Interview With a Pro:
Our Conversation With Master Copywriter Dick Sanders, Part 1

With a total of 34 years in advertising, publishing, sales, and marketing (the last 16 in direct mail), Dick Sanders is best known as the guy who created the first "magalog." His client made over $2.5 million on the package – and the magalog concept swept the industry. Dick also created one of the most successful #10 packages in Phillips Publishing history and wrote a $10 million magalog winner for “Gilder Technology Report.”

In Part 1 of our interview with Dick, we find out how he got started, how he approaches his work – and how he came up with the idea of the magalog. In the next issue of The Golden Thread Online, you'll get Dick's specific advice on how to get started in the copywriting business – plus, you'll learn the secrets he's discovered along the way that helped him rise to the top.

TGT: Dick, why don't we start with a little background. Tell us how you got started.

DS: I was interested in advertising from the time I was a teenager, and also loved photography. I wanted to become an advertising photographer. At age 22, after I got out of the service, I was very fortunate to get a job at Sid Avery & Associates, the top advertising photography studio in Los Angeles at the time. They did print and TV commercials. I was naïve and inexperienced and suddenly, this big, exciting world of advertising opened up to me. Avery's clients included U.S. Steel, Mattel Toys, Brown Jordan Furniture, Schwinn Bicycles, Coffee Mate, and other big names of the day. I worked there for a year and a half, and it set the stage for everything to follow.

After I left the Avery studio, I tried a bunch of different things on my own, none of which panned out financially. Back then, I wasn't a particularly good photographer, writer, or businessman. But over time, I got better and better at sales.

TGT: What do you remember about the first ads that you wrote?

Eventually, I ended up as the Advertising Manager of a weekly newspaper. Most of our customers wouldn't pay to have their ads done professionally, so we had to produce them. I bought a book on advertising by David Ogilvy and studied it. I remember I wrote a full-page ad for a local carpet store: “5 Things You Need to Know Before Buying New Carpeting.” That was straight out of Ogilvy. The ad was a huge success.

Later, I published my own regional magazines and, again, had to write copy to sell space. When my magazines went bust (I'm creative but not particularly good at business management), I fell back on advertising writing.

TGT: How did you get into direct mail?

DS: A good friend, Wm. Fridrich (who is a fine graphic designer) picked up some clients, Dick and Doug Fabian, who were in the investment advisory business. On his recommendation, they hired me to write direct mail copy for them. That was in the fall of 1986. I was a beginner at direct mail but the Fabians – really good people – gave me a chance.

TGT: How did you come up with the idea of the magalog?

I wrote a couple of #10 packages for the Fabians that were barely successful. And I began to think there might be a better way. The individual mail package components bothered me; I thought they were limiting. That's when I created the first magalog with Wm. Fridrich as the designer. I simply thought, “Why not make a sales presentation in magazine form?” I envisioned the sales letter as the feature article and supporting material as sidebars. It was a breakthrough. The package made $2.5 million for the Fabians. That was in 1987. After that, the magalog spread like wildfire through the financial direct mail industry – and eventually throughout the entire direct mail industry. I've been doing this kind of work ever since.

TGT: What would you say was the biggest obstacle you had to tackle as a beginner in direct mail?

DS: One big obstacle was that I didn't know exactly how to do a direct mail package. I literally had to look at one and copy the format. The other main obstacle was that I had to learn how to create a variety of good sentences. But I had no trouble making the sales presentation. And I loved doing it in writing because I could reach tens of thousands of potential customers with one polished sales effort. Sales work was my background. And to this day, I think people who succeed best in this work are salespeople first and writers second.

TGT: You've been writing direct mail copy for 16 years. As times have changed, what kind of adjustments have you had to make in your approach?

DS: Times change, but human nature doesn't. And so the “motivators” you use in direct-response writing remain the same. People have desires, they have fears, they are greedy, etc. Of course, as times change, you do need to adjust – or evolve – your tone and style, and also adjust for the product and audience. Your voice is very difficult to change because you are who you are.

I got on a kick once of trying to “make the writing disappear.” I wanted it to be so perfect you wouldn't notice it, so that only the sales message would come through. It didn't work, The writing was flat. And those packages failed. A DM letter should be like a conversation with a neighbor over a fence. It should be relaxed, friendly, enthusiastic, and conversational. Above all, you've got to let your voice come out.

TGT: Did you make any changes in your writing after September 11th?

DS: The best thing to come out of September 11th was how all Americans pulled together, set aside our differences, and were patriotic again. Copywriters couldn't help putting that in our writing immediately following the tragedy, but it soon backfired, as too many businesses tried to capitalize on it. I'm very careful how I use any references to it today. Patriotism is good, but trying to make money off a tragedy isn't.

TGT: In copywriting, we learn to write about what our reader wants to know, wants to hear, and wants to feel. We tell our students that when you master copywriting, you can write just about anything and even look at other types of writing – novels, screenplays, reports – and understand what makes them good or bad. Do you find that to be true?

DS: Absolutely true. Almost everything I read, I examine the writing to see how it's done, to determine why it moves or bores me. Unless the piece has been written by a really great writer, I tend to mentally rewrite it to try to make it better. I can't help it. And when something is difficult to read, I mentally rewrite it to make it easier to read.

TGT: Are you writing anything other than sales letters?

DS: Right now, I'm only writing sales promotions and personal correspondence. I still love my photography, and that's mainly what I do when I'm not writing. But I would like to write a book some day. Agora Publishing did these “bookalogs” at one time, little paperback books about 100 pages in length. I wrote one and it was a lot of fun. It had chapters. It was instructional and motivational. I feel that I could write on almost any subject, as long as I do the research first. Once, I wrote about in-vitro fertilization for a hospital that was establishing a fertility clinic. I knew nothing about it … but I learned.

TGT: What's a typical day for you like?

DS: I get up at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. and read for about two and one-half hours over coffee. Some of my reading is to keep up with current affairs and some of it is for pleasure. Then, I go to work, researching and writing for about 7 hours. I work pretty normal hours, 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. Sometimes I start a littler earlier, sometimes a little later. Sometimes I'll take a day off midweek, and then make up for it on the weekend. You have to be disciplined because you must meet the deadlines, but you have a lot of flexibility when you do this kind of work.

TGT: We've heard you're already booked with projects through 2002.

DS: Yes, I am booked for almost the entire year. I get a lot of return business from clients who come back to me with more work once a package I've written for them brings in good results – and I am very grateful for my success. I wrote that first magalog in 1987, and since then I've been without work only twice, for about 2 weeks each time. Usually, I'm booked from 4 to 6 months out. It seems the phone is ringing off the hook now, because I think everyone is anticipating a big economic recovery.

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Published: February 25, 2002

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