Montgomery Ward Copywriter Who
Changed Christmas

Writers rule the holidays—and this week, I’m going to prove it to you.

Jen Adams here, all set for what’s going to be an awesome and inspiring week together in The Writer’s Life.

We’re going to be diving into all the ways writers have changed Christmas—and I guarantee you’re going to be surprised.

You see, many of our most cherished American holiday traditions started on a blank page. The songs we sing … our favorite holiday stories … even the color of Santa’s coat … all started with a writer.

So sit back and get ready for an inside look at how writers have shaped Christmas—and the lessons you can learn from their stories.

We’ll start with a story from Katie Yeakle that originally appeared in The Barefoot Writer …

If you’re channel surfing at all this holiday season, no doubt you’ll come across the classic TV special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

While the song is familiar, its origins aren’t well-known.

Robert L. May was working as a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward company in 1939, when they asked him to come up with a promotional booklet they could give away to customers during the holiday season.

May, who had a knack for writing limericks and children’s stories, tapped his own childhood memories and came up with the Rudolph character and story. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the booklet that first year, and 6 million by 1946.

The following year, May convinced Montgomery Ward to sign over the Rudolph copyright to him (a brilliant business move). With the rights to his creation in hand, he swung into action. First, he printed and marketed the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer book commercially. Then, he had a nine-minute cartoon of the story shown in movie theaters.

Things really took off when May got his brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, to set the story to music. After Roy Rogers turned it down, Gene Autry recorded it in 1949. It sold two million copies that year, and to this day is second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” The TV special narrated by Burl Ives in 1964 further sealed the fortune of Robert L. May, copywriter.

What a great holiday story … with several lessons you can apply to your own writer’s life.

First, never turn down a challenge—you never know when a small thing, like the original promotional book, could turn into a much bigger series of products or opportunities.

Next, don’t be shy about repurposing your writing. May was able to make his original story into so much more by using the same content in different ways and in different mediums.

Finally, whenever possible, get the rights to your copy. Not all projects will allow this, but when they do, you might just find (as May did) that the sky’s the limit for what you can do.

What other lessons did you see here? Let me know in the comments —I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the truth about how one of our most beloved holiday poems almost didn’t see the light of day. The author thought it was silly … and you’ll be shocked when you find out what it was!

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Published: December 23, 2013

4 Responses to “The Montgomery Ward Copywriter Who Changed Christmas”

  1. Rudolph was teased because he was 'different.' He stood out. He withdrew when his self-image fell.
    **I am told I don't have a 'real job.' My confidence wanes, then my writer friends and learning more raises my sails again. Thanks!

    His first friend was a young doe. He received acceptance, encouragement, confidence and determination.
    **We get great support from AWAI, mentors,peer reviews, and other copywriters. Bootcamp was a real boost!

    Santa was desperate when he sought Rudolph.
    **Some businesses 'settle' on newbie writers because of price, or seasoned writers were booked, etc.
    Though uncertain at first, Rudolph took the lead as guide, and came through as the 'go to' reindeer afterward.
    **I was uncertain to launch. My 'doubter' was on high. But, I got into the harness with my team. We went forward together, and with the confidence and knowledge of those behind me, I am learning to fly and gaining confidence.
    I have my first client who has confidence in me, and made me 't

    BJ JensenDecember 25, 2013 at 3:38 am

  2. I try to read the stories of successful copywriters and now I will read Robert Mays obvious story of becoming fabulously rich.Thank you miss Adams. copywriting in the direct mail field is where the some of the greatest writers have in my opinion emerged.I am a student of mail order advertising and would like to make it my ultimate career

    Bryan O

    Guest (bryan lee)December 29, 2013 at 7:25 pm

  3. Jen, I have enjoyed all your holiday stories and also your thoughts on content. Your pieces are largely about opportunity, which is a strange thing. Opportunity is often inconsistent, but always unpredictable. I believe we should look at it as an adventure, never knowing where it will take us. As your stories point out, only one thing is required--a ticket. To "buy" that you must act. Waiting doesn't bring it to you.

    Guest (G Wood)January 20, 2014 at 12:10 pm


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