Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck

June 14, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Interviews 

Direct Mail Copywriter Dean RieckI’ve been interviewing fellow copywriters about their writing specialty. Their responses have been so fun, I wanted to get in on the action.

So James at Men With Pens conducted an interview with me about my specialty, direct mail copywriting. Part 1 is below. Part 2 is over at James’ blog.


James: Everyone wants to hear how we all got started — what was your start in copywriting? How far do you go back?

Dean: I go waaay back to the Stone Age when writers delivered copy by beating on a hollow log. Okay, maybe not that way back. I’ve been writing copy of one kind or another since 1985 when I got my start in radio then moved into a TV producer job.

I’m infamous for a series of Dukes of Hazzard promos (in which I appeared as Luke Duke) with lots of hoots and hollers that, apparently, annoyed the crap out of people but got them to pay attention during commercial breaks.

Dean Rieck - early freelance daysBack in those days, I didn’t use a hollow log, but I did use a Blue IBM Selectric typewriter. Clack clack clack! When I went freelance I got the original IBM PC with a green screen. Look at that photo. Cutting edge, folks.

James: Was the decision to be a freelance copywriter a conscious choice? And have you ever regretted it?

Dean: I was more or less conscious at the time, but really I started out of desperation. You see, I graduated with a teaching degree and two majors in English and Science. After my radio and TV gigs, I tried teaching in Las Vegas for exactly 3 weeks and 3 days. I hated it. I quit. I just piled my books on the desk and walked out.

Then I came back home to a seriously annoyed wife who had already packed up everything because she thought we were moving to Vegas.

I had no job and no clue, so I called a former client from my TV job to ask about work and he flat out said, “No way I’m hiring you. Forget it. No chance.” The next day, he called back and said, “Actually, I could use your help. Let’s talk.”

And no, I’ve never regretted it. I was never suited for a 9 to 5 job. I hate ties and like putting my feet up on my desk when I’m thinking.

James: You’re mostly known as a direct mail copywriter. What’s the difference between that and regular ol’ copywriting?

Dean: Direct mail is a top-of-the-food chain medium in the world of direct marketing. It’s expensive to produce and clients demand that every mailing make money. So your head’s on the chopping block. You either write a winner or you’re fired. You’re either a genius or an idiot. Direct mail takes a high level of skill and a big set of brass balls. That scares a lot of writers.

James: Are you a yellow highlighter kind of copywriter? You know — those sales letter with screaming stand-out text?

Dean: I know why you asked that question. There’s this idea out there that direct mail is outdated and only works on a few “suckers,” and today’s writer’s are just too cool and hip for that sort of thing. But let me tell you, letters with highlighter and handwriting and typewriter fonts WORK. I’ve literally tested pretty stuff vs. ugly stuff and the ugly stuff wins every single time.

You know why some people think it doesn’t work? Because they do internet advertising where they’ve spent 3 years cultivating a following and have the luxury of being laid back and cool and hip. With direct mail, you often have one shot to sell something. You have to sell it now. Today. It’s a whole different ballgame.

James: Many of my peers and colleagues tend to look down on sales copy, considering it kind of spammy. How do you feel about that?

Dean: Them’s fightin’ words. You wanna step outside and settle this?

Well, your peers and colleagues are wrong. In this business, you just do what works. It’s not about personal preference. It’s about results. Of course, you have to adjust the tone for your particular audience, so sales copy doesn’t always scream. Sometimes it flatters. Or frightens. Or angers.

A good copywriter can get into your head and turn your feelings and self-image into sales. So if your peers are all snotty about the delusion that they don’t respond to sales copy, not only are they naïve, they’ve just given a good copywriter the opening he needs to reach into their wallet. The moment you think you’re too smart to be sold, you’re about to be sold.

James: What’s the best job you ever worked on, and why?

Dean: I don’t know that there was just one job I’d call the best. But I did have a client I’d consider the best. I won’t name names, but this client was open to any idea I had and would let me both plan marketing programs and create them, which I did for many years. With that kind of freedom, I could test all sorts of things and find out what works. It was fun and profitable. A great relationship.

James: What was the worst job you ever worked on?

Dean: I had this client who wanted a simple little insert. That’s basically a small sheet of paper with an advertising message that you insert into a piece of direct mail, such as a monthly bill. I wrote the copy and hired a design firm to do the layout. But the client kept asking for more and more until we ended up with 9 inserts. Plus endless changes that made no sense.

It seemed to go on forever. A little $3,000 project ballooned into $11,000, most of which came from the designers. The client was furious, not understanding that he was the one who turned the project upside down. I’d worked with him before and he was a total control freak, and not in a good way. So once I got payment, I dropped him. Life’s too short to work with people like that. So I don’t.

James: What is the single biggest mistake most copywriters make today, in your humble opinion?

Dean: They don’t understand the point of their copy, which in most cases is to sell something or make something happen. They approach copy as a writing project when really it’s a selling project.

James: Why do you feel that sales copy — or even copywriting in general — commands higher rates than … oh, blog posting or article writing?

Dean: As I’ve already said, copywriting is about selling, not writing. So if all you offer is well-crafted words, you just don’t get paid very well. There are a zillion writers who can create a series of great sentences. But there just aren’t that many writers who can write words that motivate, persuade, and sell. Good copywriting is about making people DO something.

Think of it this way …  about a hundred people created gorgeous designs for a flying machine. But they weren’t worth much because none of them got off the ground. The Wright Brothers created an idea that worked. That was worth something.

James: Do you feel that being a top copywriter is a learned skill or does it require some innate talent?

Dean: Oh, I think there’s a certain talent involved. But it’s mostly learned. The trick is thinking about the work in the right way.

Back in college I thought I was brilliant because I could write clever stories with big words and flowery language. But when I got into copywriting, every job I had was about using my writing skill to make something practical happen, like go to a store or call a phone number. You know real quick if you succeed or fail. So your attitude changes.

I think you become good when you have enough of the right kind of experience. You become bad if you have enough of the wrong kind of experience.

James: How can online businesses benefit from direct mail? Isn’t that an offline kind of thing?

Dean: There used to be a time when people thought online and offline were two different worlds. Some still do. But what many people are finally discovering is that real people live in the real world. And in that world, those people do online and offline things seamlessly. You can walk into a store and order from their online catalog. You can go online and order a product that is physically delivered to your home. Online and offline are both part of the same world.

So you can use direct mail (or radio or print) to drive people to a website to try something, buy something, or sign up for something. This is common today. Actually, radio is fantastic for driving people to websites. More than half the radio spots I’ve created tell people to go to a URL for a free trial or sample.

James: We all get direct mail sales letters these days — seems like everyone wants money for something. How many of those letters go in the garbage, you think?

Dean: Most of them. Maybe 98 to 99 percent. In fact, I wrote an article about this where I show why and how direct mail gets trashed. But the same thing happens with ANY kind of advertising. How many radio commercials do you respond to? How about TV spots? Print ads? Emails? Banner ads?

Direct mail just seems to be wasteful because you have a pile of paper to throw away when you’re finished sorting your mail. But it’s often far more efficient than other media because you can target it to likely buyers. Even with all of today’s alternative forms of marketing, it remains the one and only way to reach every living soul with an address. You can’t do that with anything other medium.

James: How does that trashcan conversion compare to online sales letters?

Dean: I’ll tell you what I tell all my clients: it depends. There’s no magic conversion rate for online or offline. Every type of product and every audience is different. There are some people who make a fortune with a ½ percent conversion. There are others who can’t make ends meet with 4% conversion. It just depends.

But if you have to have an answer, most people say that 2% online is good and 2% with direct mail is good. I don’t think those numbers mean anything, though. The real numbers are all over the place.

James: Name me three of the most influential words in copywriting today.

Dean: Free. You. Guaranteed. You don’t even know what I’m selling and you already want it, don’t you? C’mon. Admit it. It’s free. It’s all for you. And it’s totally guaranteed. You just gotta have it.

James: A lot of writers feel strongly about sales copy and what it represents.  After all, you’re writing words that manipulate and influence people to hand over their money, right?

Dean: I’m detecting a pattern here. Are writers really THAT turned off by sales copy? Listen … if a copywriter whines about having to “sell” things, to me that’s like a boxer complaining that he has to hit people. If you can’t do it, get out of the ring.

To read part 2 of this interview, go to Men With Pens where James asks me about ethics, writer’s block, and weird stuff that’s sitting on my desk.

Related posts:

  1. Web copywriting: an interview with James Chartrand
  2. Email copywriting: an interview with Ivan Levison
  3. B2B copywriting: an interview with Pete Savage
  4. SEO copywriting: an interview with Heather Lloyd Martin
  5. PR copywriting: an interview with Kathleen Hanover

>>> Subscribe to blog by RSS or E-mail

Smart Comments

11 Comments on Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Chartrand and Tony Mack, John Domzalski. John Domzalski said: Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck: I’ve been interviewing fellow copywriters about their… [...]

  1. Mary E. Ulrich on Jun 14th, 2010 11:11 am
  2. Interesting interviews, both. Now I don’t feel so bad about having my Yoda figurine next to my computer.

    I think this is the bottom line: “They don’t understand the point of their copy, which in most cases is to sell something or make something happen. They approach copy as a writing project when really it’s a selling project.”

    Every time I am ready to give up, I get a nugget of insight that adds direction. Changing beliefs and attitudes isn’t a product to sell. I’m glad Dean added the “make something happen” that is helpful to what I am trying to do.

  3. Dean Rieck on Jun 14th, 2010 11:21 am
  4. Mary,
    If I were to get pedantic about it I would say my specialty is “direct response,” which means a kind of communication intended to get response from people immediately. So that can be selling something or getting a donation or driving people to a store or whatever. The principles of direct response apply in many areas, not just in marketing.

  5. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Jun 14th, 2010 12:25 pm
  6. Dean!

    Thank you for bringing back copywriting to it’s proper place. There are way too many bloggers and on-line copywriters that are scared to ask for the sale, becuase it’s not cool, think highlighter is old school, doesn’t even know what a Johnson box is, and don’t understand that a paragraph for a headline will lose readers like a heard of bears running into a crowd of people (or something).

    It’s refreshing to hear it from someone who is doing it. I’m just getting started at this myself, but have been studying the copywriting masters for years.

    Human emotions for buying will never change, so it’s a nice wake-up call to bring down some of the naysayers from their soap boxes.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

    [...] read part 1 of this interview, go to Pro Copy Tips where I ask Dean about how he got started, the best job he ever had, and the single biggest mistake [...]

    [...] Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck Published: June 14, 2010 Source: Pro Copy Tips I’ve been interviewing fellow copywriters about their writing specialty. Their responses have been so fun, I wanted to get in on the action. So James at Men With Pens conducted an interview with me about my… [...]

  7. D Bnonn Tennant on Jun 14th, 2010 8:02 pm
  8. You make some great comments, Dean. I really like your analogy between writers and boxers. There seem to be a lot of pansy-ass “copywriters” on the web these days who are deeply offended at the idea of selling anything. I wonder what exactly they think their jobs are, or what they are actually supposed to do for their clients.

    I’d like to add that the web is a direct response medium. If you’re a copywriter on the web and you aren’t trained in direct response writing, you are going to fail. There aren’t two ways about it. In fact, I think writing for the web is much harder than writing direct mailers, because with the latter you essentially have a captive audience, while with the former your reader is probably browsing a dozen other sites at the same time, looking at competitors, researching your offerings, etc. So making the sale is that much harder.

  9. Andrew B. on Jun 15th, 2010 2:57 pm
  10. Hey Dean,

    Interesting bio. But seriously, man, I’ve been looking at that same photo of you since the mid ’90s when I first started reading DM News. I’ve read tons of your articles, but I bet if you walked into my office right now, I wouldn’t recognize you at all. How about a more recent photo?

  11. Dean Rieck on Jun 15th, 2010 3:05 pm
  12. Andrew,
    Uh oh, my cover is blown! :) Actually, I look pretty much the same. Different pair of glasses, but I’m the same weight, have the same amount of hair, and the nose is just as big. That’s one reason I haven’t changed the photo. Just good genetics I guess.

    [...] Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck – Part 1 [...]

  13. Cavalletti Communications on Jun 28th, 2010 11:38 pm
  14. Say Something!…

    I found your post interesting so I added a trackback to it on my weblog…