Last week I was carving out time on my calendar to tackle some big projects, and I came across a memo I had entered a long time ago. It was for today, and it marked my 25th anniversary as an email marketer.

Wow – 25 years in email! That’s practically back to the dawn of time in the email industry. Coming across that entry on my calendar made me stop, stand back, look at where we’ve been and how email changed my life and career, and think about the long and winding journey that I never expected to take.

From the pulpit to the DJ booth

You might not know this about me, but when I was younger after growing up on a farm in Iowa, I studied to become a Catholic priest. Yes, I could have been Father Ryan. Whenever I talk about it, I either get laughs or a shocked silence, depending on how well the audience knows me. Or they ask me, “Can I swear in front of you?” And the answer is always, “Hell yes, I don’t care.”

So, I studied to be a priest. And then I realized I didn’t want to be a priest. So what did I do? I took a job as a DJ in a country nightclub in Omaha, Nebraska. On Friday nights I was the guy in the booth spinning records and talking to 400 to 600 people a night. I learned how to be comfortable speaking in public and not worrying about looking like a dork. 

Talking to that many people and dealing with the pressure of making a successful evening for everyone came naturally to me. But I eventually grew restless. I knew I wanted something more. I might have been the guy running the party for everybody, but the job didn’t pay anything.

Then, in 1998, I read an ad from a small start-up company called It said. “Do you want to work for our start-up? Don’t send us your resume. Tell us a story about how you can help us. Be real. Don’t be corporate.”

So I sent a letter telling the Giftpoint people about working in a nightclub, having national acts like Merle Haggard, the Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith play gigs in the club, what it was like to DJ for hundreds of people, and how I thought I could bring that excitement into marketing for a start-up. 

The CEO and I met three times before he hired me, and each time he asked me for stories about working in the nightclub. Giftpoint became my entry into email marketing. That was back in the days when AOL was an independent email system. When I sent emails using a program on my giant brick of a laptop. 

Another day, another amazing discovery in email

Back then in those early days of email, everybody was new to email. Some of us came from a career in direct mail, affiliate marketing, or list management. But we were all making it up as we went along.

Agencies weren’t taking email seriously at that point, so we were just trying one thing after another to see what worked and what didn’t. 

By the early 2000s, those of us who were charting our courses in email found each other in discussion groups like the predecessors to Only Influencers and the ANA’s Email Excellence Center and shared our experiences, successes and failures, and sought and gave advice. Technology providers saw an opportunity and added agency-like services, which propelled them into becoming the full-service providers we know today.

We shared information and collaborated on ideas to penetrate the inbox and influence consumer behavior. At the same time, we taught our customers how to use that technology. Our information-shared helped us stay one step ahead of the public.

I remember looking at people like Karen Talavera, Kath Pay, Stefan Pollard, Loren McDonald and others in awe. Their spirit and love for the channel inspired me and motivated me to be like them.  I am proud and humbled to call them and others some of my dearest friends.

The moment everything changed

It was a heady time. I learned something new every day. As an example, when we were first developing abandoned-cart programs, we waited 24 hours to send the first abandoned-cart reminder. Why 24 hours? Because that’s how long we had to wait for the data to come through the Omniture feed. 

One day, I read an article about a technology company called SeeWhy that had discovered something revolutionary. Sending an abandoned-cart reminder within 60 minutes – one hour later instead of 24 hours – would shoot up your rate of return because it would bring more shoppers back to finish checking out. 

Imagine: Automation in near-real time! We take it for granted today, but back then even 24 hours was a miracle.

But as amazing – and lucrative – that discovery was, it started a second revolution in my life. I recognized that we could make these giant leaps in knowledge because everyone was sharing information to make the whole industry better. That shaped my approach to technology, which I still follow today. We who become thought leaders are here to lift everyone else in email marketing.

Time after time, technology companies pushed the boundaries to achieve more. Thought leaders did research, released papers and guides and spoke at the growing number of conferences that got email people away from their computers and put them face to face in interesting places like San Jose, Deer Valley, Cannes and Miami Beach.

These early leaders shared information and promoted collegiality because they knew it would lift all boats. That’s a phrase I use a lot, and it sums up why we at RPE Origin spread the wealth of our experience as much as we do. When one of us does well, we turn around and help others do well, and everyone can benefit.

In and out of the email trenches

Fast-forward a couple of years. I found myself working in email for Sears and Kmart, practicing what I had learned. Pushing the buttons, pulling the levers, and running a team that was responsible for sending 10 million emails weekly created immense pressure. Being on the front lines gave me the context to understand what it takes to be an email marketer. 

It still helps me understand the impact and the challenges that email marketers have to get an email campaign out the door, all the while fighting internal battles with people who didn’t appreciate their efforts, who saw the daily battle as “Oh, it’s just another email.”

Following my tour of duty on the email front lines, I went on to a successful career in the growing industry of SaaS – software-as-a-service for Blue Hornet, infoUSA, Responsys, Acxiom and Adestra. I worked in professional services leading teams on strategic planning and campaign execution, running marketing programs, and helping companies achieve greatness through influencer marketing and revolutionary B2B marketing techniques like account-based marketing.

Where we are today

That’s quite a varied career But it led me right to where I am today, as managing partner for RPE Origin, formerly Red Pill Email, working with one of my best friends – Red Pill founder John Caldwell – and growing our agency to where it is today with 27 of the smartest people on the planet. Every day we help enterprise companies execute their email visions as the only end-to-end, vendor-agnostic email agency.

At every stage of my career, I’ve been honored to work with great teams. I’ve learned a ton and been humbled by more. I’ve come to understand that the best path you can follow is to listen and to grow ideas and watch the innovation grow from a spark to a fire.

The last 25 years have brought me a fantastic career and many of my dearest friends. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for them. 

Wrapping up

So, what does 25 years in a career really mean? 

It means that you might be fresh out of college and looking for a career. Maybe you ended up in email because you needed a job. Maybe it’s not that great of a job. But if you get anything out of my comments here I hope it’s that email is a viable career. It’s exciting and innovative on the front lines. 

We folksin email might not get the credit we deserve, but we’re learning how to claim our share of the responsibility for helping our companies grow and achieve their goals. I’m a guy who grew up on a farm in Iowa and studied to be a priest before becoming a nightclub DJ and then went on to have a 25-year career. There’s the path forward for young people who want to know if they can make a career out of email and for marketers who want a new challenge.  

And it means that I have a platform where I can stand up and thank an industry that has given me more than I gave it. It shows the warmth, dedication and caring that continually surprises me. I’ve made my life in email, and I will retire from it someday. 

I can’t imagine starting over at another channel. I love it here – the people, the innovations, even pushing the “Send” button on email campaigns from time to time. 

Thank you to an industry that has been home for me for 25  years and to the people in it who have supported me in serving our channel and keeping it moving forward. 

I’ll leave you with this parting advice, which has served me well over the last quarter-century:

Never let the zombies win!