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.
ENTER JIM CLAIR
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.