, of course) helped me create my own global reputation.”
Jim left us with some of the greatest promotion copy ever written…a compensation model that every copywriter today should thank Jim it exists…direct mail formats that he innovated…and dozens of “A list” copywriters who couldn’t copy him but were his prized students.
I am not a religious man but I know Jim is even closer to God now…and they were already pretty close down here on earth too…