How the Courage of One Man Sparked the Greatest Revolution in Direct Response Marketing History

How the Courage of One Man Sparked the Greatest Revolution in Direct Response Marketing History

Dear Business Builder,

I just made a new friend; his name is Drayton Bird.

In case you just moved here from another universe and have no idea who I’m talking about, consider this quotation:

“Drayton Bird knows more about direct marketing than anyone in the world.”

– David Ogilvy

As Ogilvy Mather’s International Vice Chairman and Creative Director, Drayton and his team created brilliant direct response promotions for household-name companies like American Express, Bank of America, Ford, Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, Philips Electronics, Unilever and Visa credit cards.

He’s also the author of Commonsense Direct Marketing (5th edition available now), Salesletters That Sell, and Marketing Insights and Outrages – and has written more than 1,000 columns for international magazines.

If you don’t read Drayton’s stuff, you ain’t no kind of direct marketer. Besides being one of the two or three most delightful and engaging personalities I have met in my 55 years on this planet, Drayton has a wonderful clarity of vision when it comes to direct response copywriting and marketing.

When I talk to Drayton or read his pearls of wisdom, I feel like I’m communing with Hopkins, Caples, Schwab, Ogilvy and Schwartz all rolled into one. He is one of the seven or eight true giants in the history of this industry – a genuine living treasure.

His knack for expressing profound, response-rocketing truths in the simplest of terms will make you money.

Anyway, when I was talking to Drayton the other day (I love saying that!), he mentioned that he’s working with Virgin’s legendary Richard Branson on some stuff …

… And that got me to thinking about how far we’ve come and where we’re going as an industry – and where the greatest opportunities are most likely to be awaiting us up ahead.


The time was 1872. The place: The Breadbasket of America – the Midwest. And Aaron Ward’s blood was boiling …

The 28-year-old traveling dry goods salesman fumed over the obscene prices local shopkeepers charged for the clothing, tools, lanterns and other general merchandise on their shelves. And he was even more livid that they were actually getting away with it.

In those days, most small-town general stores enjoyed virtual monopolies. Few hamlets boasted more than one of these establishments and the next-closest shop could be a full day’s round trip away – often more.

That meant shopkeepers could demand any price they liked. And although consumers hated these greedy shopkeepers for fleecing them, they had little choice but to grumble and fork over their money.

That didn’t sit well with the idealistic Mr. Ward and, being a man of action, he decided to do something about it.

Investing $1,600 of his own money (about $26,000 in today’s dollars), he printed a simple flyer offering 163 items at bedrock prices, then mailed his one-sheet catalog to families throughout the Midwestern states.

For Mr. Ward, it was a daring deed, founded on moral principle and fueled by righteous indignation.

It also proved to be a red-letter day in American entrepreneurship.

Because with that one mailing, Aaron Montgomery Ward lit the fuse on a marketing revolution that continues even now …


And so on a brisk Midwestern morning more than 135 years ago, thousands of Americans opened their mailboxes to discover Mr. Ward’s one-page catalog – a solicitation sent to them precisely because they were believed to be excellent prospects for the products advertised.

It was, as far as we can tell, the first direct marketing promotion they’d ever seen.

And Mr. Ward’s innovation didn’t end there: He also invited customers to respond to his catalog by placing their orders through the mail and invented “Direct Response Marketing” in the process.

Consumers loved the idea of saving a bundle. They also relished the idea of doing their shopping without leaving home.

Most of all, they loved the fact that Mr. Ward had given them a way to hit greedy shopkeepers where it hurt them the most: Right smack-dab in their bulging wallets.

Mr. Ward had harnessed the awesome power of his prospects’ most dominant resident emotion – their hatred of the merchants who had been abusing them.

And they ordered in droves.

In fact, the response to Aaron Montgomery Ward’s little catalog was so explosive, his next few catalogs quickly ballooned from the one-sheeter weighing less than an ounce to a massive book weighing a hefty four pounds.

By 1904, with only 17 million households in the U.S., Mr. Ward could be found mailing a staggering three million of his catalogs to eager consumers every year.


Mr. Ward loved his innovation even more than his customers did. Because now for the first time, he could know – to the penny – how much money his advertising produced.

He could count the number of orders, the sales revenues and the profit produced by each mailing of his catalog – and by each product in his catalog.

This meant that for the first time, business owners and marketing people using Mr. Ward’s direct response marketing model could view the money they spent to attract customers as an investment.

And they could calculate a return on investment for every product in their inventories and every dollar in their advertising budget.

Mr. Ward had, in short, transformed advertising from an expense that businesses could only hope would make money into an exact science that told them not only whether their advertising was working, but also how well it was working.

And that knowledge allowed marketers to cut losing promotions short while ramping up the size of their successful campaigns.

Mr. Ward’s innovation also meant that, by mailing more than one version of their solicitations at a time, they could learn which kinds of headlines garnered the greatest readership of their ad copy.

Another huge breakthrough: For the first time ever, businesses could discover which sales copy techniques and offers produced the greatest response, revenues and profits. And that meant they had a way to consistently boost response, average sale and return on investment with each mailing.

Unsurprisingly, others soon followed in Mr. Ward’s footsteps – most notably, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck.

From its founding in 1895 until its first brick and mortar store opened in 1925, Sears, Roebuck and Co. – which now boasts more than 350,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $53 billion – offered its products exclusively in catalogs delivered through the mail and received its orders and payments exclusively through return mail.

Throughout the 20th Century, Mr. Ward’s direct response marketing revolution expanded far beyond catalogs and even the sale of products – to fundraising for countless charities, causes and political organizations, to producing leads for Business-to-Business and Business-to-Consumer salespeople and, as we direct response copywriters are fond of saying, much much more.

Nor has Mr. Ward’s direct response marketing revolution been confined to direct mail. Throughout the last century, enterprising marketers pioneered and perfected the use of magazine and newspaper ads, television and radio commercials and many other media to solicit a direct response -a request for more information or an immediate purchase – from prospects and customers.


As recently as the 1990s, the world’s companies could pretty much be divided into two groups: Those who primarily relied upon Interactive Marketing to attract new customers and to sell products to established customers – and those who did not.

Banks and credit card companies, insurance companies, publishers, fundraisers and, of course, catalogue companies spent billions on promotions that targeted their best prospects and solicited a direct response from them.

But for the most part, manufacturers, retail chains and others focused on non-interactive advertising they hoped would emblazon their brands on consumers’ minds.

All that changed radically with the explosive growth of the Internet in the 1990s.

Today, with more than 1.1 billion people using this miracle of modern technology worldwide – and with the cost of interacting with prospects and customers via the ‘net infinitesimally small compared to other media – Aaron Ward’s direct response marketing revolution is being adopted by every conceivable kind of company to attract customers and multiply sales:

>>Direct marketing companies were among the first to see the potential of the Internet. Montgomery Ward, Sears, Nordstrom’s, Victoria’s Secret, Lillian Vernon – pretty much every catalog retailer you can name – now has a prominent storefront online. – the online book, music, video and electronics “catalog” – will earn net revenues of more than $12 billion in 2007, making it the largest online retailer on the planet.

>>Many businesses that were once confined to storefronts and left trusting their fortunes to the vagaries of image advertising now use the Internet to produce measurable sales results for every advertising dollar they spend.

Travel agencies like,, and drive business travelers and vacationers to their sites and earn a king’s ransom booking flights, hotels and auto rentals online. Office Depot and Staples each sells billions of dollars-worth of products online each year.

Grocery giants Winn-Dixie, Safeway and other chains invite you to download coupons and even order groceries online. Real estate giants like Century,, and others drive prospects to their sites to browse properties for sale, to find a realtor near them and even book appointments.

>>Even manufacturers, wholesalers and other non-retail companies have gotten into the Interactive Marketing act. Auto manufacturers invite you to build your car online, then arrange to have a local salesperson contact you to close the deal.

Sites maintained by Harley-Davidson, Nike and countless others invite you to learn about their products, to find virtual or brick and mortar establishments where their products may be purchased and even to schedule appointments with salespeople.

Of course, these massive companies are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg: Millions of mid-sized companies and even local mom and pop stores are now using the Internet to attract new customers and make sales 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

In fact, one of the most fascinating of these smaller entrepreneurial animals to emerge on the ‘net is the “Solopreneur:” Men and women who, simply by establishing a store on eBay or setting up a one-page website attached to a shopping cart, now have the power to bank thousands of dollars from online sales – and to grab his or her share of the estimated half-trillion dollars that online retailers will earn on the web this year.


Thanks to the Internet, millions of companies and entrepreneurs around the world have discovered the tremendous advantages direct response marketing – or in today’s parlance, “Interactive Marketing” – offers them; of being able to precisely measure the sales and profits produced by every advertising dollar they spend.

It was only a matter of time before smart marketers at these Internet companies began looking beyond the virtual world; to begin wondering what would happen if they converted their online sales copy into full-page ads and plastered them across newspaper and magazine pages from coast to coast.

… Or, mailed their online catalogs to qualified prospects just like Aaron Ward did more than a century ago.

And so, armies of companies that would never have considered mounting direct response campaigns a couple of decades ago are now taking their successful online businesses into the offline world.

The moral of the story …

Today, the Internet has made direct marketing indispensable to every kind of business.

To compete effectively, every business on Earth must now be a direct response business.

And that means every business on the planet needs YOU.

Remember how I said Drayton Bird is working with Richard Branson at Virgin?

Now, I didn’t ask – but I’m betting that The Great Mr. Bird isn’t writing sales copy for Virgin Airlines or Virgin Records or Virgin Vacations or Virgin Games or Virgin Comics or Virgin Books or Virgin Wines or Virgin Media or Virgin Mobile – or any of the other Virgins with whom the spectacularly prolific Mr. Branson has surrounded himself.

I’m betting he’s working on something entirely different; most likely something that requires more than a copywriter – something that requires an expert with a world-class working knowledge of the nuts and bolts of direct response marketing.

Yeah – I’m talking about the monotonous, humdrum, tedious stuff like database structure and management. Retrogression analysis. Psychographic and demographic number crunching. Customer acquisition strategy. Customer lifetime value optimization.

That’s right: The dull, boring stuff that makes companies billions – the stuff that requires expertise that companies are eager to pay through the nose for.

So here’s your assignment for this week:

Head on over to … search for books on direct marketing … buy some … and then actually read them.

I love Bob Stone’s Successful Direct Marketing Methods. It formed my foundational understanding of this business and gave me the basics I needed to become more than “just a copywriter.”

I also just ordered Chet Meisner’s The Complete Guide to Direct MarketingDirect Marketing: Strategy, Planning, Execution by Edward L. Nash … and The New Direct Marketing: How to Implement a Profit-Driven Database Marketing Strategy by David Shepard Associates.

And then, in what I’m certain will prove a failed attempt to become at least half as adept as Drayton is – or at least be able to hold up my end of a conversation with him – I also ordered Mr. Bird’s Commonsense Direct & Digital Marketing … How to Write Sales Letters That Sell … Marketing Insights and Outrages … The Master Marketer … and Open for Business!

Hope this helps …..