How I became a direct response copywriter

A tale of luck and persuasion

I created my first direct marketing campaign in 1988, as the newest employee at the now-defunct Miami Valley Arts Council in Dayton, Ohio.

At the time I was hired, we got a big chunk of our meager funding from the City of Dayton. After I had been working there awhile, we got some shocking news. The City’s budget had been cut…and thus, our budget was going to get chopped by 25 percent. I did the math (which, for me, is hard) and quickly realized that as the last hired, I was going to be the first fired.

The staff got together and decided that a “begging letter” would be worth a try, and somehow, I was selected to write it. (I suspect this is because writing “begging letters” is hard, and no one with seniority wanted to be responsible for its seemingly inevitable failure.)

Well, thank God for being the low person on the totem pole, because that decision changed my life.

The boss presented me with a list of the programming we would have to cut, and the statistics on our community impact (which was surprisingly large). I sat down and wrote a heartfelt, conversational letter describing the funding challenge, and how it would impact the reader as an individual and the arts community as a whole.

I thought I should make it as easy as possible for the recipient to reply, so I enclosed a small envelope with the Arts Council’s return address hand-stamped on it. (I wanted to put a stamp on the envelope, but we didn’t have the money.)

I was 23 years old, and I had never heard the job title “marketing copywriter” before.

My boss and I took all of the flats of letters to the post office and released them into the wild. I started looking for another job.

As the low person on the totem pole, I was the one who had to schlep to the P.O. box every day to pick up the mail. Two days after mailing our “begging letters,” I stood in front of our 4” by 6” P.O. box and struggled to turn the key.

I finally realized why the door was stuck when I wrenched it open, and dozens of my little white hand-stamped envelopes squirted out of the overstuffed box, hitting me in the chest, then dropping to the floor.

And there was money in each and every one of them. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

The reply envelopes kept coming, day after day after day…along with thank-you notes from ardent supporters who loved MVAC and were devastated at the thought of losing us.

We ended up raising over twice as much as any previous direct mail campaign, in just a fraction of the time. Those little white envelopes kept coming…and coming…and coming. For months after we dropped that campaign, they showed up in our P.O. box, bearing funds.

I had somehow transmuted words into money. It was MAGIC.

And I got to keep my job, for several more years, living (mostly) happily ever after.

I had other jobs after MVAC, but it wasn’t until I started my first test project at B/R/C Marketing years later that I discovered “copywriter” was a job title and a profession. I also found out that my gift for creating marketing strategies and high-ROI sales copy was a great way to make clients happy and win marketing awards. (Though I don’t have comprehensive statistics, it wasn’t uncommon for us to achieve double-digit response rates on our B2B direct mail campaigns for clients like Reynolds + Reynolds, McGraw-Hill and Teradata.)

After training me to replace him as the agency’s lead copywriter, the founder of B/R/C Marketing went on to fulfill his writing dreams and became a best-selling novelist.

I’m still here, this time, working for myself, turning words into money.