#156 Blog Post — Tuesday, 17 May 2022
Posted by Denny Hatch
Remembering Ed McLean and His
First and Greatest Direct Mail Letter
Once upon a time, if a marketer wanted to make an offer, lists were selected and a copywriter hired. In the 1960s, legendary freelance copywriter Ed McLean was commissioned to write a direct mail subscription letter for Newsweek. At the time he wrote it, McLean was new to the business and became fascinated with the whole concept of lists in a long discussion with Red Dembner, Newsweek’s circulation director. McLean’s letter began:
If the list upon which I found your name is any indication, this is not the first -- nor will it be the last -- subscription letter you receive. Quite frankly, your education and income set you apart from the general population and make you a highly-rated prospect for everything from magazines to mutual funds.
nothing in the annals of direct mail has been more widely copied than this lead
paragraph of a letter used by Newsweek magazine for nearly 15 years.”
—Dick Hodgson, The Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters of All Time
It was an offbeat approach—one that both flattered the reader and, at the same time, let prospects in on how they came to receive the solicitation. It was masterful feelgood copy. Implied but not said: “Gosh, I’m in awe of who you are and what you are accomplishing in life!”
Many people wrote in to ask what list they were on. A few complained. Many, many more responded by subscribing to the magazine. It was a long, long, long-term control for many years and was mailed in the tens of millions.
Here's How Ed McLean Described It
I brought the opening paragraph and the five remaining paragraphs of page one to the copy test meeting — along with 17 other ideas and openings. The reaction from the other copywriters in the room — all the old-timers — was negative. But Red liked the approach and told me to develop it further.
That turned out to be anything but easy. The personal approach of the opening might get me to look at the letter, I was sure. But what would get me to send away the order form?
1. The prospect's needs and wants
2. The product's benefits
This is called the "you" orientation of a letter. And this letter has it in spades. The words "you" and "your" appear 55 times in the copy — perhaps an all-time record. But they aren't just tossed in for effect: They fit logically into the flow of the copy.
I stopped collecting adaptations and outright swipes of the sincere letter opening years ago. It is interesting that few, if any, of these "take-offs" were successful. I am convinced, now, that the mailers who used the sincere opening should not have stopped there. They should have also swiped the "you'll get" litany of all the goodies on pages two and three.
If the list upon which I found your name is any indication,
this is not the first -- nor will it be the last -- subscription
letter you receive. Quite frankly, your education and income set
you apart from the general population and make you a highly-rated prospect for everything from magazines to mutual funds.
You’ve undoubtedly 'heard everything' by now in the way of promises and premiums. I won't try to top any of them.
Nor will I insult your intelligence.
If you subscribe to Newsweek, you won't get rich quick. You
won't bowl over friends and business associates with clever remarks
and sage comments after your first copy of Newsweek arrives. (Your conversation will benefit from a better understanding of the events
and forces of our era, but that's all. Wit and wisdom are gifts no magazine can bestow.) And should you attain further professional
or business success during the term of your subscription, you’ll
have your own native ability and good luck to thank for it -- not Newsweek.
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The Passing of Ed McLean
By Chief Marketing Staff, posted on September 7, 2005
Copywriting legend Ed McLean died on Aug. 13 after a long illness. He was 77.
Born in 1927 in Chicago, McLean was possibly best known for his first piece of creative work: a Newsweek control letter that remained unbeaten for 15 years and reportedly reached more than 150 million people.
“Dear Reader,” the letter began. “If the list upon which I found your name is any indication, this is not the first – nor will it be the last – subscription letter you receive. Quite frankly, your education and income set you apart from the general population and make you a highly rated prospect for everything from magazines to mutual funds.”
The letter was revolutionary. It actually told recipients their names were pulled from a list – quite a gamble in 1959.
“At the time, right after McCarthyism, lists were rather unpopular,” said McLean’s son, David, reached at the family home in Ghent, NY. “It beat dozens of letters that tested against it. It was really quite phenomenal,” he said.
McLean went on to write more than 9,000 mailings, direct-marketing print ads, radio spots and publication inserts in a career that spanned four decades.
A veteran of the U.S. Navy, McLean began his business career as a radio-advertising salesman during which time he started a newsletter for sharing tips with other salesmen.
“He constantly broke convention and did things that others might think would not to be in his best interests,” David McLean said.
McLean was one of the founders of the Direct Marketing Writers Guild. In 1967, for New York University, he was the first to design a college course devoted to direct marketing copy.
In 1966, McLean created the first airline seat-pocket catalog for Eastern Airlines where items other than airline-labeled merchandise such as playing cards and toy airplanes were sold.
“He was one of the best copywriters we ever had,” said long-time friend Andi Emerson, president of the Emerson Marketing Agency and The John Caples International Awards. “If he were alive, I’d put him up against anybody we have today.”
Besides the recognition McLean’s writing skills received in the industry, they also earned him some unwanted government scrutiny. In the late 1950s, he shared an apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village with liberal cartoonist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter Jules Feiffer. At the time, some anti-government editorials McLean wrote for the left-leaning Village Voice resulted in federal officials paying a visit to McLean to “question him about his intentions,” said David McLean. However, Feiffer was the cousin of McCarthy’s right-hand-man Roy Cohn and McLean was able use that connection to satisfy his questioners, said David McLean.
Like many marketing copywriters McLean apparently aspired to a career writing fiction. David McLean said he found boxes of unfinished and/or unpublished manuscripts – along with correspondence with editors – in his father’s belongings. The longest manuscript was a mystery several hundred pages long. David McLean said he hadn’t yet been able to determine if his father finished it.
“He used to say often that his marketing skills came from his skills as a consumer and that his creative skills came as a result of his love of literature,” said David McLean. “A lot of his letters contain narrative that is Hemingway-esque. I think he always wanted to be a novelist, but he found his niche in direct marketing.”
McLean’s awards included a Gold Mailbox Award from the DMA for a letter he wrote for Mercedes-Benz in 1965, a Volunteer-of-the-Year Award from DM Days New York, a Silver Apple Award in 1990 and a Caples: Irving Wunderman award in 1993.
He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Ylavaune, and three sons, James, David, and William.In accordance with McLean’s wishes, there will be no funeral service. His ashes will be scattered in a family ceremony.
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NOTE: Bob Knight gave me the okay to share his comment with you. —DHReplyDelete
Hi, Denny. A few things:
(1) I couldn't get the Post a Comment button to work today, so I'm emailing. Smart to include it just in case.
(2) You misspelled "McLean" in the Subject line. Don't feel badly though; I once had a typo...or hundred;)
(3) McLean's letter is brilliant and proof that honesty pays...even in advertising.
(4) His approach reminds me of a telemarketing call I had a number of years ago. The caller gave his name, then said, "This is going to sound stupid but...really stupid but...would you like to buy a nail?" Of course I was hooked.
It turns out that Fort Edmonton Park was raising funds to refurbish the old fort and money raised would go towards buying nails, etc. I was so impressed by the upfront approach I would have donated even if I weren't a history buff.
P.S. Notice how I resisted the temptation to say the telemarketer "nailed it"? Oh damn! Don't read this postscript!
Alan Rosenspan gave me the okay to share his email with you...ReplyDelete
It’s great that you wrote about Ed. I owe him my career in direct marketing.
Back in 1982, Ogilvy & Mather wanted me to start a direct marketing company overseas. I had been in general advertising for nine years, so they sent me to DM Days in New York to get a taste of the industry.
I sat in on mind-numbing presentations on postage, list hygiene, database analytics. I was hopelessly out of my depth, bored to tears, and couldn’t understand what I was doing there. I nearly walked out at lunch, but I thought I might as well finish the day.
Ed’s presentation was the last one, and I was ready to quit O&M right afterwards. Thank goodness I didn’t leave before that.
Ed was brilliant, and I stayed afterwards to talk to him. He got me so excited to begin my new career and put everything he said into practice.
I’ve been doing it for these past 40 years.
All the best, Alan
Note: I asked Bob Hacker if I could run our exchanges in this Comment Section. He said, “Sure.”ReplyDelete
RH to DH: Tue, May 17 at 11:56 AM
There are two long term controls in circulation that I tried to steal, this one and “two young men”. I tried to use them for more information offers in the B2B space. Couldn’t make them work. Dismal failures. Could it be that copy platforms can’t cross category lines? That was one of my conclusions at the time. What say you? (Sent from my iPhone)
DH to RH:
What say I? I’m not surprised they didn’t work. A copywriter has to immerse him/herself in the product or service… make a list of the myriad (hopefully) features… rank the features in importance… turn those features into benefits… and then lede with the most important benefit (which is the top feature). Frankly, stealing a lede and writing copy around it (making it fit the lede) ain’t no guarantee of success. What say you?
RH to DH: I agree. And trying to adapt into the B2B space probably failed because the problem/benefit arguments were not compelling enough since the benefits accrue to the company more than the individual.
Another example. I used to write a lot of fundraising appeals for Planned Parenthood. You couldn’t use those appeals anywhere else…except for NARAL. (Sent from my iPhone)
Drayton Bird gave me the okay to run his comment:ReplyDelete
That opening has never left my mind, Denny.
Nor has meeting Ed in Switzerland. And perhaps even more memorable was the day he rang up and said he wanted to interview me.
A lovely man.
Want to do better?
Go to AskDrayton
Today the letter would read: "If the algorithm that selected your name is worth its licensing fee..." ... but, of course, few today are happy to be reminded they're the object of any computerized targeting process.ReplyDelete
Wow, the trust in institutions was so much higher in those bygone days!
I knew the paranoia level was getting out of hand as early as the mid 90's when we tried out Time Inc's then-new personalized print ad. We tested it for a Dreyfus tax-exempt bond fund, and the headline read:
"The IRS knows your address. It's only fair you have ours."
Just beneath the head was the reader's name and address printed onto a faux Form 1040. Beneath that was a personalized coupon with the mailing address of the Dreyfus fulfillment center.
Response was decent -- not enough to justify the added cost of the snazzy new Time Inc. product, but what killed the experiment were a few complaints forwarded to the Dreyfus legal department.
"You gave our address to the IRS!" one of them exclaimed1 (Totally ignoring the first part of the headline that the IRS already knows where you live..)
Great hearing from you. You jounced a memory I shouldda used in this blog post.
I once got into a conversation with Ed McLean about the few people who wrote Newsweek asking about what list they were on.
I mentioned to Ed (this was in the early days of the 2000s) and the fact that the marketers were researching (snooping) for personal information on the Internet and giving the creeps to consumers. And how in fact some copywriters (with the sensitivity of a Hippo lede off by telling the pigeon everything they know about him/her which I why they are sending the letter.
Ed’s rejoinder: “You’ve got to dumb down what you know.
I failed to mention that my late dad, Barry Blau, wrote an American Express control letter that was unbeaten for decades, using a similar formula:ReplyDelete
"Dear Mr. Blau,
Frankly, the American Express Card is not for everyone. And not everyone who applies for membership is approved. However, we believe you will benefit..."
Was Dad borrowing from Ed? Possibly, considering McLean wrote his letter several years before my dad's. One giveaway is that the Newsweek letter read "Dear Reader." By the time Amex got big into direct mail, the letter salutations were personalized, using the noisy old "impact" printers at La Salle Industries in the Bronx.
NOTE TO READERS: GOOGLE OWNS THE BLOGSPOT SITE. THEY MAKE IT A NIGHTMARE TO SIGN IN AND COMMENT. THIS FROM RICHARD ARMSTRONG WHO GAVE ME THE OKAY TO RUN IT:ReplyDelete
He was a kind and generous man. Funny story that goes to your point about focusing on benefits. I once heard him say that when he was first starting out in the business he was teamed up with another young copywriter. They became known around the office as "You'll Get" and "Yours Free." —RA