April 24, 2022

I was thinking once again today about the late Joe Sugarman, one of the greatest direct marketers who has ever lived, who passed away a few weeks ago. 

You can read the tribute I wrote about him by clicking here, in case you missed it. 

His funeral is this week…as well as a “celebration of his life” event, for which I filmed a video. 

One of the things that struck me as I waxed poetic about my friend and mentor was his discipline about testing. 

In fact, I learned as much about testing from him as anyone in my career. 

Not knowing what to write about today, I went to my blog archive and inserted the word “testing” into the search bar. 

The post below from 2018 popped up and I want to share this one with you again in honor of the man who innovated testing as much as anyone for an entire industry. 

Remember the southwest edition of the Wall Street Journal as a testing vehicle that I spoke about in my tribute? You must read about it (and so much more) here.  

As we all know, direct marketing (being the most measurable form of marketing) is reliant on testing…reading your numbers…and making the right decisions based on actual results. 

That’s what we’re here for, right? 🙂

If it doesn’t lose an order or cause a rejection, it doesn’t matter 

This is a marketing rule of thumb that has been pinned on my bulletin board or wall, next to my desk, for the past 25+ years, always in my line of vision. 

I believe it prevented me from obsessing about stuff that really didn’t matter (hundreds of times) while practicing the craft of direct marketing…and enabled me to stay focused on the stuff that really mattered. 

If you are a “shiny-object-obsessed-marketer” (i.e., you never met an idea you didn’t like), this rule is even more important to follow…and I’m sure many of you can relate. 

However, thinking about only the testable items that don’t lose orders is not a license to ignore obsessive testing. 

But it’s about being obsessive about the right things. 

One of my mentors, Gordon Grossman (who was the architect of Readers Digest in the 1960’s and virtually invented the use of sweepstakes in direct marketing) has a great quote:

“First find out if you have a business” 

This is another one of those quotes that is always in my vision as well…but this one is taped to my computer. 

It’s a kissing cousin to paying attention to the big stuff (i.e., the stuff that doesn’t lose an order or cause a rejection); but this also says that when you are launching anything new, test the things that will determine “go/no go” on a new product or project first, and worry about “luxury testing” (i.e., tests that can give you lifts but not make or break the launch) later. 

Once the critical tests tell you whether you have a business or not, the secondary tests come into play. 

It’s a bit of a paradox—testing with obsession and patience—but that’s how it’s done most efficiently and successfully. Like Joe Sugarman did it. 🙂   

Another key mentor in direct marketing for me was Dick Benson, the smartest man who ever lived on the art and science of direct mail. 

One of Dick’s maxims was, “No mailer (marketer) tests enough.” 

Yes…that’s another one taped to my computer. 

Combine not testing enough with something else from Gordon Grossman– “Don’t make tiny tests”—and you might think that I am trying to confuse you with another paradox. 

But put those two things together while making sure every test is about maximizing response, sales and profit and you’ve got a simple and obvious marketing plan for eternity. 

Here is your testing manifesto in a nutshell:

Test early and often…test big things (and only critical things in a launch) …and test things that are directly related to sales (or can potentially give you the biggest lifts in response). 

I think Gordon and Dick would marvel at how much easier it is to execute that plan today by doing it much more inexpensively and efficiently in a digital world (as opposed to a print world). 

Despite neither one of them being around long enough to strut their stuff online, I know they would love working in a digital world; however, they would also see the problem with testing inexpensively and efficiently. 

That is, marketers trying to test too much, and all at once, without direct marketing discipline…which leads to sloppiness. 

Gordon and Dick would most likely add to the mix a question like:

“Do you understand statistical significance and your key marketing metrics enough to call the winners of all of your tests accurately?” 

“Statistical significance” is not the topic I want to talk about today…you can read about that here…I’ll just get agitated if I share the story of the marketer who told me that 12 orders vs. 8 orders on an A/B split on a $97 offer was a “winner.” 

Oops… just told you the story…sorry. 🙂 

I will leave it here that the number of tests you do and the speed at which you do them is important… but it is not everything. 

Let’s stay focused on, “Are we testing enough AND are we testing the right things?” 

Testing a lot…AND testing the things that can give us significant lifts in response, revenue or profit (or a combination), is where the emphasis should be. 

In my opening session at the 2014 event “The Titans of Direct Response,”  while discussing one of the key pillars to becoming extraordinary (which is to always have “insatiable curiosity”), I put this cartoon up on the screen: 

While it looks like I am in favor of putting marketing people in weighted sacks at the bottom of a polluted river, it is quite the opposite. 

I used the three marketing geniuses in those sacks to create my “Direct Marketing Success Formula”: 

“I could sell this” is Curiosity (and the importance of dreaming). 

“It could work” is Optimism. 

“Numbers. I need numbers” is Measurement. 

Without this formula, companies like the one I helped build (and so many others in direct marketing) would spend more time strategizing than doing. 

Thank goodness this is not the case. 

Failing fast and moving on to the next test is my preference over not testing because “it’s not ready.” 

People who tell you they are perfectionists are really people who are afraid to fail. 

See the P.S. for a study in perfection as a result of rigorous training (testing)…and failing often. 

Of course, you always have to assess the downside risks of faster tests (and more tests); but when there is a chance for a big winner (i.e., it’s NOT a “tiny test”), get it out there. 

Read “A punch from your gut” as an example of “getting it out there faster” over paralysis by analysis.   

You must be sure you are testing things that will lead to gaining more acceptance and/or orders…and if a launch, the things that will determine whether there is even a business. 

In direct marketing, where everything is measurable and containing costs is always part of the equation (since everything has to eventually pay out), there is no such thing as “failure.” 

Failure is education…and a stepping stone to a breakthrough. 

My experience has taught me that you can often have one success out of ten and that one winner pays for the nine failures many times over. (See example #2 below.) 

Those of you who have been reading my weekly blogs for a while, or have read Overdeliver, know that I am transparent about my biggest blunders of the last 40 years…there were some doozies…and I am so proud of them. 

In your marketing brainstorming meetings, always have a spirit of “there is no ‘NO’” when it comes to new ideas. 

But also remember:

Curiosity + Optimism + Measurement = Direct Marketing Success 

Since you know you aren’t going too far down the road without numbers that make sense, risks might be lower than you think…that’s why I love direct marketing so much. 

Let me give you three quick examples of these principles of testing in action.  

Example 1

If we stopped testing magalogs (long form self-mailers and a direct mail breakthrough in the 1980’s), after our first few dismal failures, we never would have figured out how to make the format work.

They eventually became one of the most successful formats in direct mail for my company and so many others, a format that has been mailed in the hundreds of millions.

In fact, Dick Benson said to me after that first terrible mailing of a magalog:

“Self-mailers (like magalogs) usually don’t work in direct mail…but you, Brian, should keep testing magalogs. You have a longer story to tell about an unknown (non-household) brand so it’s a logical format. It may be high risk but it is also high reward.”

And if Gordon was part of that conversation, he would have said, “Testing a magalog is not a tiny test.” :-)|

Example 2

If we thought direct response television wasn’t for us after multiple failures on TV, we would have missed out on creating a $200 million franchise.

Our incredibly lucrative infomercial business was our greatest multi-channel success story which I chronicled in a previous post entitled, “How my insomnia led to $200 million in sales.”

Short version: When it was time to test infomercials in a big way, the stars were aligned.

Actually, we aligned the stars ourselves once we learned about a model that could work through curiosity…and the potential for high-reward optimism.

The numbers went through the roof.

I also chronicled our biggest failure related to this infomercial windfall in “The biggest mistakes of my career, part 1.”

And by “failure” I mean education and learning, of course. 🙂

Example 3

If we continued to only create books from our own content, we would have run out of content…and lost an opportunity to create one of the most successful book marketing operations in the history of direct mail.

That story is detailed in, “Books are still a perfect product.”

It’s a story about testing logically and thoroughly…with an eye on a very big prize.

These examples seemed logical at the time (and even today), and they also have the essential elements that create direct marketing success:


Another way to express it:

“Throwing spaghetti up against the wall” (which sounds a bit negative and random) is another way of saying, “How can we test a lot of new things quickly and intelligently… with an eye on hitting a home run every time.”

And singles and doubles are OK as consolation prizes.

It drives me crazy when I see companies spend too much time on planning and not enough time on doing.

Using the disciplines and eternal truths of direct marketing, where everything is testable and measurable, testing aggressively (and not stupidly) is the only game worth playing.

Spaghetti against the wall can get messy…but keeping it in the pot waiting for the water to boil when there’s no flame…well… kinda sucks.

It’s not much fun either.

And you may also go hungry.



P.S. A note about perfection…why it’s a bit overrated…but it’s still cool when it happens.

As Wayne Gretsky famously said:

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”

And while Gretsky missed many shots he did take, he achieved perfection more times than not during his career, proven by his “10 Most Unbreakable Records.”

Another profile in perfection, with a little less fanfare (and close to home for me), is about a professional baseball umpire who had a perfect game.

It’s documented in the 4-minute video below. Please excuse the Youtube ads. 🙂

The lesson for me is simple with Gretsky and this umpire:

Getting to perfection comes slowly…with lots of testing and training…and also lots of failure (i.e., education).

Knowing from my own experience how hard it is to get every pitch correct calling balls and strikes in a high school baseball game, this umpire doing just that (in a major league game) tells me more about his preparation (from his years of testing and training) leading up to his “perfect game” than the game itself.

Food for thought.

Here’s the video.

Enjoy perfection…but remember, you don’t have to be perfect to enjoy the ride (of testing).

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Title Goes Here

Get this Free E-Book

Use this bottom section to nudge your visitors.