Episode 6: Drayton Bird

Drayton Bird ran the world’s biggest direct agency and wrote the marketing bibles

Drayton Bird started off his career being trained by Draper Daniels – the inspiration for Don Draper in Mad Men – he then worked his way to the top of the direct marketing world.

His agency was bought by David Ogilvy and he became Vice Chairman and Global Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather Direct which was the largest direct marketing agency in the world. David Ogilvy said “Drayton Bird knows more about direct marketing than anyone in the world.”

Drayton is the author of several of the top marketing books including the classic Commonsense Direct Marketing and How to Write Sales Letters that Sell.

He talks about the three graces of direct marketing, reveals how we got the nickname “Mummy Mummy Bird”, shares the fool proof way to separate stated from revealed preferences and tells stories about working with some of the advertising greats.

It was a huge moment for me to speak to my marketing hero, I learnt my trade largely from his books and I’m delighted he found the time to appear on the podcast.


Andrew Veitch: Welcome to a very special episode of the Joy of Marketing. Today we’re joined by my personal hero, the author of Common Sense Direct Marketing, the book I learnt all from. He was also Worldwide Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather Direct. The best way I can introduce him is simply by quoting David Ogilvy himself. He said, “Drayton Bird knows more about direct marketing than anyone in the world”. That’s certainly something I agree with. He’s spoken on marketing in 55 countries, but we have him here today with no travel required. Welcome, Drayton Bird.

Drayton Bird: Very much, Andrew. I’m not bloody well allowed to travel anywhere. It’s breaking my heart.

AV: Do you know I’m the same? I don’t think I’ve ever gone for such a long period without travel as I have right now.

DB: No, it’s terrible. It’s terrible. I wanted to go and see my daughter in America or Southern America and a number of other people around this country all probably got tremendous relief not to have to see me.

AV: Well, as you know, that actually gives us quite a nice link to America, because I wanted to start at the beginning of your career. When you got some training from Draper Daniels, who of course was the inspiration for Don Draper in Mad Men. So I mean, what did you learn from Draper?

DB: Well, I learnt probably the most valuable thing you can learn, or certainly a an aspect of the most valuable thing you can learn. The second chairman of IBM said, “nothing happens in business until something gets sold”. I had no idea who Draper Daniels was he came up with another very tall American from Chicago, he was actually the head of Creative Services, ie the creative director at Leo Burnett in Chicago, I didn’t know that I knew nothing about him, he was the highest paid man, creative guy, in American advertising. And what he did was he taught us how to sell. And he and his colleague did a hilarious rendition of a pitch they had made to a bank in Chicago, featuring a lion. Because the bank had a lion as its symbol, so they use a cartoon lion. And I still remember how they said, “You know why a lion?” one said to the other. And the other said “Lions are brave, lions are ferocious, lions never give up”. It was brilliant. And I, I had already learned that the most important thing to do is to sell I that was I think that was about three and a half years after I’d started in copy. And I wrote an awful lot of rubbish, but I sold it all. And then I, Draper really taught me how to sell even more expensive rubbish to more people.

AV: I was going to say that’s what we’re all trying to do. But then I thought I’m, I need to be a bit more politically correct at my stage.

DB: If it works, it took me longer to learn how to make it work. And that job at Leo Burnett, was where I learned how to make it work because we have a client called Hope Brothers, a retail store. And the thing about retail is that if you run an ad on Friday, which is when they used to run their ads, because what people weren’t shopping on Saturday, you knew by the end of Saturday, whether it was any good or not. Priceless piece of experience.

AV: Yeah, that’s a fantastic point. Because you basically had 52 attempts, I suppose at writing an advert and then you got the feedback within two days.

DB: Yeah. And we used to run a lot of ads, it was very good for me. I learned a hell of a lot. in those early years. I still learn things actually. I’m still looking for things to learn.

AV: I mean, obviously, you know, email is really my my business. And it’s a pretty critical thing in e commerce. You’ve written quite a bit about I think David Ogilvy said that direct mail was his first love. And it’s pretty clear that there’s a very close link between direct mail and email. I mean, they’re more or less the same thing. So I mean, what would be your sort of advice for people who are writing marketing email?

DB: The first thing I would say, I suspect, the best thing I’ve ever written on this subject is in a book, which you may not have read, and it was called How to Write a Sales Letter That Sells. And I revised it a little while ago to make it How to Write a Sales Letter and Email That Sells. And I pointed out there is absolutely no difference whatsoever. Fundamentally no difference whatsoever. People get confused about media, what they should be thinking is not, I’m entering a new medium. They should think I’m talking to the same people, the same arguments will persuade them. The only thing I have to worry about is the technicality. As how they receive it, the big problem, the big difference between email and direct mail, is that in direct mail, it is much easier to test. If you can’t test, you’re flying blind, which is why most of the emails you receive are rubbish. I really don’t think at all, well, if I’m, I dictate my copy, by the way.

AV: Oh, really?

DB: I dictate all my copy. I’ve even dictated whole books. And then my trusty and downtrodden PA, Kelly transcribed that, and then I revised it. And then she transcribes that and then I revise it, usually about five times, I write five emails a week, for instance. And they all go through that process. But it just essentially, if you want to know how to persuade somebody to do something, imagine you’re sitting opposite somebody. And if you don’t, if they don’t bloody will say, “yes”, they’ll shoot you. That’s how I think about it.

AV: So Drayton, you talk about the three graces of direct marketing, which I think are also really relevant to people doing ecommerce marketing. Could you go through them?

DB: I took the trouble because I’ve written so much rubbish over the years to have a look and see what the hell they were.

AV: I can remind you.

DB: No, no, I’ve got them here, the first thing is that you isolate your prospect as an individual. So you’re talking to one person, you’ve got many ways in which you can find out about that person, you can speculate about that person, that the most important thing is, you’re talking to one person, as an individual, not thousands of people. Each one of those people is seeing, hearing, watching what you’re saying, on his or her own. The next thing that you’re trying to do, which is utterly critical to success, in any form of selling, is to build a continuing relationship. So once you’ve isolated that person, put them on a database, put them on a mailing list, whatever you like to call it, you can then talk to them as an individual, using the information you gain about them as an individual. And the third grace is that you can test, where most communications today are failing, is due to the inability to test or the disinclination to test to. When you have direct mail, when you had paid advertisements, or commercial, you could see what worked and what didn’t. Today, people don’t know nearly everybody watching this if they do any marketing at all. And if they don’t, they might as well go away and curl up and die. Assuming they’ve got a business that uses email. So what do you know, when you send out an email? Somebody says, wow many people opened it, well that is almost completely useless. It completely is a very, very, very, very vague way of telling you how well it’s done because the purpose of the communication is not to be opened or read, or what, it’s just to bloody well sell. The only way you know whether it has sold is if somebody does something, buys something, yeah. Most people are flying blind. I’m flying blind. The only way I know, this constant flow of garbage is that I write every day is I know whether they looked at it, but really I know, basically, because a lot of people comment, I get a lot of comments like what drop dead blah, blah, blah. Most days somebody says something nice to me. And my mailing list isn’t very big. So that gives me some clue at any rate. They are agreeing with what I say they think it makes sense, but I don’t know the most important thing. I don’t know who bought, I’m not trying to make people buy. I’m just trying to get people interested, yeah. So this wonderful, great leap forward in marketing, which, which is called digital, a friend of mine, the school professor basically says something very funny about, you know, you want to succeed, go and say, you know all about digital. In fact, knowing all about digital is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Because the people haven’t changed, because it’s, quote, digital. Yeah. It’s the same people, the same principles apply.

AV: Did you know I think I’ve maybe learned more, actually, from reading older books on marketing, the classics, from even like the 50s, 60s, 70s then I actually have from reading marketing books written today.

DB: Well, I’m at the moment working on two books. One is about Claude Hopkins, the best copywriter who ever lived, who was paid, by the way, the equivalent of a million dollars to launch Pepsodent back in 1904 I think. Now, so he knew more about marketing than just about anybody around today. Yeah. He wrought miracles. He did things like, well imagine if you you have a motorcar client, Ford. And you say, I’d like to handle Vauxhall, what would Ford say? Piss off, of course. But Claude was so good that at one point, he was writing for five different motor car brands at the same time. And how did you do it? Because before anyone else, he understood the virtues of positioning. So in this book, one of the things I’m doing is saying look at how he positioned all these different products.

AV: Yeah, I think I think fundamentally, human beings haven’t changed over the past century.

DB: The other thing I’m doing at the moment, and I must be bloody mad, I’ve got about three things on the go, and one of them a new version of a thing called the 100 Greatest Advertisements, which appeared in the 1950s. And it’s the comments, it’s the best advertisement, in the opinion of the people in the industry. With comments from the people who wrote the advertisements or knew the people who wrote the advertisements, one of whom I knew, we just mentioned him, Daper Daniels, actually more than one of whom I knew because it also features David Ogilvy’s ads and three or four people as they knew because I’m so damned old, again, these ads are 100 years old, more than 100 years old. I’ve got two by Claude Hopkins were he launched Pepsodent showing exactly what he did and how he did it. Most people don’t understand these things. Those guys did. It was much harder to sell then, there was less money around. And what they reveal applies just as well today. Two days ago, I was analyzing David Ogilvy’s ad that sold the Rolls Royce. How many people know the headline that they all thought was wonderful was stolen from another ad by Pierce-Arrow in the 1920s? Nobody!

AV: I had no idea.

DB: Well, you see.

AV: Just for the benefit of listeners who don’t know that advert? I think it is, “The only thing you can hear in a Rolls Royce at 60 miles an hour is the sound of the clock ticking.”

DB: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce is the ticking of the electric clock”. And then I analyzed. What did he say next? Yeah. And why did he say it? Why did he use the word eminent when he talks about an engineer? You see, the problem with this business is that the people in it fondly imagine they’re in a profession. They’re not in a profession. This is not a profession. If you want to be a doctor, then you’re going to have to study things which originated 5000, 7000 years ago. Yeah. In Egypt, Babylonia. If you want to be a lawyer, you have to refer you have to be aware of all the learning involved, goes back to the time of Hammurabi in Babylon again 7000 years ago, if you want to learn about marketing, well, the word wasn’t even used until 1904. And most of the people in it don’t have a ghost have a clue about what they’re doing. Thank God, how can anyone as stupid as me have done well in a proper profession?

AV: So going back then to again, earlier in your career, you were given the nickname Mummy Mummy Bird.

DB: I think I can honestly say that there aren’t any copywriters around who’ve done the things I’ve done. So one advantage I have is I run businesses, I don’t just mean agencies. And the first one that I run, I run into the ground. And I remember we went broke. I owed so much money to the Inland Revenue that for the next seven years, I lived under a false name because I didn’t want to, I couldn’t pay. And what I did was anything whatsoever that would make money. One of the things was I was like a freelance Creative Director for several agencies or three that I can think of. And one of them was a guy called Tony Harris. He was the creative director at quite a good agency. And before that, he’d worked for an agency called Erwin Wasey. And before that, an agency called Pritchard Wood. And Pritchard Wood, they got the account of Robert Maxwell, one of the most deeply unpleasant shits that ever lived. And he owned Chambers Encyclopedia, and I was working at that time, together with a man who was one of the two or three best creative people ever in this country, a guy called John Webster, if you ever see a thing late at night on television, and they show you the 50 greatest advertisements ever, but John wrote more than any of the other, and people still remember them, there is one for Yorkshire, Smith’s, but I think John Smith’s beer where he’s got a performing dog that leaps up from under the counter, is he, even the guy who’s recording this is in Sheffield. He’s smart, he remembers, he’s had a few bloody hangovers from John Smith’s. But anyhow, all sorts of stuff in it, but it’s very, very good guy. And he wrote an ad for Chambers Encyclopedia for Robert Maxwell, which appeared on the back page of the Sunday Times and they had Longworth, do you have an intelligent child, beautifully written, flopped completely. So they decided they’d try this man Bird, shady character, worked in mail order and see what he could do. So I wrote an ad that simply said, it showed a child coming up the path but a very small ad, eight inch double column, coming up the path towards the mother, seeing from the back of the mother. And the headline said, “Mummy, Mummy, I’ve passed”. And then the subhead said, “What can you do to make sure this magic moment comes true for your child?” that pissed all over everything. Tony used to refer to that, I had some interesting clients in those day, I remember, they would come to me when they’d given up, so they had Saudi Airlines. Um, they were looking for a line for Saudi Airlines. And I didn’t bother to go in, I’d say ring me up and tell me what the problem is, and I’ll see what I can do. So I said, we can’t come up with a, you know, a line at the end, you know, a slogan, slogans are mostly rubbish. So I said, give me a bit. And I know the two guys had been working on it for six weeks, then I had a couple of drinks. And I wrote, but I said, I try this, “Saudi Airlines, the key to the heart of the Middle East”, and all I did was look at their route and compare it with other people’s routes. All I knew about they had more flights than anyone else going into blah, blah, blah. The Saudis went apeshit, they started banging out golden keys. Same guy, Tony Harris, brilliant guy.

AV: So obviously, when we’re sending out emails, we tend to do, we tend to do a lot of discounting, which is pretty expensive. And I think also, frankly, for the consumer, when they’ve had their 10th discount in a row, it’s beginning to get a bit boring. So free gifts can be quite a good alternative. And how would you decide what other sort of good free gifts to offer?

DB: Gifts work and they’re cheaper than actually giving money away. That’s a very, very simple thing, yeah. Not only that, you could also take something and give it a value based upon whoever sold it for the most, the Americans who sell self improvement, the people who say, I’ll make you rich in 20 minutes or all your money back instantly, without question. They take things and give them insane values. This is worth 12,000 million, blah, blah, blah, but you can have it free. And that’s because it’s something I did 10 years ago, and it’s, I don’t need it anymore. But giving it a value are very, very important. Or as Gerald puts it, they have a decent perceived value. How would you decide what to offer? Well, there are two types of incentive, two types of product for that matter. There are things that appeal to everybody and there are things that appeal to somebody. Yeah? And one of the things I wrote in that book Common Sense, why talk to everybody, when you only need to talk to somebody, that’s the basis of direct marketing, yeah. So you have to decide, am I best offering something that everyone would like? Or something that somebody would like? How can I find out? I’m going to have to test. And that’s where people fall down.

AV: There is a story that Ogilvy and Mather, you said the way to find the best free gift was to leave several possible gifts, laying around the office and see which ones got stolen.

DB: That was me. A man came in to see me when I was strating my agency with my partners back in the 1970s. And he said, I wanted to see you, he said, because I’d like to work for you. And I said, Why? And he said, because I’ve been reading your advertisements. You know, advertising agencies tell you to advertise but they don’t advertise. But we did. And he said, you sound the kind of people I’d like to work for, and eventually he came to work for me and he became the managing director. And he told me a wonderful story, because he’d been in the mail order catalog business, about how they selected the new products for the coming catalog. And they would have what’s called the hall task, they’ve got lots of all new customers into a hall, and lay out all the products on benches and tables, and ask the ladies, they were mostly ladies to say which ones they would like, they’d do list, and then the ladies would leave. Before they left, they would leave all the products on a big bench at the end so they could clear them away. And when the ladies left they just went to see which products had been stolen most. And those were the ones that were gonna be the winner. So don’t, do not rely on what people say. Most people don’t know what they’re going to do. Until they do, yeah, that’s the truth of that story. And that’s Brian Thomas, still around very bright, and extremely funny.

AV: Inserts, to move on, inserts are still huge. And obviously, it used to be the case inserts were mainly in magazines, perhaps statements, whereas now, they’re probably more in the parcels being delivered to the customers. What would be your advice on how to do inserts well?

DB: Media change, principle don’t. And there are certain principles that will always apply. One of which is that the more reasons you can give somebody to do what you want them to do, the better you will do. Now, obviously, if you’re selling something like orange squash, there aren’t that many reasons you can give them but if you’re selling something serious, then the more you can do in your insert. The more you can say the more you can demonstrate, the better you will do. Although for some years, actually twice on two occasions, for many years, I worked for Everest, the people who install all sorts of things, starting with double glazing, but many other things. And for year after year, they would try and be tolerant. And year after year, they would fail until everything changed when they got a new marketing director who new f*** all. And who decided it was the direct mail. Then they went broke again, blah, blah, blah. The insert in question that we created was enormous. It was like a small. It was written it was created mostly by the lady I mentioned earlier on that I stay with who was a brilliant copywriter. But before she became a financial wizz, it was huge. So an insert should preferably give every reason why people should do what you want them to do, demonstrate it in as many ways as you can possibly think of, give as much space as you can to people who say it’s wonderful, it was in other words, every communication be an insert or an advertisement should give people every reason why you want them to do what they want to do with as many demonstrations you could think of as long as you know how not to bore people. That’s really the trick with copywriting is, how can you avoid boring people? Nobody wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, I know what I’d like to do today, I think until lunchtime, I’ll read all available direct mail or advertisements and then I’ll watch the commercials. So not boring people is rather important, but very few people have really latched on to.

AV: So just my my last question was about one stage and multi stage selling, in ecommerce. I guess you have these two options, isn’t it, when you either try and sell immediately to the customer, or you focus on getting their email address to sell to them over time?

DB: Again, there’s no there’s no difference between this medium or any other medium, let’s say you have the same situation with advertising. Well, if you’ve got something very, very simple to sell, you don’t need a big ad, you got something very complicated and expensive, you need a bigger ad, if you have something very, very simple to sell, either sell straight off, yeah. If you’ve got something expensive or complicated, get them to sign up, and then keep chasing them until they give up, these are the two ways no matter what the medium no matter what the situation, no matter what the product is, always apply. Simple and cheap, very simple approach, one bash. And then if it works very well, you follow up because you know, you should know that the second bash will get 50% of the sales of the first bash, things that are complicated, you get the name so that you can keep on hitting them till they finally give in.

AV: And I guess this is quite a nervous and nerve wracking moment for me. But I would just like to pitch my advert for Machine Labs to you now, for your feedback. So the photo, we’ve got an exhausted and desperate man close to emotional and physical collapse, looking at the camera in a very busy warehouse.

DB: I don’t remember posing for that.

AV: The headline in quotes, not more orders, and then the copy starts Machine Labs is the marketing software that will break your warehouse.

DB: Well, I thought that was quite a good approach. But unfortunately, I’m not the customer. You should test a lot of other approaches. I mean, every day I try to write something that I think will work seems to judging by the fact that people say nice thing but does it do anything, who knows?

AV: Thank you, Drayton for a very special podcast, which I’ll never forget. If you have a question for Drayton, go to DraytonBird.com, where you can get a free copy of Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising, or indeed ask our own expert Drayton a question. I don’t know how we’re going to follow this up, but we will manage it somehow. And I’ll see you next week on the Joy of Marketing.

DB: Thank you, Andrew. Next week we’re going to talk about the pain of marketing, the misery of marketing, why you’re not rich, why I’m not rich.

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