February 26, 2023

“I love getting old…

because I get so smart”

-Marty Edelston

I’ve said it before and I need to say it again:

Too many of my mentors are dead.

And still dying.

Funny/not funny how that continues to happen 🙁

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 received the best information and inspiration from the best deliverers of both.

Hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom from a handful of greats.

That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad news: Many (most) of my original mentors are dead now…due to the math/longevity calculation because they were old when I met them…which saddens me at some point almost every day.

I lost one this past week who you probably never heard of at 92…and he was a much more significant “list guy” than I ever was…or I will ever be.

His name is Dave Florence and I will devote an entire blog to him in the coming weeks.

He’s worth knowing about if you don’t know he is…I learned the list business (and so much more) from him.

My tribute will be a reminder of his contribution to an industry that had very few (if any) CEOs of his stature.

Those who knew him (or were fortunate to work with him) know what I’m talking about.

He did it with complete humility, little fanfare, and always with common sense…and he always had this wry smile when he had the perfect answer to any question that was in his sweet spot.

He also had the “secret” that launched the largest consumer newsletter ever…with three simple words.

Open loop…until my “Dave blog.” 🙂

Consider this week’s post a preamble.

I have turned much of that sadness over losing mentors into new energy thanks to you (and all my mentors, dead and alive).

The way to do that is to remember them…so they don’t have a “final death” once they pass…as I’ve talked about many times before in the spirit of the movie Coco.

Click here to read more about that…but regular readers know what I am referring to.

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 from forgotten legends are eternal and applicable to your businesses today…and in some cases, I see myself as the last man standing to share these legends with you.

Net-net, my sadness has turned to gladness.

I am much more saddened, however, 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.

They also failed to embrace the Internet as the ultimate direct response medium…that is, everything is measurable AND you can get your results in 12 minutes rather than 12 weeks.

Note: 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.

I always need to make that point when discussing speed as one of the biggest advantages of online marketing.

Sorry/not sorry. 🙂

When I was thinking about all of the mentors and friends I have lost over the past four decades, I started thinking about what was needed to create their staying power…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 said this on Facebook in 2017:

“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 I will add: Grind with intention. Put your family first and always try to make your work your play.

Hopefully you are also aware that learning is a lifetime endeavor.

As an example, the stories about the copywriters who grinded to study under Gary Halbert are legendary…they would work for nothing as apprentices—actually, they paid him (in cash and labor) for the privilege– 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.

You would become Gary’s copy cub and butler all in one. And it was worth it (seeing how every one of those apprentices became successful copywriters and marketers.

Learning from the best can be a grind…but it is a grind for a lifetime.

When I started at Boardroom Inc, a publisher of newsletters and books and a top of the heap direct marketer, my first job was as a list manager in 1981 (more on that in a minute), 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)”

Once she hired me (how could she not with that compelling argument/beg), there was another “grind” that surfaced, 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.

Don’t get this one confused with being a “Director of Sales Prevention.”

As I mentioned,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, on their walk of shame to coach, passed all of the list brokers having their pre-flight cocktails in first class.

It was a boom time for the list business when direct mail was king…and the list brokers ruled (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 the Boardroom lists were so responsive for so many kinds of offers and worked for everyone (“affluent executives at home, 100% direct mail sold”) 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.

My approach was not rocket science either…and admittedly, the competition wasn’t all that stiff. 🙂

The first 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.

See below why they weren’t really competitors at all.

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 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.

As I said…not rocket science…but virtually no one was selling lists this way.

They were just “dealing the cards.”

Most list managers were playing a game of “list sales” instead of being a partnered direct marketer with their clients.

Finding this out opened doors I never would have imagined, well beyond list management.

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.

I knew that there were no unique names…only unique lists…which was embedded in me from day one on the job.

Thank you, Dave Florence.

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, list brokers, and list managers… with anyone who would have asked me.

In fact, it’s irrelevant 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 of 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.

Thanks again, Dave.

Remember, I was a naive 23 year old thrust into this crazy business…good thing I found some “old(er) mentors” at the outset.

In an online launch you don’t work with one affiliate, do you?

When you market on social media, you don’t use only one source?

I coined the phrase:

“Data cards are guilty until proven innocent”

When I presented to list brokers, I brought those evil and incomplete data cards only because I had to…mine were more complete than most…and I came armed with a whole lot more.

I brought the actual promotions that got those names onto the data cards (i.e, response lists had to come from somewhere) to every meeting where I was selling.

I brought a bazooka to a knife fight. And it was an obvious weapon that so few figured out which was astounding (and a little disappointing).

That led to discussions about the psychology behind how those buyers and subscribers got there in the first place, and how that related to Boardroomphilosophy 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 specific copywriters and explained that the mailer’s copywriter was using a similar approach to ours…maybe even the same copywriter…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 first spending time with the salespeople who were doing the same job I was doing…finding out all the gaps in how they did it…and how I could differentiate what had become a commoditized selling process by going deeper than anyone else into how the list came to be.

Plus…there was no way that a data card by itself could tell the full story about a list.

And if you get the list wrong, no irresistible offer coupled with world class copy will make up for targeting the wrong audience.

If you are not aware of this theory, watch this 5-minute video.

Fast forward to when I was on the other side of the desk as a mailer.

I created a worksheet 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.

required my list brokers to attach a mailing piece (or a photocopy of one) that showed me how the names were generated.

Click on “Data cards are guilty until proven innocent”, which is the text of an interview I gave which became a cover story in a direct marketing trade magazine in 1994.

It explains the “why” of every item on the worksheet, questions you can be asking about the lists and media you buy today, both offline and online.

The fact that it was reprinted in 2005 tells you there are lessons for online marketing hidden in plain sight.

The best news of all, from my selfish perspective, is that I didn’t die (literally or figuratively) when the Internet and email came along.

One simple way I made sure I would survive was being a student (and friend) of my competitors (which is always relevant).

Another way was to connect what I learned in one medium to all other media.

That’s the shortcut to becoming multichannel when advertising opportunities are infinite.

And to always go deep to create specialties from commodities.



P.S. I received a cartoon today from Howard Getson, someone I mentioned in my blog last week when talking about “folks to follow” on the ever expanding topic of “Al.”

I opened this post saying it’s funny/not funny how many mentors I have lost…and this cartoon goes into that same category of funny/not funny:

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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