Screw email! Why a Letter is the Most Effective (and Creative) Way to Reach Your Customers

Before you press send, it’s time to think outside the [in]box

SXSW letter


In 490BC, an Athenian herald (or ancient courier) named Pheidippides performs an act that arguably makes him one of the great communicators of history: he runs a couple of hundred kilometres to the King of Sparta to deliver a vital message that the Persian army are approaching.

Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t ideal. The Spartans were observing Carnea, a festival of peace and were therefore unable to send their army to help. The Greeks were forced to face the Persians in battle and against all odds achieved the unthinkable – victory.

In the wake of the victory, another odyssey began for poor Pheidippides. This time a 43 kilometre run from Athens to Marathon to announce the news. Upon reaching the destination – the summit of the Acropolis – he fell to his knees, declared their miraculous triumph and died. That morbid but lasting legacy of those last 43 kilometres (or 26.5 miles) became the inspiration for our modern Marathon, first formally introduced at the 1896 Olympics.

So, what can we learn from Pheidippides the communicator? And why did London-based creative team Ran and Max decide to tell this particular story in their keynote at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin? Now, as in ancient Greece, the point is this: the visible effort that’s put behind a message matters. It was true then, it’s true now and always will be. It’s so often the case that the value comes in not what you’re communicating, but how.

Pheidippides started something that has become the hallmark of hard work. For over a century, people have used marathons to make a visible effort of spreading a message about something. It’s doubtful this event would have been quite so impactful if Pheidippides was able to just send a quick email. For all its purposes – an online letterbox, a business diary, a marketing medium, email has definite (and arguably increasing) shortcomings.

According to Ran (Stallard) & Max (Maclean), businesses send 12% more emails year on year. A staggering 143 billion are sent per day purely by marketers alone. In fact, if we were to physically print out these daily emails onto regular A4 paper, the collective result would weigh more than eleven Empire State buildings.

So what solutions are the creatives suggesting in an age of email overwhelm? Handmade communication.

It’s both powerful and underused, especially by marketers.

A standard piece of email marketing has open rate of 16.8%. This drops down to an abysmal 2.9% if sent by an insurance company. Comparatively, the average open rate of a piece of handmade communication is a staggering 99%. This may seem inflated but when was the last time you left a letter addressed to you unopened?


A photo posted by Christian Watson (@1924us) on

In the US, the typical internet-user, receives an average of 50 marketing emails a day but a handwritten letter every seven weeks. It stands out.

Steve Harrison, the most awarded Direct Marketing Creative Director of all time, says that sending something handmade is like sending a piece of the real world.  Steve consumes mass media knowing it is produced for others, but with handmade, he feels like the special recipient. He also asserts that handwritten communication makes us more honest. Just think of the importance and gravity placed upon the old fashioned concept of a signature. Banks are still willing to stake fortunes on how someone crosses a ‘t’ or dots an ‘i’. And in terms of actual value, handwritten is still vastly superior. A handwritten letter from Sir Francis Crick to his son describing his discovery of the double helix DNA sold for a whopping US$6 million in 2013.

Ran and Max contend that marketers who supply to this demand of a personal touch definitely reap the rewards.  Rory Sutherland, a fellow Oglivy associate, also supports the theory. He states that in London – or any global city for that matter – one is exposed to thousands of adverts a day. Yet every so often an advert breaks the pattern – its stands out like an X amongst Os. And this is vital because our minds separate things that are different, not just improved versions of the same thing.

Rory explains that our brains don’t just passively receive communication, they actively decode it. For instance, if you receive two wedding invitations with notionally identical information, but one is delivered by email and the other on an embossed card, the information they convey is noticeably different. The chances of getting free champagne, for example, seem much higher at the wedding with the embossed cards.

In biology, this is known as costly signalling.

He points out that in the animal kingdom, a peacock’s tail exists for decorative purposes but it also serves as a genetic proxy to female bird. In short, we infer things from their presentation. This judgment is so visceral because it has actually been built into our hardware as a tactic for survival.

Like the effort of having a beautiful tail as a male peacock, Rory believes meaningful communication is also somehow effortful. Either in its cost of transmission, means of creation or inherent creativity. These things show we have put thought into the message. Its value lies directly in its difficulty.

So next time you go reach out to lapsed client over email, or even that long-distance friend, maybe pick up a pen instead – there will be a fundamental difference in reception. As it was reiterated on the day: “Digital may have the reach [but] handmade has the grasp.”


Ran and Max’s three rules for creative, unique communication:

1) Be a human – a little bit of humanity goes a really long way

2) Be a fisherman – with a rod not a net.  You’re better off targeting right fish with right bait

3) Be creative – creativity is fundamentally interesting and demands attention


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