April 17, 2017

You probably know by now that I never get “political” in these weekly posts…and I won’t start now…but since the lead story on the news every day seems to be about what is happening in our nation’s capital, I am reminded of a dinner I attended in the early 1990’s in Washington which on the surface seemed like it was about politics…but it was really about world class direct marketing…

Here goes…

The dinner celebrated the 50th anniversary of Human Events magazine, which at the time was as right-wing as any publication in America.

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 of the most outspoken Republicans and conservatives in the country.

Now I’m a Jewish kid from the New York…not affiliated with either party…but my religion and geography is a combination that made me a minority of one in a room like the one just described…but I was excited to be there.

For the record, I flip-flop registering in the party that enables me to vote in the primary where there is some kind of competition (i.e. the non-incumbent party)…I’m more a sports fan than a politics fan so when voting feels more like a sporting event, I’m all in.

I also believe in “exercising my rights” as often as possible.

Isn’t exercise always a good thing too?

Anyway, the speakers at this gala included Phylis Schlafly, Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan (who introduced “the next great Senator from the state of Virginia, Oliver North”—WRONG–he lost his election bid after the dinner), 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 with me were some celebrities:

Judge Robert Bork who almost became a Supreme Court Justice; and none other than Sonny “I Got You Babe” Bono (the Mayor of Palm Springs at that time or soon after).

As each speaker got up to speak, each was greeted with a rousing standing ovation.

Not being a fan or foe of the speakers, I generally sat in my seat and politely clapped…I have to admit that I was a little nervous that I would be found out as an imposter in the crowd.

But my continued politeness (and excellent table manners!) kept folks at bay…

One other thing you need to know:

Human Events was published at the time by a company called 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 got my chance to cheer.

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.

This time I was the first person to give him a standing ovation.

My buddy looked at me incredulously:

“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 replied:

“I am not applauding his politics…but I am applauding his direct marketing prowess.”

With all that power in the ballroom of The Mayflower Hotel 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 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 incredible publications and businesses in the history of direct marketing.

Some of the reasons why Phillips Publishing was a best-in-class direct marketer:

Copy: They worked with only the best-of-the-best copywriters…the folks we call “A listers.”

They were always willing to pay top dollar and regularly had those “A listers” compete against other “A listers.”

And most importantly, they never saw copy and creative as an expense but rather the most powerful 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.

Lists: They understood at the deepest level that once they invested all that money in creative, they better be mailing to the right lists.

To that end, they were committed to list research more than any direct marketer I ever knew.

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 in the mail came with huge responsibility…and risk; and they mitigated that risk with precise and exhaustive list research.

Testing: They tested offers (in addition to copy and lists) aggressively but intelligently. They followed the rules of scientific A/B testing and single variable testing too.

They not only tested big things but they knew how to act on the results (which were always reliable).

Investing in the best analytics was as important to them as investing in the best copywriters and lists.

Diversification: They diversified into multiple product areas always based on their expertise and existing assets, and they were successful in their specialized niches in BOTH consumer and business-to-business marketing which was rare then…and I think it is even rarer now.

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 to 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…they followed anecdotal evidence every step of the way while never trying to be something they were not.

That’s why they ended up as leaders in so many different categories including health (newsletters and nutritional supplements), personal finance/investing, business-to-business niches and, yes, even politics.

Phillips Publishing was the gold standard in direct marketing for probably two decades.

I encourage all of you to study them 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 is sales.

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.

And many of the top copywriters too.

The lives that were changed for the better because of Tom Phillips and 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.

Kidding aside about how I ended up at a dinner I had no place being at, I really wanted to emphasize what real “power” is all about.

The more I think about it–and the longer I work in this wonderful industry–the more I love 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 that it 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.

(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 even if you have done (or still do) direct mail and pay higher postage than politicians:

YOU never have to run for re-election!

But remember…your customers will tell you whether you can “stay in office” (or not) based on the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

And our reward will be that we can change lives for the better while still being financially successful…Tom Phillips proved that.

So get back to work.



About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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