Direct Mail

The Horse’s Head Letter

The Horse’s Head Letter

When I was first starting out, I took a class at NYU on writing direct response copy. The final assignment was to write a letter to a New York creative director asking for a copywriting job. This is the letter I wrote. It got six interviews and two job offers. All these years later, I think it still says a lot about who I am and the kind of work I do.

Mr. Bruce Lee
Sr. V.P., Creative Director
Scali McCabe Sloves Direct
800 Third Ave
New York NY 10022


Do you remember the horse’s head scene
from “The Godfather”?

Dear Mr. Lee,

You probably remember that famous scene. Most people do. But most people don’t remember the name of the actor who woke up, saw the head and let out the horrible scream.

His name is John Marley. And in a crazy way, he’s the reason I’m writing to ask you for a copy job.

John Marley was nominated for an Academy Award for “Love Story.” He is also a distant relative of mine, which explains why I wanted to meet him. But the question was, how to do it.

Just after finishing college, I went to California. Before leaving, I asked John’s sister if I should contact him. She said no. He had put the family behind him and wasn’t interested in hearing from anyone in the Bronx. That was not what I wanted to hear. So I got his address and wrote a letter – then waited for a response.

It never came. But I went on the trip anyway, never suspecting the surprise waiting at my hotel.

There was a message at the front desk. Mr. John Marley had called and I was invited to dinner. My letter had worked. I had gotten the tough old actor to respond simply by talking from the heart and selling myself to him. I was happy – still, the best was yet to come.

When we met, John Marley, told me to become a direct mail copywriter. He said that my simple, honest letter had moved him to tears. And convinced him to see me. He told me that being successful means finding what you’re good at and doing it till you succeed. And this was what I was good at.

I didn’t listen. I went into advertising, but became an account executive. And I was never happy because I knew I wasn’t cut out for account work. Maybe John was right. I dreamed of being a copywriter. But I felt it was too tough to start all over again.

John Marley died a few years later. At his funeral I saw his young and beautiful wife who remembered me from my visit. She asked if I had become a copywriter. I said no. She asked if still wanted to. I said yes.

The next day I began to look for a copywriting job. I found one almost immediately at Prentice-Hall. Now that I’ve spent some time writing letters for legal, business and tax publications, I’m able to see the kind of copywriting I’d really like to do.

The days of people responding to mumbo-jumbo hype is over. I talk to people in my letters. And I tell them stories. I believe that if you speak honestly and to the heart, you’ll make your sale. What’s even better, when people see that you’re telling the truth and treating them with respect, they’ll buy even more.

That’s the kind of direct response advertising I want to do. I know it works. Because it works on me.

I would like a copywriting job from you. For several reasons. First, I want to show that honest, amusing letters can make big sales. Second, I’d like to work for an advertising agency again. And third, I can only write good sales letters if somebody gives me a chance.

Of course there’s a fourth reason. I want John Marley to see how well I’m doing.

Bill Groginsky

The Godfather © Paramount Pictures