The Most Popular Sales Letter of All Time is “Hokey”

One warm summer evening, two young copywriters joined Twitter. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both were personable, ambitious, and full of the most important character trait of all: ENERGY.

A few years later, one of these copywriters was cutting equity deals, running his own offers, and living the good life. He bought a big house in Andalucia and built a handsome library he filled with leather-bound first editions. In the evenings, he’d sit by his pool fringed by mango trees and wild herbs, puff on a Cohiba Siglo VI, and listen, occasionally, to offers from people who wanted him to write copy for them. He also installed a NAD T770 digital decoder with a 70-watt amp and Burr Brown DACS. That’s a stereo. With speakers so loud they can blow a woman’s clothes off.

The other copywriter… a sad case. Broke as a joke. Still taking cold showers and re-reading Atomic Habits.

Would you like to know what made the difference?

Analyzing the Most Popular Sales Letter of All Time

The Wall St. Journal sales letter that ran from 1975–2003 is responsible for more than $2 billion in sales and subscriptions. You may have already done the math. $195,564 a day for 28 years is almost 2 billion. The letter is 775 words long. So every word copywriter Martin Conroy typed back in 1975 pulled in over $25 million. Twenty-five million dollars. Think about that the next time your fingers are fluttering over the keys.


Copywriters know this ad. They recognize the “tale of two men.” Anyone serious about the craft has studied it to some degree. If you haven’t you can find a dozen breakdowns on the Web.

I’ve hand copied and studied the ad.

I’ve read those breakdowns.

They say things like…

“What follows is the greatest copy ever written!”

“The ultimate open loop!”

“The Jack Niklaus of copywriting!”

“tHiS iS biBLiCAl!”

The sad case copywriter would gobble this up. He’d retro-fit standard frameworks like AIDA and the 4Ps as evidence that it’s an example of high-level execution. All you have to do is trust the playbook.

But there’s more to this story.

I liked the letter but it didn’t strike me as the stunning apex of advertising. I had a hunch and asked direct-response copywriter Jim Clair about it. Jim wrote copy for eight years and crafted a bunch of hit offers. He said:

“The quality of what was written is what sold that newspaper, not that ad.”

Oh, hell fire.

Post that in the Cult of Copy Facebook group and you’ll know harassment.

But in the name of charity and goodwill…

We are here to shepherd the weak through the fog of folklore.

I teamed up with Jim not to set the record straight, but to offer you an alternative narrative that might tweak the way you think.


The ad had an abysmal response rate. Even by today’s cold traffic standards. 0.3% is something you’d run for a scammy affiliate offer if you had a high-converting email swipes. But it sucks and it would be something you’d shut down fast.

As far as the ad’s efficacy. It’s hokey. I believe where it swiped from did ok. It has decent elements. But in the 1970s, and today…. eehhhhhh it’s not quite modern enough. As in, that ad would work as it did in the early 1900s, in a growing urban area. By the 1970s, this kind of theme was long gone. The idea of some country hick in a growing area not reading the journal and then managed by a classmate… that era passed in 1917.

Some elements work. Being left behind. Or trying one thing and it offers success, where the other that doesn’t try something, gets left behind. That aspect works. It needs to be shaped and molded. But for instance, my Yoga Burn ad, we used that element — not invented by the WSJ ad — as far as how women could get injured in a Yoga Studio. The aspect of someone knowing something you don’t, also works. But today’s modern take, would be that “winter is coming” side. Which may be, dated information is slowing you down, or what you’re using is new but it makes it complicated… etc.

(Paul’s note: Jim emphasized it’s impossible to nail down absolute truth with hindsight guesses, but he also saw top guys — himself included — try to rework the ad umpteen ways for modern sales letters and VSLs, without success.)

My take, the higher-ups liked the ego-trip from the ad. They had a ton of subscriptions piling in, they thought this ad was cool. The direct-marketing department/subscription department put it into rotation. Then, with all the bureaucracy, it was forgotten. It just stayed in rotation and ran. Then when anyone took over, they didn’t want to screw anything up, and they inherited a newspaper that plenty of people subscribed to and kept subscribing to, so they just let it run. And I bet the higher-ups, in time, forgot about it. In 1975, with inflation, and world crises, they were more focused on their journalism and the egos of their journalists.

In sum: my bet, sheer volume made the ad work.

Jim shows here that “success” is contextual. The reason it ran for 28 years was that the newspaper was thriving on its own merit. They didn’t need a home-rum promotion to keep the lights on.

Ironically, one of the secrets to the ad’s staying power is that it was unremarkable. It didn’t exist in a culture of A/B testing and somehow escaped management-level scrutiny as it stood in the corner quietly accumulating clout for three decades.

So… the “most successful letter of all time?”


But more by accident than design.

What Makes the Difference

A sum is equal to its parts.

[Offer x Traffic] The Wall St. Journal ran a mediocre ad at high volume for a long time and made $2 billion. At the other end of the equation spectrum, you can have a majestic offer and still build a company of one with next-to-no traffic, purely through word-of-mouth by charging high prices to a select clientele. Big traffic to a great offer makes you rich, obviously.

But the deeper lesson here is that in between your traffic and your offer is a third lever.

It’s the lever that keeps everything humming over the long term. You risk breaking it for good every time you stray into ethical gray zones or decide to roll the dice with scammy tactics.

It’s your reputation.

Your personal brand.

Not your Twitter followers or email list, but the currency you hold with people.

Our sad case was a decent if earnest bloke. But in his rush to make money, he started chasing quick wins and was seduced by a carousel of gurus. He was so blinded by shortcuts that he’s still looking for the next level, hoping to unearth the “BIGGEST MARKETING SECRET,” which doesn’t exist.

Our man in Andalucia wasn’t looking for shortcuts. He wanted to learn deep skills, craft his own offers, build long-term relationships, and understand the world and its power dynamics on a level where having everything and nothing would feel exactly the same.

P.S.P. French

The Non-Obvious Alchemy of Success

Back in 1 FM, I laid out the “Golden Triangle” for anyone starting a career writing online. The APEX of that triangle is a service offer. Now, to make a service offer successful, you need to get comfortable charging good money. The problem is most writers are WAY OFF when it comes to pricing.

Wait, let me be more precise:

They price themselves fairly for the work they do in the market. But they are WAY OFF in estimating the size and value of the problems they are capable of solving with good writing. And there’s another reason writers struggle as freelancers.

First, some context:

In the 2014 movie The Gambler, John Goodman’s character Frank is dishing out some hard-earned wisdom to degenerate dicer Mark Bennett:

“You get up two and a half million dollars, any a**hole in the world knows what to do. You get a house with a 25-year roof, an indestructible Jap-economy shitbox, you put the rest into the system at three to five percent to pay your taxes and that’s your base, get me? That’s your fortress of f***ing solitude.”

I like that phrase, fortress of solitude.

As a writer, your service offer is your fortress of solitude.

But – and this may surprise you – it’s not all about the money.

It’s about honing your skills, growing a reputation and getting a look under the hood of bigger business. It’s about accumulating experience, collecting testimonials and nurturing confidence. It’s about rubbing shoulders with knowledge and intellect, finding mentors and absorbing wisdom.

Yes, your personal brand matters in the long term.

But . . .

If your only aim is to grow a Twitter audience, you’ll soon learn the difference between attention and transformation.

The way you are going to make your first $10,000 writing online is not selling 400 ebooks. It’s providing a service.

Use your service skill as a discovery mechanism for your first product.

The PROCESS of providing a service forces you to work out what problems people are struggling with.

The EXPERIENCE of solving these problems smooths the way for you to create a product that can scale.

This is the difference between hypothesis and reality. This is the difference between “Will it sell?” and “This will sell.” It also gives you two things money can’t buy:


Ironically, the reason people want to skip straight to selling ebooks is they’re scared of selling in real life.

And here’s an even DEEPER reason . . .

This is the important bit:

The “meat and potatoes” . . .

Copywriting and Sales are complimentary – but different – skillsets.

Copywriter and Salesman are two different characters.

Two DIVERGENT psychological profiles.

Copywriter: introverted, likes tinkering and editing, researching and drafting, going for wild and wistful stomps under the sky and coming back to his desk clutching the words he needs to uncork the matrix.

Salesman: extroverted, always hunting, sharking and closing, upfront, competitive, confident, resilient, performance and commission driven. The beating heart of all business, whether you appreciate the stereotype or not.

These are two different people, but to thrive as a freelancer?

You have to get in bed with them both.

P.S.P. French

P.S.P. If you’re enjoying these memos, please take a moment to get your name up in lights on my website by leaving a quick review. Also, I’ve turned ON Gumroad’s PPP (purchasing power parity) option for my products. This offers customers in lower-cost-of-living areas the same product for a lower price.

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The Golden Triangle of Online Writing

This Christmas sat in well-worn chairs next to a crackling flame and tending to a glass of Laphroaig single malt whisky, I came very close – for what would have been the first time in my life – to beating my father at chess.

Dad is 78 but he’s still as sharp as ever. He played chess competitively as a young man. He fought his way back into the game and it ended in a draw. Beethoven’s 7th symphony danced in the background. Dad prefers it to the 5th.

In those delicate moments when dad was “on the ropes”, on the other side of the board I had my own struggle. I realized you can only beat your dad at chess for the first time ONCE. I asked myself, deep down, if I really WANTED to beat him at all.

Because some things are better left as they are. Other things need adjusting. This is the beauty of a new day or week or month. And a new year? That’s the HARD RESET. A full reboot. Here’s mine.

I write.
I write… for clients.
I write… in other people’s voices.
I write… at the whim and pleasure of other people’s businesses.

But I don’t write enough under my own name. So in 2023 these “French Memo” broadcasts and my commitment to publishing 39 of them this year is a public way of fixing that. What are YOU going to gain by reading them?

How to leverage the written word for fun and profit.

Look, I’m a profit-first kind of guy. But never at the expense of autonomy, free-time, family, fitness, travel, and all that good stuff. Here’s a strange paradox:

1… There’s SO MUCH work and opportunity out there for competent writers

2… I know a lot of competent writers and most of them are BROKE.

Not because they lack technical skill.
Not because they have productivity issues.
Not because of the inevitability of ChatGPT.

Because they lack reality-based knowledge.

And they’re distracted by so many opportunities… (not all of them to do with writing) … that surplus becomes a constraint.

And that’s why it’s such a wasted opportunity that most newsletters are all sizzle and no sausage.

All ‘what’ and no ‘how’.
All tease, no PRESTIGE.

My guarantee to you is that when you open my newsletters you’ll close them 5 MINUTES LATER with a tactical, practical takeaway for your writing business. Yes, I’ll pitch offers every now and again. But I promise the memos will serve you independently of the offers.

So here’s today’s takeaway.

The Only 3 Moneymakers You Need For a Profitable Online Writing Business (In Order)

1… Service Offer: Life would have been much more simple (and far less stressful) for me if I’d built a focused service offer from the off. I got distracted writing blog posts, tweeting platitudes and tangoing with the promise of other random and regrettable things that had nothing to do with securing a favorable words-to-money exchange rate.

2… Email List: Start a list, build a list and keep it warm. Email lists are about retaining – for as long as you’re in the game – a slice of the value you create. Because they provide compound interest on your efforts, not starting a list sooner is the #1 regret of many creators out there.

3… Digital Products: When I first started on Twitter, I wanted to sell something ASAP. What I should have been concentrating on was my service offer. This was before I even got into copywriting in a serious way. But something strange happened. I took some advice to write an ebook about the most recent thing I had explored how to do, which was sleep properly. I stuck Sleep Like a Lion on Gumroad, it made about ~$500 and still sells the occasional copy even though I never promote it (the copy is hilarious btw.)

I got DMs from people saying THANK YOU! They loved it! What was I going to write next?! The game is this: always be learning and taking notes. Talk on social about the things you’ve learned that interest you the most. When people show up in your DMs asking you questions, it’s time to sell.

This is the golden triangle.

P.S.P. French

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Copywriting Year One

In my first year freelancing, I read 15 books, bought 3 courses, signed 14 clients and made $107k…. here are my 11 rules.

There’s no need to “be ready.” Stop spinning your wheels, release the brakes, ignore fear and learn your lessons as you go.

Avoid project work. You can eliminate the early anxiety around the “feast and famine” of freelancing by focusing on retainer-based offers. Get some work, gain some confidence, stack some cash.

The most important skill isn’t getting clients, it’s keeping them.

The “best niche” exists at the intersection of work you enjoy doing and who has money. The short answer to “who has money?” is rich guys and B2B.

There are two dimensions to the game: your ability to position yourself and your copywriting skill level. Progress stalls if you secretly favor working on one over the other.

Don’t get memed into thinking hand-copying sales letters and ads isn’t the greatest thing you can do to improve your skill level.

Clients aren’t looking for years of experience or fancy credentials. They’re just looking for a high-quality sample of something similar to what they need.

If you can summon “flow” every day, you are never going to struggle.

As Twitter’s greatest teacher @abrasivisms hammered home to me, direct response is more about making offers than writing copy.

There is a not-insignificant percentage of your overall annual effort that should be spent meditating on how to best procure and promote results-based testimonials for your work.

The barrier to entry is so low and the demand so high that it’s easy just to drift around and make a good living. You have to desire to grow and expand your powers, woo bigger clients, kill others, work on bolder campaigns, risk failure to meet with glory.

P.S.P. French

The One Mega-Valuable Thing

There aren’t that many real grown-ups.

There are people building rockets, editing DNA sequences with Raspberry Pi enabled iPads, commercialising supersonic flight, building holographic brain-machine interfaces and decentralizing large parts of civilization.

But that’s a very small slice of business.

Mostly, the business world isn’t run by geniuses.

Mostly, it isn’t even run by adults…

… mostly, it’s a chaotic cohort of well-intentioned but ill-informed idiots, sociopathic sycophants, CERTIFIED LOONS, risky-frisky adrenaline junkies, bums, winos and crack addicts with exceptional work ethics.

Even Steve Jobs, who it is generally but sometimes reluctantly agreed was a genius, admitted this. “Everything around you that you call ‘life’” he said, “was made up by people who were no smarter than you. Once you learn that, you will never be the same again.”

What does this have to do with you and freelance copywriting?

Well, those people taking the plunge and running businesses who are no smarter than you can’t and won’t survive long without decent copywriting and advertising.

And mostly, their stuff needs some work.

Good copy is the SPLENDID SOUL of any successful business.

You only have to read a couple of the right books and practise just enough for your interest in persuasion to develop into an ability.

And that ability, once packaged into an offer that solves an immediate and painful problem with little or no risk, will have you up and running as a freelance copywriter.

Dive in, ignore fear and learn your lessons as you go.

P.S.P. French