Save the Last Great Natural Resource

April 17, 2017

April is national letter writing month!

Not withstanding emails, PDF greeting cards, Facebook and free online greeting cards (e-Cards) from American Greeting, the physical act of writing using a pen is encouraged and celebrated. Whether you use a treasured fountain pen or cheap Bic, a favorite personalized letterhead and/or envelope, touched off with a postal stamp fitting to the message, personality of the sender or recipient (or both), April is the time to write away with calligraphic flourish!

Creativity was encouraged in my family of origin.

Creative self expression was encouraged in my early years through greeting card and letter formats. Birthday cards of our own individual creation were produced and exchanged amongst our family members. It didn’t matter if you could not draw, there were other ways to express yourself and your sentiments in the card and letter formats. My older brother dreamed up clever limericks as he was the wordsmith and orator of the family, whereas I used scissors to cut out photographs from the weekly news magazines, and paste them onto colored paper or use of colorful script. My dad wrote corny rhyming poems. My mother beamed at the creative expression.

The modern greeting card is a product of the nineteenth century. The Uniform Penny Post came out in Great Britain in 1840 and “radically democratized the sending of messages by mail. Instead of relying on the recipient to pay for a letter on delivery, the new system of postage stamps offered prepaid service at a single low rate” that became available to all (Letter Arts Review 26:4).  Furthermore, in both the 20th and 21th centuries, the commercial card has grown to express practically every artistic trend and style. The format has varied considerably; often there’s space for writing, inked stamps and/or decoration.

Leave the early years and now we’re in my twenties. I’ve graduated college and seeking employment. It was natural for me to place a direct mail-based Job Wanted advertisement (with PO Box) in the Classified section of New England AdWeek:


Copywriting position sought. Brown graduate. Besides, you’ll like me. PO Box 123

Agency copywriting sounded glamorous; while I was discouraged by Marvin Feit, a family friend and co-founder of the Newbury Street agency that bore his name, Marvin & Leonard.  He said the work was very hard, took long hours, paid poorly, was very competitive and agencies were political.

I ignored his wisdom. I was too young to know better. I went ahead trying to land an agency position. I did not succeed; but something better occurred: Bill Bellamy, formerly with the Dickie Raymond Group, a celebrated Boston direct mail agency (later known as The DR Group) responded to my AdWeek ad. (Dickie is famous for inventing the window on an envelope).  Bill offered to take me under his wing at his Mansfield, MA home office to learn direct response marketing and copywriting. I learned about how folds effect response rates as did buck slips in a classic letter package. I learned about teasers and testing and key codes, audience psychographics and appeals, personalization, motivations, direct mail list brokers, and strategy.

I learned that most of what makes a letter (or advertisement) “work” is the soundness of the strategy on which it is based. And that’s where the long hours of hard work comes in.

Bill introduced me to the incomparable “Robert Collier Letter Book”, published in 1931, crammed full of lessons on “selling by mail”. To this day, the “Robert Collier Letter Book” is one of the top books on writing sales letters. But more than that, the techniques explained in his book are directly transferable to the Internet, whether web copy or email.  I learned of Claude Hopkins too, and his book “Scientific Advertising” which explained his knowledge of direct mail and measurement like key codes.  Claude Hopkins was pretty special too: he was a copywriter who was paid $185,000 a year salary in 1907!

Some years later in 1981, after I gave up the dream of being an agency copywriter and was working in a small business, I received a letter in which Bill wrote:

Thanks for stopping in the other day … I am still using examples of some of your lead gettings in my basic talks. They are good examples of how a little ingenuity combined with know how and a sales instinct can produce quality leads on a limited budget.

There’s nothing quite like a personalized letter to brighten up one’s day.  Letter writing by hand is even less frequently done today then it was done when Bill introduced me to the wisdom and beauty of direct mail letter writing.




Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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