30 Letters That Changed the World
On July 29, 2013 At 2:00 pm
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I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. – Alice Munro, “Voices”
We’re in the high holy days of cottaging in Ontario right now and this means a book review. My selection this year: 30 Letters that Changed the World: the Best of Direct Mail Fundraising from Canada’s Stephen Thomas Ltd, authored by Steve Thomas himself.
It’s at once a memoir, decorative coffee table book, and gossip rag. I love it. Recall David Attenborough’s “Life on Air”. In it, he looks back on his BBC career, and, as well, the technology and scientific advances charted through the landmark series he presented. In 30 Letters, Steve Thomas exhibits thirty house and acquisition packages, delineating three decades of Canadian history. It’s astonishing the impact great direct mail can have for fundraising and advocacy goals: “We have helped put two clients out of business through the years: the Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain.” For me, this is essence of the book: our alternative history, without intelligent direct mail campaigns and gutsy charity clients, is terrifying and depressing.
Steve Thomas is a fundraiser. A pinko. Businessman, and philanthropist too (“Amnesty became much more than a client to Mary and me. We are major and planned donors.”) Thomas points out the firm has grown beyond him, but its roots are partisan: he started Stephen Thomas Associates after consulting for the New Democratic Party. The interplay between one man’s politics and how it shaped his agency, the agency’s clients over the years, and the relationship with those clients is for me the most interesting part. So much so I called Steve Thomas for an interview about his book, but the theme of most of my questions could be asked in one: “Pretend. Say the account was up for tender: would your firm bid on and, if you won, accept the current (very, very, very conservative) federal government as a client, especially if it meant lots of money?”
We really wouldn’t. Honestly.
The backbone of the book is of course the thirty direct marketing case studies, his agency’s oeuvre. Thomas generously displays in full colour the complete package for each, including OEs and response devices. These are some of Canada’s – the world’s – most sophisticated and famous packages, but I’m not going to deconstruct them here. Buy the book, take it to the beach, and pour a gin fizz. Without telling us, what seems to make these packages work is 1) identifying an enemy for prospects and donors to rail against and 2) it’s all about the outer envelope. Get it opened.
Because some may fuss the book is not didactic enough. It wasn’t meant to be: Thomas inherited a literary tradition from his parents and wrote 30 Letters for his family first, not us. There’s little quantitative data on the performance of each package showcased (trade secrets?), but, and this is the best part about the book and something you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in print: we get backstories on the pitches, whether the firm liked working with its client, if the client was a great fundraiser (“I never much liked food banks, but changed my thinking after working with the inspirational Sue Cox”) or lousy fundraiser (“He kept the budget and results from us. We never knew where we were”), and the defense if the firm was fired (“It always hurts. I take it personally.”) This book is an opera! The perfect summer read from one of Canada’s finest fundraisers and direct marketing agencies.