Interview With “Junk Mail Junkie” Morty Schiller

Today I’m talking with copywriter and marketing consultant Mordechai (Morty) Schiller.

Bob Bly has called him “one of the nation’s top mail order copywriters”…which is nothing to sneeze at!

Like Denny Hatch, Morty is also a self-described “junk mail junkie” – collecting and analyzing his mail for his swipe files.

What I really like about Morty is he’s been in direct mail for 37 years and is still going strong. He’s not just a student of a particular medium – direct mail, Internet marketing, etc. – he’s a student of human nature.

In other words, Morty is a salesman first and foremost, whether with ink on paper, or words on screen.

Here’s the interview…

RYAN: How did you get started in direct marketing? Who were some of your top influences and mentors in the business?

MORTY: I got started in 1973. I was working on a magazine for a college in Israel and I found a copy of Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy in a bookshop in downtown Jerusalem. Haven’t been the same ever since. I have to thank a lot of people. The list includes David Ogilvy, Claude Hopkins, John Caples, Maxwell Sackheim, Lester Wunderman, Gene Schwartz, Ed McLean, Gary Halbert… and a huge debt of gratitude to the late Sig Rosenblum. I miss him dearly.

I also learned a lot and continue to learn from (they should live and be well) my friends and mentors the great Milt Pierce, Bob Bly, and Bob Gaines. And that’s only for starters. I’m still learning.

RYAN: Why do you think most companies prefer “real” general/image/brand advertising versus direct response?

MORTY: Interesting that you call image advertising “real.” Usually it’s anything but real. “Image” begat the Edsel. Which may have been a great car. But Ford ignored the fact that car buyers wanted to save gas, not look classy. Too often, EGO beats out ROI. There’s no glamor in direct marketing. It’s a lot classier to run an ad in The New Yorker than to send out “junk mail.” Nobody comes over, slaps a CEO on the back at a party and says “Hey… loved that direct mail package with the four page letter, brochure, buck slip, and lift letter!”

I see you have Ed McLean’s “Forget it Heinz” letter for Mercedes Benz on your website. Just to be ornery, I should tell you that some of the greatest minds in direct marketing were behind that promotion. Including David Ogilvy and Dick Benson. I once asked Ed McLean what the follow-up was on the letter. How did Mercedes Benz handle the back end? He told me there was no follow-up!

They never took it to the next step! They had a goose laying golden eggs and they just let it die of starvation! Sometimes you just can’t win for losing!

RYAN: Do you think offline direct marketing methods works just as well online with Internet marketing?

MORTY: The critical point isn’t “method.” We focus too much on tactics and not enough on strategy. The main thing is to engage readers and keep them moving along to the end of the message… all the way to the reply card or ORDER NOW button.

Of course, there are differences. For instance, the consensus seems to be that online, people don’t have the attention span for long copy. But don’t rely on consensus. Test everything for yourself.

I’m still learning new ways of working online. If you think about it, SEO is really just direct marketing applied to Internet search. What is SEO if not tapping into what people are really looking for… and then selling them what they want?

That’s the essence of direct marketing. Find what people want and sell it to them. Too many manufacturers go at it backwards. First they make a product. Then they try to push it on people. You might make the best left handed veeblefetzers in the world. But if nobody needs or wants left handed veeblefetzers, no advertising method is going to save you.

RYAN: Why do you suggest using humor in advertising? Doesn’t using humor and jokes go against everything the masters (Caples, Ogivly, Hopkins) preach?

MORTY: Funny you should ask about that. I love funny ads. But I rarely write them. As Claude Hopkins taught, we write for sales, not laughs or applause.

When most people think of advertising, they think of the clever commercials on TV or slick magazine ads. They think advertising is supposed to be entertainment. But the most entertaining ads don’t necessarily sell. Remember the famous Alka Seltzer ad “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!”? It won Clio awards. Everybody loved the ad. But Alka Seltzer sales went down. They should have learned their lesson from their earlier “Poached Oysters” bomb. That ad won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Clios. But it didn’t sell Alka Seltzer.

As the old Benton & Bowles motto says, “It’s Not Creative Unless It Sells.” Having said that, humor has its place in marketing. There’s a difference between being a comedian and being good humored.

Blendtec blenders chuckled all the way to the bank with their “Will It Blend?” YouTube viral marketing campaign. They used humor, but they used it to dramatize the sales message, not to entertain. The idea is to be friendly, not funny. OK, maybe LOL but not ROFL.

RYAN: Do you still consider yourself a “Junk Mail Junkie”?

MORTY: Absolutely! I still love opening the mailbox. You never know what you might have gotten today! And I still save good direct mail pieces to learn from.

There’s a huge difference, by the way, between “junk mail” and spam. You don’t like junk mail? Just toss it out. It doesn’t invade your home like telemarketers or spam. Spam ain’t kosher. It clogs up your mailbox, your bandwidth and your mind.

RYAN: It seems like I’m getting less offers in the mail. Is this a trend you are also seeing?

MORTY: I actually see a lot more mail from a few mailers. Macy’s mails constantly.

But it’s no secret that sales are down because of the economy. Direct mail costs can be enormous. You really have to do your homework before going into the mail.

Companies have to mail smarter. I got an email from an editor at one of the direct marketing magazines asking about envelope tests. I told him that recently all my work has been online. He wrote back “Say it ain’t so, Morty!”

RYAN: You once said “a simple, personal style is the cornerstone of good writing” — What would you recommend to writers trying to develop this kind of writing style?

MORTY: You might start with reading the Bible. Of course, that’s a good start in general. A less lofty influence is Mark Twain. Everybody and her brother will tell you to read The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. And they’re right. But frankly, I learned more technique from The Art of Plain Talk and The Art of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch. I also like Writing That Works by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson.

RYAN: You wisely advocate companies find their USP for their marketing message – “One promotion, one thought.” What would you advise to companies who simply don’t know what their central selling message ought to be?

MORTY: The most important thing in a marketing message isn’t knowing your product. It’s knowing the market. What do THEY want and need? Does your product solve their problem? Then TELL THEM SO.

Gary Halbert used to ask students what crucial advantage they would need to have a successful hamburger stand. Some of the students said they would like to have the advantage of having better meat. Others said location or the lowest prices.

Halbert would wait for all the suggestions and then say: “O.K., I’ll give you every single advantage you have asked for. I, myself, only want one advantage and, if you will give it to me, I will (when it comes to selling burgers) whip the pants off all of you!” “What advantage do you want?”

“The only advantage I want…is… a Starving Crowd!”

The most important factor is not the product or the presentation. It’s the people who need it. Find your starving crowd and holler “Hey, I have what you need!”

RYAN: Where can people go to learn more about you?

MORTY: For some field-tested ideas, see my website:

My blog, where I talk about writing and marketing, is called Wordrider:

Some of your readers might also be interested in my Writing Coach service:

RYAN: Thank you Morty! And if you want a few fantastic articles to read for your direct response education, visit Morty’s website today.

One Comments

  1. Thanks, Ryan. Honored to be in your copywriter rogue’s gallery!

    As for being a “student of human nature,” Maxwell Sackheim used to call copywriting “practicing psychiatry without a license”!