The most successful advertisement in the history of the world
This article from the archive of legendary marketing expert Denny Hatch features a hugely successful advertising campaign by The Wall Street Journal. In the first of our series featuring his insights, Denny explains why the ‘Two Young Men’ mailing can be seen as the best advertisement of all time.
- Written by
- Denny Hatch
- June 25, 2020
Denny Hatch isn’t a fundraiser. He’s an author, former businessman and army veteran. But with his expertise of marketing and advertising, his opinions and thoughts will be a treasure trove of knowledge that fundraisers can draw upon to make their campaigns better and more appealing to donors. We are incredibly grateful to Denny for letting us reproduce his wealth of blog posts on SOFII.
From friend of SOFII Roger Craver:
‘My Personal Pantheon of Great Fundraising Creative Curmudgeons is currently limited to three. (Those offended by not being included – yet – are simply too young). My three: Jerry Huntsinger, the late George Smith and Denny Hatch.
Why Denny Hatch? Because he’s not only a great copywriter, he’s a great copywriter with a penchant for analysis, the ability to deliver that analysis based on 40 years’ experience and the detailed review of literally tens of thousands of direct mail packages.
Denny’s analysis is far from dull. It’s both truthful and inspiring. No wonder in commenting on Denny’s classic Million Dollar Mailings: the art and science of creating money-making direct mail, David Ogilvy exclaimed,“This remarkable book has inspired me to revive my life-long crusade to extricate the direct mail fraternity from the ghetto to which they have always been confined by the advertising generalists.”
For 30 years my friend Denny monitored the testing and roll out of thousands of direct mail packages – including fundraising appeals – through his unique service Who’s Mailing What!; tracking, archiving and sharing winning control packages across the commercial and nonprofit sectors.
Good copy is not like this year’s latest fashion. Rather, it reflects in a proven and effective way the message and values that have motivated donors and triggered responses year after year. So, as Denny often reminded me, when someone in the office says, “We’ve already used that, let’s get something new”, remember there’s not a single donor out there who says, “Oh, here’s that same old year-end appeal.”
If you want to know whether to treasure or trash a piece of copy or an entire package, the best advice I can give is “learn from Denny Hatch” and you won’t go wrong.’
Roger Craver, Editor, The Agitator.
The most successful advertisement in the history of the world!
Read the 775 words that brought in a staggering $2 billion
I seriously started collecting junk mail in 1983 and launched the newsletter and archive service, Who’s Mailing What! in 1984. At some point I took note of a letter that kept coming into my own mailbox – and was sent to me by my correspondents around the country, month after month after month.
The ‘Two Young Men’ letter was written by freelancer Martin Conroy and first sent out in 1974. It was mailed continuously for over 25 years.
Late in 1991 I phoned The Wall Street Journal circulation manager Paul Bell and ran some numbers by him. Here’s the transcript:
HATCH: ‘Would you say that the average mail order circulation of the Journal over the past 18 years was about one million?’
BELL: [Pause.] ‘Yes, that’s about right.’
HATCH: ‘Am I right in assuming that the average subscription rate of The Wall Street Journal over the past 18 years has been about $100 a year?’
BELL: [Pause.] ‘Yes, that’s about right.’
HATCH: ‘Is it safe to assume that 55 per cent of all your mail order subscribers over the past eighteen years have come in as a result of Martin Conroy’s “Two Young Men” letter?’
BELL: ‘We have a lot of other sources: telemarketing, subscriptions from newsstand sales, gift subscriptions, supermarket take-ones, inserts. But, yes, I think 55 per cent is a fair estimate.’
HATCH: ‘Paul, one million subscribers per year times $100 equals $100 million times 18 years is $1.8 billion times 55 percent equals $1 billion. If these numbers are correct, the Martin Conroy letter is directly responsible for bringing in $1 billion in revenues to The Wall Street Journal, and is, therefore THE MOST SUCCESSFUL SINGLE PIECE OF ADVERTISING IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD!’
BELL: [Long silence. Then in a small voice.] ‘Uh, please don’t tell Marty Conroy. He’ll raise his prices.’
NOTE: The ‘Two Young Men’ mailing was control until 2003 (ie it was the mailing all other tests were measured against). This means it brought in an additional $1 billion in the 12 years since this exchange with Paul Bell, during which time the publication no doubt raised its prices. Hence the total revenue from the 775 words in the letter below would be in the neighbourhood of $2 billion.
SOFII is proud now to present that famous letter in its entirety, here. Some tips from its writer, Martin Conroy, are below, followed by a tribute to Mr Conroy explaining why he’s so widely revered for having written, ‘that letter'.
On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.
They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.
What Made The Difference
Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives? It isn’t that one person wants success and the other one doesn’t.
The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.
And this is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: to give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business.
A Publication Unlike Any Other
You see, The Wall Street Journal is a unique publication. It’s the country’s only national business daily. Each business day, it is put together by the world’s largest staff of business-news experts.
Each business day, The Journal’s pages include a broad range of information of interest and significance to business-minded people, no matter where it comes from. Not just stocks and finance, but anything and everything in the whole, fast-moving world of business . . .The Wall Street Journal gives you all the business news you need – when you need it.
Knowledge Is Power
Right now, I am reading page one of The Journal, the best-read front page in America. It combines all the important news of the day with in-depth feature reporting. Every phase of business news is covered, from articles on inflation, wholesale prices, car prices, tax incentives for industries to major developments in Washington and elsewhere.
And there is page after page inside: The Journal, filled with fascination and significant information that’s useful to you. The Marketplace section gives you insights into how consumers are thinking and spending. How companies compete for market share. There is daily coverage of law, technology, media and marketing. Plus daily features on the challenges of managing smaller companies.
The Journal is also the single best source for news and statistics about your money. In the Money & Investing section there are helpful charts, easy-to-scan market quotations, plus “Abreast of the Market,” “Heard on the Street” and “Your Money Matters,” three of America’s most influential and carefully read investment columns.
If you have never read The Wall Street Journal, you cannot imagine how useful it can be to you.
Save $30 On Your Subscription
Put our statements to the proof by subscribing for a full year right now and save $30 off the regular subscription price. That’s right, order now and you can receive The Journal for an entire year for $99.
Or if you prefer, a 13-week subscription is only $34. It’s a perfect way to get acquainted with The Journal. Either way – one year or 13 weeks – we pay the delivery costs.
Simply fill out the enclosed order card and mail it in the postage-paid envelope provided. And here’s The Journal’s guarantee: should The Journal not measure up to your expectations, you may cancel this arrangement at any point and receive a refund for the undelivered portion of your subscription.
If you feel as we do that this is a fair and reasonable proposition, then you will want to find out without delay if The Wall Street Journal can do for you what it is doing for millions of readers. So please mail the enclosed order card now, and we will start serving you immediately.
About those two college classmates I mention at the beginning of this letter: they were graduated from college and together got started in the business world. So what made their lives different?
Knowledge. Useful knowledge. And its application.
An Investment In Success
I cannot promise you that success will be instantly yours if you start reading The Wall Street Journal. But I can guarantee that you will find The Journal always interesting, always reliable, and always useful.
Peter R. Kann
P.S. It's important to note that The Journal's subscription may be tax deductible. Ask your tax advisor.
© 1991 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Observations About People and Copywriting
By Martin Conroy
(From an email exchange with Denny Hatch, 1997)
If you’re trying to find out what makes people tick, you might take a look at the Seven Deadly Sins from the old Baltimore Catechism.
Remember them? Pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Of course, the deadly sins are all bad and all extreme and all no-nos.
But there’s an unsinful, unextreme side to every one of them where you can see how good and honest people act and react:
• On the sunny side of sinful pride, for example, nice people still take normal, unsinful satisfaction in what they are and what they have.
• Short of deadly covetousness, people have an understandable desire to possess some of the good things in life.
• Instead of sinful lust, there’s good old love that makes the world go ‘round.
• Without raging in anger, good people can still feel a reasonable annoyance with bad people and bad things.
• Without getting into gross gluttony, normal men and women can have a normal appetite for good food and drink.
• Short of envy, there’s a very human yen to do as well as the next guy.
• And as for sloth, who isn't happy to learn an easier way to do things.
• The Seven Deadly Sins. If you want to know what makes people act like people, they’re worth a look.
Martin Conroy, 84, Ad Writer Famous for a
Mail Campaign Is Dead
By MARGALIT FOX DEC. 22, 2006
Martin Conroy, an advertising executive who without recourse to glossy paper or fancy graphics created one of the most enduring ad campaigns of all time, died on Tuesday in Branford, Conn. He was 84 and lived in Madison, Connecticut and Captiva, Florida.
The cause was complications of lung cancer, his son Martin Peter Conroy said.
Mr. Conroy’s masterwork never appeared in newspapers or magazines. Nor was it broadcast on television or the radio. It was a letter: a simple, two-page letter. It begins:
‘On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.’
Then, a small note of foreboding:
‘Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.’
Mr. Conroy’s letter is a subscription pitch for The Wall Street Journal. Written in plain language with the inexorable pull of a fairy tale, the letter is widely considered a classic of direct-mail marketing, sent to millions of people in the course of nearly three decades.
Although the Journal kept no statistics on the letter’s effectiveness, its sheer longevity, direct-mail experts say, is its own best testament. With minor variations, Mr. Conroy’s letter was in continuous use for 28 years, from 1975 to 2003.
‘It’s the Hamlet, the Iliad, the Divine Comedy of direct-mail letters,’ James R. Rosenfield, a direct-marketing consultant in New York and San Diego, said in a telephone interview this week. ‘It’s had a longer life, to my knowledge, than any other direct mail in history.’
Alan Rosenspan, the president of Alan Rosenspan Associates, a direct-marketing concern in Newton, Massachusetts, uses Mr. Conroy’s letter as a teaching tool in seminars.
‘I ask people to read out loud the first paragraph of the letter,’ Mr. Rosenspan said by telephone. ‘And what’s astonishing to me is that they never stop at the first paragraph. They keep on reading. And I tell them: “You have just proven why this letter’s so powerful. It’s a story.”’
The direct marketer’s task is to reel readers in – gently, firmly, imperceptibly – and keep them reading, despite the looming maw of the wastebasket. Mr. Conroy’s letter does so by spinning the hypnotic story of two young lives fatefully diverging. Here is what comes next:
‘They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
‘But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.’
Strikingly, the letter nowhere says that the man who made good read the Journal. But the message is resoundingly there, between the lines.
‘It doesn’t start off by saying, “Be rich beyond your wildest dreams and dominate your fellow human beings,”’ Mr. Rosenfield said. ‘But the very obvious, palpitating subtext - it’s barely even a subtext - is greed and envy. So it’s a lovely combination of a hard-sell letter nested inside a kind of soft shell.’
Martin Francis Conroy was born in Manhattan on Dec. 13, 1922. In 1943, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and afterward served with the Army in Germany. He worked as a copywriter at Bloomingdale’s and on the editorial staff of Esquire magazine before joining BBDO in 1950; he later became a vice president there. He left the agency in 1979 to work as an independent consultant.
Mr. Conroy is survived by his wife, the former Joan Crowley, whom he married in 1949; eight children, Ellen McNamara, of Stamford, Connecticut; Janice Albert, of Seattle; Martin Peter, of Hong Kong; John, of Manhattan; Thomas, of South Orange, New Jersey; Dennis, of Darien, Connnecticut; James, of Fairfield, Connecticut; and David, of New Milford, Connecticut; a sister, Ellen Gruppo, of Darien; and 14 grandchildren.
Besides The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Conroy’s other accounts at BBDO included The Boston Globe, General Electric, Sheraton and Tupperware. But more than anything else, it was the Journal letter that made him storied in his field.
‘I have won 20 direct-marketing Echo Awards,’ said Mr. Rosenspan, referring to the international award given annually by the Direct Marketing Association, an industry group. He added:
‘I would trade all of them to have written this letter.’
Takeaway to Consider
• Direct marketing guru Axel Andersson did the obvious arithmetic and discovered $2 billion divided by 775 words equals $2.58 million per word. ‘I can't imagine any other literary work in history making that much money unless, perhaps, the Bible.’ He added, ‘And that took 2000 years.’
• Over the 28-year lifespan of the ‘Two Young Men’ letter, scores of freelance copywriters and agencies were paid thousands of dollars by The Wall Street Journal in attempts to beat this fabled control. It supposedly lost to an occasional test effort now and then according to rumours. But like Cisco Houston's wonderful folk song, The Cat Came Back, the two young men kept showing up in the Who’s Mailing What! archive until 2003.
Specifications of the Mailing
• Outside Envelope: 4" x 7-1/2," one color (black), glassine window lower right.
• Letter: 7" x 10-1/2", two-over-one (all black with Kann signature in blue on back).
• Order Card: 3-1/2" x 7," two color with detachable Guarantee
P.S. This past week I emailed Paul Bell and asked how The Wall
Street Journal paid its circulation copywriters. Paul’s reply:
The letter ‘Two Young Men,’ was in use as the control mailing during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I arrived in the WSJ circulation department. Marty Conroy, who at one time was a regular copywriter at BBDO and later went out on his own, was on an annual retainer. I don’t recall the annual fee we paid to him.
The ballpark fee in the late 70s and early 80s was small by today’s standards, as I recall it. I can’t say for certain, but $5,000 seems to stick out in my mind, and a smaller fee paid to tinker with the letter for subsequent test mailings. Notwithstanding this, remember that Marty was on a retainer and didn’t get the per-letter fee. Later on, perhaps it was 1990 or so, the retainer ended, but Marty stayed as a regular contributor for Barron’s and the Journal. We evolved to paying Marty per letter, thus my comment, ‘Don’t tell Marty or he’ll raise his price.’
I can emphatically say that at the Journal we bought the unlimited rights to each direct mail letter and didn’t pay any performance bonuses.
I’m so glad you included the obituary written by Margalit Fox. She was masterful and went through several phone calls with me to be sure she got the fine points down correctly. It was a masterful tribute to a genuinely good man.
And finally, the Seven Deadly Sins. Marty said all of life’s foibles and vagaries could be traced to at least one of them.
All the best,