“No mailer [or marketer] tests enough”
Growing up in the world of direct mail in the 1980’s, I had many role models.
Most were personal mentors; but many were actually companies who I paid close attention to and watched everything they did.
Combined with that, I also feared being one of those “mailers or marketers” who didn’t test enough (according to Dick Benson above).
Benson—along with Gordon Grossman and Richard Viguerie–were the men who taught me direct mail (and in effect, direct marketing); and companies like Agora and Phillips Publishing were the ones I followed most closely to guarantee I never got lazy about testing…or for that matter, lazy about anything regarding marketing.
As many of you know, Agora is still going strong and you can read about them in my post, “Don’t just make money…deserve it.”
But today I want to talk about that other pioneering company from the same era, Phillips Publishing.
Many of you might never have heard of this legendary company but I believe there are lessons for a lifetime we can learn from them, even today, long after their glory days as the top newsletter publisher and supplement company in direct marketing.
But first, I need to tell you a story to give you some background on the founder, Tom Phillips:
I go out of my way to never get “political” in these weekly posts…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 Events magazine, which at the time was as “right of center” 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 the 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.
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 have to 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 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 warmup 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 am not necessarily standing up for Tom’s political influence but 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, I guess.
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.
Some of the reasons why Phillips Publishing was a best-in-class direct marketer:
They worked with only the best-of-the-best copywriters…the folks we call “A listers.”
They also understood that with all the work and research they did on lists and offers, to leave the copy to amateurs would be the biggest mistake they could make.
Another quote from Dick Benson, this time from his “31 Rules of Thumb”:
#30 Test-mailing packages are best when they come from independent creative sources.
They were also always willing to pay top dollar and regularly had those “A listers” compete against other “A listers.”
Since we had the same philosophy at my company (Boardroom Inc.) at the time, Phillips (along with Agora) were my biggest 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 I know this because when I couldn’t get an “A lister” to write for me it was because they were tied up writing 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.
I will tell you about one of those Phillips business builders in the P.S.
Phillips understood at the deepest level that once they invested all that money in creative, they better be mailing to the right lists.
Again, from Benson’s “31 Rules”:
#23 Lists are the most important ingredient to the success of a promotional mailing.
To that end, they were committed to list research more than any direct marketer I have ever known.
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) came with huge responsibility and discipline…and risk.
They mitigated that risk with precise and exhaustive list research.
Watching Phillips and emulating them in this exhaustive part of direct marketing (i.e. list segmentation and research) is why Chapter 3 of my new book, Overdeliver, is titled, “How paying postage made me a better marketer.”
I opened this post with a Dick Benson quote, which is not one of his “31 Rules of Thumb,” but rather 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.
Phillips 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 also single variable testing.
They only tested big things that could yield big results; and more 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 of these core issues in previous posts and they are all included in my new book…much of which was inspired by watching Phillips.
Phillips also diversified into multiple product areas innovatively but always based on their expertise and existing assets.
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 not just tactics.
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 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.
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.
That one division alone, re-named Healthy Directions, was recently 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 a few hundred people to Disney on a “company retreat” to reward them for amazing results.
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–put him on the same stage as Ronald Reagan…literally.
And 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 can’t wait to share many of those promos in my Overdeliver Copywriter’s Toolkit (a 400+ page PDF that will be free when you buy my new book); and also in the Jim Rutz product my expert team has almost completed (Rutz was a major writer for Phillips).
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 also 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 in order 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 every 2 or 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.
Regardless, 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.
P.S. One of the greatest copywriters and marketers that Phillips Publishing ever “produced” is Kim Krause-Schwalm, a member of my Titans Master Class and a great friend.
I love that Kim started on the marketing side of things and then learned copywriting from some of the best copywriters who have ever lived, both internally and externally, while at Phillips—and then became one of the greats on her own.
As a freelancer, she wrote some phenomenal control packages for me at Boardroom (and so many others), beating controls from some of the most prolific copywriters in the process.
She is hosting her own event at the end of March called Copywriting Velocity which is a one-of-a-kind, two-in-one event—a Copy Intensive and a Mastermind.
And as part of my online family you will receive a $700 discount if you would like to attend…see below.
It’s happening March 29-30 in Washington, D.C.
It will be a small, intimate setting where everyone will receive personal attention with no more than 24 attendees in the room.
Day one is a full-day Copy Intensive led by Kim where she’ll share her complete soup-to-nuts system for writing million-dollar promotions—plus she’ll break down some of her most successful controls.
Day two is a full-day Mastermind with special guests Carline Anglade-Cole, Richard Armstrong, Lori Haller, and Big Jason Henderson sharing their secrets—all “A listers” in their areas of expertise (copywriting, design, and email marketing).
Go to: www.CopywritingVelocity.com
And as you know I never take an affiliate commission so I have arranged with Kim to give you a $700 discount…just put this code in at checkout:
Hope you can make it.