The man who cracked the guru code

Apr 23, 2024

This afternoon I got sad news. The legendary founder of the publishing company I worked for before going freelance — Tom Phillips — passed away after a long illness.

Tom started Phillips Publishing in 1974, in the converted garage of his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland — with 3 employees, 2 newsletters, and $1,000.

Twenty years later, he had grown it to more than 400 employees and exceeded $100 million in annual sales — a milestone he celebrated by taking all 400+ of those employees plus spouses/significant others and children to Disney World.

I’ll never forget the day Tom announced this celebratory, all-expense-paid trip. We were all gathered for our monthly employee recognition meeting — where we’d celebrate that month’s birthdays with cake, acknowledge work anniversaries, etc.

Tom made his big announcement, and everyone was ecstatic… jumping up and down with excitement. It was all captured on camera, too. News footage ran on the Today show and other TV stations. After all, the country was in the midst of a recession with layoffs happening everywhere… and here was somebody taking all of his employees to Disney World!

Heck, the story even made the National Enquirer (even though it was a real story). A picture ran with the story showing a bunch of employees cheering when Tom announced the trip. I made it into the picture since I was near the front… hence, I can now proudly say that I’ve been in the National Enquirer!

Even though I’d been there less than 2 years, I had seen the kind of appreciation and caring Tom routinely showed towards his employees. He created an amazing company culture, one where risk-taking was encouraged.

Tom also made me realize how important it was to eliminate excess words and keep your copy as tight as possible. Every time I delete an extraneous “that”, I think of a one-on-one copy review session I had with Tom decades ago.

But here’s where Tom was truly a visionary. He built his newsletter business on the idea of providing a way to get actionable advice from a trusted resource without having to sift through mounds of information on your own.

By doing so, he pioneered the concept of a newsletter. Not how many of us might think of newsletters, but one that was written by a top expert or “guru”. Phillips initially started with a wide range of top financial experts, each with their own newsletters that sold for upwards of $100 a year.

They then branched off into health, and in the early 1990s launched the first alternative health newsletter with Dr. Julian Whitaker. Within a year or two, it had more than 300,000 paid subscribers… many of whom went on to buy supplements from the Healthy Directions business I helped launch and run.

Here’s what made Phillips’ newsletter business so successful: When you decided to buy one of Phillips’ newsletters, you weren’t buying a “newsletter”. You were buying a relationship… a relationship with someone who you wanted to follow.

It’s no different from when you subscribe to a print or digital newsletter or even opt into an email list (like when you became a Copy Insider, ).

You’re not subscribing to get some kind of generic information you can find anywhere else. You’re buying or opting into a relationship.

It’s the same strategy that worked for Tom Phillips more than 50 years ago when he began building his newsletter empire (I believe it went on to exceed more than half a billion dollars in revenue before parts of the company were sold off).

And it’s an approach that works just as well today for anyone who has their own email list, subscription product, coaching program, book, or legions of fans on TikTok… and even e-commerce businesses that build relationships through branding and personality-based marketing.

In fact, I’d argue this “guru” approach that Tom helped pioneer works even better… and will continue to be even more important in this age of AI. People will crave this kind of relationship even more in the years ahead.

While some quick gains can be made by using AI for copy, over time it will fail to produce results. That’s because personality, connection, and authenticity are essential to building trust… and without trust, there is no sale. Companies who don’t use these elements in their copy will be leaving tons of money on the table.

I’m still processing this sad news about Tom’s passing. There are so many things I could write about, so many memories, so many great lessons, and an amazing number of wonderful people that came into my life as a result of working there.

But here’s what’s really weird. This morning I was looking for something buried within the vast archives of my hard drive. And I came across some “hidden gold” from my days at Phillips Publishing.

It’s something I’ve looked at a few times in recent years, because I’m blown away by how much wisdom is packed into this one-page document. It was a handout, probably from one of our management meetings, that’s dated June 14, 1995.

And it’s a list of 12 attributes that make up the “Strengths and Competitive Advantages of a PPI Newsletter” (PPI stands for Phillips Publishing, Inc.)

After coming across this list I had already decided I was going to share some of them with you… because they’re not just timeless, they’re timelier than ever. Then, hours later, I found out Tom had passed.

But the show must go on. Let’s DO this… here’s the list of 12 traits you should try to incorporate into your copy and marketing today:

#1: Independent and passionate, not objective, not beholding to anyone but you.

#2: Personal communication — from the editor to you (emphasis on LETTER, not on news) — intimate, a continuing communication.

#3: Advocate for you, and the lifestyle to which you aspire.

#4: Exclusive — not mass media, not on the newsstand for a reason — privileged information something other people can’t get — information from the source.

#5: Alternative — different from the mainstream, “alternative health”, “contrary investing”.

#6: Editor as crusader, including ideals like self-sufficiency, the way things ought to be.

#7: Actionable — forecasts AND STRATEGIES (note: “Forecasts and Strategies” was the name of a financial newsletter Phillips published).

#8: Concise — eight (8) pages a month, not 108 — leverage your time.

#9: For self-motivated, self-improvers — the goal is to help you be better off (in ways you desire), not better informed (in ways we desire).

#10: Style… more anecdotal, friendly, homey.

#11: More timely, undiluted by layers of editors.

#12: A process-oriented solution that extends month-to-month… follow-through, persistency, regularity.

Hard to believe these 12 attributes were written back in 1995… when they seem even more relevant and important today.

Think how time-pressed we all are, people have shorter attention spans, the quickness that email and other digital delivery can provide.

It’s the antidote to generic, soul-less marketing… and the “secret sauce” behind many successful businesses today — and well into the future.

Rest in peace, Tom… and know that you’re still having a gigantic impact.

Yours for smarter marketing,