Back in the Day With Henry Cowen

By Ray Schultz

Return with us now to the year 1941. Franklin Roosevelt was President, Joe Louis was heavyweight king, Frank Sinatra was singing with Tommy Dorsey, and 21 year-old Henry Cowen was taking a one-time course at New York University: Direct mail copywriting.  

Not that Henry set out wanting to write junk mail copy (who ever did?). He had his eyes on a banking career. But he was a born writer, so he signed up for the course. Oddly,  the first question they asked was, “How’s your math?” 

“I didn’t know why they wanted to know that,” Henry said in an interview in 1996. But he found out. “Everything was based on the math,” he recalled. “We learned how to do the budgets and the test reports.”

I’m recalling all this because we recently passed Henry’s centennial; he died in 2011.  

Direct mail may not have been the career he wanted, but he was one of the best direct mail copywriters who ever lived, and here’s the proof: copy he wrote as a young man was still selling subs in the age of the internet. 

He was also, to me, one of the nicest guys who ever graced the business. 

The Early Days at Cowles

Henry got his first copywriting job in 1942 at Look magazine. To get it, though, he had to move to Des Moines, Iowa, a place where “the people were nice and the winters were terrible.” 

Conditions were primitive in the Cowles office in the Wallace Homestead building. “We had manual typewriters, no air conditioners and no offices,” Henry recalled. “We created little offices by using file cabinets. When the assistant sub manager traveled, I pushed his files over an inch or two to make his smaller and mine bigger.” 

Look, then five years old, was in a circulation war with Henry Luce’s Life. It had “a lot of single copy circulation, and subscriptions were just coming into their own,” Henry said.  

There were no computers in those days. Envelopes were inserted by hand. With Les Suhler and Max Ross as mentors, Henry wrote letters, studied response, served as art director and ordered mailing lists. “Les said, ‘Spread the list business around. Give everyone their fair share.’” So he did: To brokers like George Bryant, Lew Kleid, Walter Drey and Arthur Martin Karl.  

The state of mailing lists? “We could segment by geography and the age of the list—recency, frequency, that type of thing,” Henry said. “We were sophisticated in using our own names, so sophisticated we could tell whether a person had renewed once, twice, three, four, five or six times. Later, we brought in an industrial engineer and he said, ‘You’re going too far. You’re too segmented.’”

Outside lists came on labels, but the house list was on Speedomat plates, making it  difficult to change an address. Not to worry: “They explained that farmers didn’t move much, so that wasn’t a big problem,” Henry said.  

Look also used some telephone lists, typed directly from phone books by women working at home. “We took the world’s poorest mailing list and made it a good list,” Henry said. 

The basic Look letter was two pages, “nicely written,” and mailed in a No. 9 plain white business envelope. “But it wasn’t jazzy,” he added. There were no premiums and no brochures. (“I don’t believe in brochures to this day.”) But the mailings worked. The offer for new subs? “Sixteen issues for a buck.” 

“We had a different renewal series for each source, and we did a lot of advanced renewals,” Henry recalled.  They even sent hand-personalized mail. “We personalized the name with a brush and ink—in gold, red or blue,” he said. “And we tested them. Gold was best, next was red.” 

Look did sub mailings in “places where no-one was mailing: Hawaii, Guam, the Panama Canal Zone, Alaska.” It also sold subs in Mexico City, Caracas and pre-Castro Cuba. “We sent the letters in English, and got a good return, but then the advertising department decided it didn’t want that circulation,” he said.  

Look also sold subs to department store charge account customers.

“We had stores in just about town in the United States,” Henry explained. “In New York City, we would alternate between Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Gimbals’. The orders would come back to the stores, and they would do the billing, so the payups were 99% or better.”

Some of those pieces might look a little strange today. “One store in Ohio had a policy of not using dollar signs, so the mailing went out without dollar signs. They knew their customers” Henry said.  

Sweepstakes

In 1952, a circulation expert named Harold Mertz visited Des Moines and tried to sell Henry, now a DM veteran, on something called Publishers Clearing House. His idea? Multiple sub offers would be mailed in a single envelope.  

“I told him to save his money because people had tried that before,” Henry said. “Curtis had tried it, Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward had tried it in a way.” 

But Mertz was “smarter than they were,” Henry admitted. “He worked harder and made it work.” Indeed, in 1960, after 18 years at Look, Henry found himself working at PCH.

At that time, PCH was “still only doing $4 million worth of business,” Henry said. And early PCH letters did not have stamps or sweepstakes. 

“Harold would write a letter like, ‘Dear Friend, it’s springtime,’” Henry said. “He wasn’t talking about the benefits or anything like that.” But the copy improved, thanks to Henry and a fellow copywriting legend named Marvin Barkley. 

At some point in the 60s, PCH finally started doing sweeps. But, as Henry put it, “We made a lot of mistakes.” For example, Reader’s Digest had a grand prize of $25,000. “People would say, ‘Do they really give that away?” So PCH offered a large number of small prizes—the highest was $10.

“It barely made a ripple,” Henry continued. “So we tried a $1,000 prize, and that did 25% better than $10. Then we got brave and went to $5,000, better yet, then to $25,000, then the sky’s the limit!” 

Founder Mertz was “a very smart guy, a very tough guy, a little hard for some people,” Henry said.

He added, “We didn’t even have a calculator in the office, but he could add up a column in the millions, 20 different numbers, zip zip zip. He was a genius at it.” 

Did Henry have any sample letters from the old days at Look and PCH? He got wary: He wasn’t about to share his trade secrets.  

“I still use some of those leads,” he said. “I bring them back every few years.”

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