Confessions of A ‘Mad Man’ Direct Mail Copywriter

You are about to discover a critical warning shared in an episode of Mad Men that you should read before paying high fees to any direct mail copywriter

Dear reader. I have a confession to make…

This confession deals with the biggest problem nearly everyone worries about someday facing when working with freelance copywriters.

It is the one fear that forces decision makers to lose sleep when they think of signing a big fat five or six-figure check to have sales copy written by a professional copywriter. The confession deals with something uncovered in a past episode of the Mad Men series. But before I get to the confession let me tell you what happened in Mad Men that also happens everyday in the real world of marketing.

There was an episode in AMC’s Mad Men where the main character, Don Draper, was told by Mr. Hilton to create a Hilton Hotel campaign that included the moon. Instead, Draper created a powerful campaign that excluded Hilton’s pet idea.

No moon.

Hilton’s character was not happy. Livid might be a more accurate description of Hilton’s reaction.

Draper was in the right from a marketing perspective. Even Hilton later admitted so. Problem is Draper pushed his own ideas onto the client against the client’s direct and explicit instruction. Despite Draper being technically ‘right’ there was a conflict. Draper did not do what was right in his client’s eye.

That brings me to my confession…

Your Worst Fear Realized

Imagine you’ve hired a copywriter only to later learn she deliberately wrote and delivered sales copy to you that she knew in advance was going to fail for you.

How would you feel? Angry? Ripped off? Fearful? Perhaps hesitant to work with a freelancer ever again?


Well, I once did that very thing to a client. Intentionally. I admit it.

Why would I do such a thing let alone admit it publicly? Just like the situation with Draper my client ‘forced’ me to decide between doing what was right from a marketing perspective and what was right in the client’s eye.

Here’s how things went.

I had spent several weeks on the project. I created a package that followed a marketing formula with a history proven to generate billions of dollars in direct response sales.

Given the client’s high price point, we were looking to generate a minimum of $40 million in initial new sales at their lowest price point. And as much as $170 million in initial new sales from successfully penetrating the client’s market at their highest price point.

This doesn’t take into consideration back end sales, up sales, or ongoing repeat sales for additional products or support services for years to come.

Success Just Around The Corner

Clearly there was a lot of potential for success here.

In terms of total income generated this quite likely was going to become the most successful single direct mail sales package of my entire 33 year history of writing sales copy for myself and others.

Over the course of seven weeks I dedicated a tremendous amount of time to this project. Because the client ‘fudged’ a little about the amount of market research data they had on hand to work from I had no choice but to work a number of stretches that went beyond 24-hour periods — all because the data the client claimed to have didn’t actually exist.

I would not have cared about the increased workload. The problem is I’ve never missed a client deadline. And I wasn’t about to do so now either. So on many days I worked from six in the morning right past seven or eight the next morning, burning the proverbial late night oil to get the work done.

Other days were not as bad though. I was able to eek out two or three hours of sleep on some nights. Those were the good nights.

Whistle While You Work

Yes, I worked many days right into the next morning.

I worked to the point of excluding family activities as well as turning away other projects just to focus on this one client. Had I known going in that the client had ‘fudged’ about the availability of market data for their company and products and industry I simply would have quoted a higher fee to compensate for the increased workload or to allow room to outsource what would quite likely amount to an additional five-figure custom market research expense from a qualified market research firm.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind heavy workloads. I actually like working. For me work is play. Throughout my entire work life I’ve been told I’m a workaholic. That’s fine. I just don’t like feeling taken advantage of.

Despite not having fully articulated ‘scope creep’ or the dangers of latent (or maybe I should say blatant) misinformation beforehand with this particular client I still kept plugging away–client fraud or no fraud–at my expense. Why? Because I wanted the project to be a huge success as I would want for any client. But even more, I wanted the bragging rights that came with turning out a nine-figure marketing package.

So I drafted a winning sales package for the client: primary sales letter, cover letter, testimonial sheets, order form, lift notes. Back end and up sell package recommendations. And more. The works.

But there was a problem.

Do You Make These Mistakes In Advertising?

Instead of agreeing to go ahead with at least testing the sales package that was based on proven and tested marketing approaches and research the client said ‘No. Here is what I want you to write…‘ … and then began to dictate a sales letter to me.

His words were baseless fluff. The kind of hype you’d expect a used car salesperson to make up on the spot. No proof. Just hype. Was actually bordering on fraud.

You’re Fired!

My dilemma at that point was either to fire the client and refund his money or write what he wanted.

Well, my decision to keep or fire the client wasn’t an easy decision to make. Here I was going into my seventh week with this project. Most days were 16 hours long. A few were more than 24 hours long. Well over 200 hours of actual work and research was devoted exclusively to this single client.

Obviously too much was invested into this client to just walk away without first looking for ways to make both of us happy.

The amount of research required was extreme. Not the norm by any means. This client had neither conducted nor provided me with any formal, concrete market research of their own. This is despite initially having claimed such existed prior to us initiating their project.

No matter. Uncovering hidden details other copywriters overlook or never search for in the first place is what I do. The dreamy care-free, easy going lifestyle of a copywriter working from warm, white sandy beaches while sipping drinks from fancy umbrella straws doesn’t work for me.

I work because I enjoy what I do.

Shooting For The Moon

So to keep from firing the client after seven weeks of effort and many countless sleepless nights, I sold him ‘the moon’.

Instead of forcing my idea onto my client as Draper did to his client, I delivered to my client the exact approach the client insisted on. But in doing so I told my client the campaign I had originally created for him was a winning campaign worthy of testing. He rejected the idea outright.

Instead he insisted on keeping with his pet idea. And that is what I finally delivered. But of course I cleaned up his idea so neither he nor I could be accused of “lying in print”. I wrote with honesty and integrity where my client originally dictated fluff. I figured if in the end he later changed the copy back to fraud and got slammed by some alphabet soup agency that will be on him.

Happy As A Pig In Mud

How’d my client react when he saw the final cleaned up copy instead of pure fraud? Did he explode and react as Hilton responded to Draper?

Well, soon as my client received the finalized copies he told me he had a great feeling about the letter and all the other unexpected over-delivered ‘extras’ he didn’t even realize were coming. I delivered not just a letter but an entire direct mail package. All nestled around his pet idea.

To say the client was happy would be putting things mildly.

Obviously I did not hold back in doing the best darned job I could muster despite my disagreeing with his ‘moon’ idea. The 27-page mailer plus order form, plus multiple testimonial sheets, plus lift notes, plus cover letter et cetera for the mailer were A+.

Still though, I strongly believe his finalized desired pet approach is far short of the success he could have had had he not insisted on receiving ‘the moon’.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness

Oh. Later the client mentioned having a $15,000 project sitting in the wings he’d like me to work on. He even sent me an initial check before starting the project, as if that would sway me. I tore the check in four pieces and mailed it back to him with a polite post-it note attached. I was cordial and professional when I told him I’d never work for him again. Professional but firm.

The workload wasn’t the problem. As far as I’m concerned no amount of money is worth the headaches of working with anyone I cannot trust to be honest with me. That’s when he lost it. I won’t go into all the names he called me by phone. No point in that. Just say we probably won’t be working together on any other projects any time soon. Moon or no moon.

Whose Money Is It Anyways?

Smart copywriters who want to get paid for their work know to accept the advice of the late David Ogilvy who said to “not grudge clients the right to decide what advertising to run. It is their money.”

If you are near to hiring a copywriter for your next project please keep in mind that any client who starts off a conversation by saying to a copywriter ‘this is what I want you to write…’ is likely to end up buying the moon.

Sure, a business owner who takes that step may get what he asks for… but there are many ways to stroke an ego that are less public and less embarrassing than insisting on a doomed or under performing copywriting pet idea.

A better approach to marketing is to test. Let the market itself prove which sales appeals your market is most moved by. Testing empirically proves whether an idea is sound, is a total waste of time, or needs improvement.

But like Ogilvy said clients have a right to run whatever ad they choose to run. It’s their company. And their money. Choosing which ads to run is a business decision best left to the client anyways. If that is you be wary of copywriters who consistently pander to clients and who attempt to manipulate clients for a buck. The best advice any copywriter can give comes from having the freedom to speak openly and honestly.

Taking a loss ‘chasing the moon’ because a copywriter fears speaking up is one of the major reasons sales copy fails. Be open to at least hearing additional approaches. However in the end the final decision is yours to make.

Another reason copy fails is refusal to follow tested and proven advertising methods. If you want to know what works in direct mail I’d encourage you to read our "$5,000 Direct Mail White Paper".

Yes, the “moon chasing” client had to pay that much and more to see a variation of the same information. The difference is the information was customized specific to the work we did on his project. But you can have the report and the same basic information for free. Let’s just say sharing and venting in this way is a form of therapy for me :)

What to Do About Your Next Direct Mail Package

Start by downloading The Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters Tips of All Time. This white paper outlines proven processes for significantly improving the performance of your Direct Mail. It contains valuable advice written in plain English. And The Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters Tips of All Time will help you make a more informed choice about direct mail options before you invest money into your next campaign. Until now this white paper was available exclusively to clients paying a minimum of $5,000 for our copywriting services. A complimentary copy is available to you online as part of a marketing test (ahem…therapy). Grab The Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters Tips of All Time.