Dear Business Builder,
I’m sure you’ve heard of Gary Bencivenga.
Only a handful of copywriters in our generation have ever competed at anywhere near Gary’s level over the long haul. And if our little fraternity held an election today, Gary Bencivenga would be unanimously elected King.
The following is the conclusion of my six-part interview with master copywriter, Gary Bencivenga.
Clayton: Just a bonus question: as far as I know you were the first to really exploit magalogs.
Gary: No, actually not. That honor belongs to Jim Rutz, the copywriter, and Ed Elliott, the designer. They did the first magalog for Personal Finance. I did the second one for Personal Finance, which beat theirs. But as soon as I saw that format, my eyes lit up. These guys discovered a format so powerful I don’t even think at first they knew how powerful it was even though it did become a control. I had a standard number 10-package control for Personal Finance for KCI. They came in with a magalog. On the front was a cartoon of an investor with a dartboard and he was picking his teeth with one of the darts and on the dartboard were the various investments.
I had the background from Ogilvy and Caples who said to never make your space ad look like an ad — always make it look like an article. Ogilvy had tested this and when a space ad looks like an article, his very scientific readership study showed that 500% more people read the ad than if it looked just like an ad. In other words, headline, body copy, call to action —– every word is identical except the layout. If you run in The Wall Street Journal and you make it look pretty much like a Wall Street Journal article, even if they slap that slug on there that says “Advertisement,” you’ll get a 500% boost in readership for that ad.
And that was pretty consistent across all the space ads that he tested. That means right out of the gate you get a 500% increase in readership by making your ad look like an editorial article. Caples has always preached the same thing. As a matter of fact, in one of his books, he tells about a test in Reader’s Digest. I think it was an 81% increase in actual orders for Reader’s Digest when it looked like an article instead of a typical ad.
There’s lots of evidence for space ads but I could never think of a way to harness that same principle with a direct mail letter. As soon as I saw that first magalog, I knew these guys had done it. And they didn’t realize they had done it because very few magazines have a cartoon on the cover. So they found a very entertaining and informative format but most magazines really look like magazines with a photo on the cover, like Business Week or Forbes or Time.
Magazines aren’t cutesy with a cartoon — so I saw my opening, my toehold. I went back to Personal Finance and said, “Look, I know you’ve got a new format and I can do that format too. I’ll make mine totally different with different copy. I believe my existing copy is still very strong actually but there’s this great new format.” And they asked, “What do we even call this format?” I said “Well, it looks something like a magazine but it sells like a catalog, so let’s call it a ‘magalog.’” So I named it, but it was Jim Rutz and Ed Elliott who invented it.
Now, what I did for mine — having had that training from Ogilvy and Caples saying to camouflage your ad and make it look like an article — was to make our magalog look just like Time magazine. We gave it a red border. We used a real photograph — not a cartoon of an investor. It looked just the way Time magazine might. We put a real photograph of a headshot of Richard Band. He looked like the “Man of the Year” on the cover of Time. We said something like, “Hottest investment opportunities of the next year,” and the bullets said “Great opportunities in treasuries, page 5; Once in a lifetime real estate opportunity coming up next year, see page 7,” and so forth.
We had all the same body/copy articles on the inside as my previous direct mail package, but we made them look like real articles with photographs. And then the copy read like an article written by Richard Band, the editor. Let’s say we’re talking about real estate. We talked about which forms of real estate are hottest right now and said, “By the way, we have a special report on how to make money in single-family homes. They’re great investments for the small investor. You’ll get that report free for signing up with Personal Finance.”
For every article, whether it was on bonds or stocks or whatever, we had a little tie-in to a premium. But the article was a real article, it gave a lot of good information. This new venue, called a magalog, was very valuable to read itself.
When I asked myself, “Can I beat Jim Rutz’s package?” I saw that I had a much better cover. We had a bigger, broader table of contents just the way a magazine does. And we had lots of photographs throughout that looked more like a magazine. So when I analyzed all the components of my package versus Jim’s, I felt pretty confident that I was going to win, and I did.
When we started rolling out, Time called up and said, “You’re using our red color on your cover.” And we said, “What do you mean your color? How can you copyright a color? You can’t copyright a color.” And they said, “We have a lot of lawyers who say we can.” Vickie Moffett at KCI didn’t want to get involved in a big legal tangle so when they mentioned their lawyers, she said, “Well, how do you feel about blue?” They said, “Blue’s okay, that’s not our color.” So we went with blue, and it went almost as well, not quite as well but still it was a giant hit for several years.
Clayton: All of us remember what a huge lift we got when we started testing magalogs. I was in 6 x 9s at the time and was running very long copy, up to 24-page sales letters. But going with magalogs really radically changed how I wrote my copy as well. Instead of being a sales letter, I was now writing value-added copy that rewarded the reader for plowing through my 24 pages by giving him practical things that he could use now.
Gary: That’s very true. That immediate gratification is very important.
Clayton: Yeah. Everyone’s looking for the next big format breakthrough though.
Gary: I really think it’s here already. I think it’s the e-zine. I’m finding that with the clients that I’m a partner with, I almost don’t want to do direct mail anymore. It’s too tough to send a 24-page magalog to a prospect who doesn’t know you. I don’t think direct mail will ever be dead, but rising paper costs, rising printing, and rising skepticism argue against people responding to cold mailings that are trying to sell them something right on the spot. I think these factors argue instead for an elongated courtship of an e-zine that is of great value — where the selling process starts more subtly, a lot more softly. Perhaps in the future the most profitable use of much direct mail will be to drive people into an e-zine relationship.
Direct mail is also destined, inevitably, to become the province of higher-cost products. When I started, you could sell a $12 book by direct mail and make a lot of money. You can’t do that anymore. My first freelance client was a little company called Farnsworth Publishing and we sold a lot of books. I would write a space ad that would run in The Wall Street Journal on estate planning or some form of investing or how to buy a small company or other very esoteric subjects. We also had an active direct mail campaign for the same book, a #10 package and a letter selling a book for $12 or $19. You couldn’t possibly cover that cost today, you’d go in the hole.
That bar is constantly being raised. I think pretty soon it’ll be very hard to make money on a $39 offer unless you’ve got a very healthy back end and are willing to break even or even lose a little money up front. Again, it depends on what you’re selling.
I think one of the great things that you did, Clayton, for Phillips Publishing was your package for Health & Healing. It wasn’t just a homerun, it was a grand slam World Series winning blast in the bottom of the ninth inning. That’s how memorable your Health & Healing launch package was for Phillips.
That package built that newsletter to astronomical heights. I don’t think anybody could’ve ever envisioned that. I’m sure that Tom Phillips never thought that this little newsletter on health that he just launched as an additional product to have, would become the towering profit maker of Phillips Publishing.
But not only that, it was such a perfectly natural vehicle for selling vitamins and supplements to those who are signing up for the newsletter. So the newsletter in effect became a paid advertisement. The prospects would literally pay to receive additional offers for supplements and cruises and everything else that you would want to sell associated with Dr. Whitaker, who is the editor of the newsletter.
So you had 500,000, or however many subscribers they had in time, each one paying $50 a year to start with and I guess those prices ratcheted up over the renewal period. I can’t even do the arithmetic. I think that would break my calculator just to figure out the money they were making on the subscriptions. And then there’s all the money coming in from supplements and vitamins and all kinds of arthritis remedies and water filters and all the other back-end products. That was just a gigantically profitable business that you helped them create.
Clayton: They only thought I wrote that package. That was a Bencivenga package from beginning to end.
Gary: Is it too late to tell Tom this because I understand he was just made extremely wealthy by the sale of that company? Maybe somehow you can finagle for me a slice of what he just received.
Clayton: We sold between one and two million subscriptions in three years.
Gary: Wow. Clayton, I had nothing to do with that. We all learn from each other and I learn from you and that was your homerun totally unaided by me.
Clayton: I think this interview should be absolute must-reading for every soul in the direct response industry, Gary. Your insights are staggeringly brilliant. Is there anything else that you’d like to add before we close?
Gary: No, that’s it, Clayton. When I was coming up through the ranks of the direct marketing agencies in Manhattan — Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO and a couple of others — my favorite time of the week was on Friday afternoons when most writers would kick back and just meet in the copy chief’s office and shoot the breeze about great campaigns and funny art directors and neurotic account executives and other comical gossip. We’d just tell jokes and learn from each other about advertising.
Mostly we young guys just shut up and listened because the old timers had so many great war stories of campaigns that were breakthroughs and how they were developed and funny characters they met along the way, like the art director who slept in his cubicle because his girlfriend threw him out and he had no place to go and that’s the real reason why he was so early for work in the morning — he lived in his cubicle.
Those sessions were just so instructive and I think this is sort of the modern day equivalent of that — where two guys just talk shop on the phone and if we can help others save some time by avoiding the mistakes we made, so much the better.
Clayton: I just want you to know, Gary, that if there’s ever anything at all that I can do for you all you have to do is ask. I don’t know what plans you have for Bencivenga Bullets or future products or services or educational tools or whatever, but just count me in.
Gary: The Bullets are free and I offer them to anybody who wants to learn what I know. I want to leave something of a legacy, partly to carry on in the same tradition of those great old copy chiefs who taught me. You don’t have to know thousands of things to be a really good copywriter.
A relatively small handful of insights as your guideposts will save you years of effort and save clients perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in their testing. Those are the secrets I share for free in the Bencivenga Bullets.