I’ve always liked this old New York joke.
A man asks a passer-by for directions. “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Study,” comes the reply.
Before you embarrass me I know in the original version of this, the reply is “Practice”.
But frankly both are utterly crucial, and I’ll explain why.
I started studying how to write copy before I even got a job in advertising. I sat in Manchester Public Library and read everything I could find. I have never stopped to this day.
If others have done the job before you, then start by studying and copying the best people you can find. It’s the only way to learn.
Most of us are lazy – and copywriters are no exception. Many study little, if at all. They think the key is ingenuity and clever ideas. They put their faith in flair and luck. They “pick it up” as they go along. That is the chief reason why most copy is so bad.
Another is that people don’t practice. If you want to write well, write often. Every day. For as long as you can.
Something else makes the problem even worse.
Few of those who commission copy and review it know much about what works, what doesn’t and why. So very often it’s the ignorant judging the ignorant.
A very cheap investment
One challenge is tougher than any other.
It is subscription copy. Yet few publishers pay very well for it. They often employ young, inexperienced writers and give them too little time to do jobs.
This is insanity, But it explains why most subscription copy is rubbish – and thus many publications are failing under the onslaught of the internet..
But it is also financial insanity, because copy is probably the cheapest ingredient in your marketing. Improving it costs relatively little, with very high potential return.
But to be honest, the principles that apply to one kind of copy apply to all kinds.
Anyhow, here are some of the people I learned most from – and what they taught me. Maybe you will learn, too.
I suspect I learned most from John E Powers – possibly the first professional copywriter – who blazed the trail all my other mentors followed.
He flourished in the latter part of the 19th century, making an amazing sum for those days: $100 a day. Multiply by at least 100 to get a present day equivalent – and remember, he paid no tax.
He talked about what a product does for the customer, rather than what it is. He popularised the free trial offer and the money back guarantee. To this day many do not realise the importance of those things.
In an 1897 interview he said, “The first thing is to have the attention of the reader. That means to be interesting. The next thing is to stick to the truth, and that means rectifying whatever’s wrong in the merchant’s business. If the truth isn’t tellable, fix it so it is. That is about all there is to it.”
His two chief weapons were honesty and giving reasons for his claims rather than just boasting or repeating the brand name incessantly. He also said to his interviewer, who was from Printer’s Ink, the advertising trade paper, “Never read any of those advertising publications. They ain’t worth reading.”
So nothing new there.
To this day many people still imagine advertising can sell bad products. It can – but only once. And to this day many people think unsubstantiated boasting works – look at most car advertising. It doesn’t. Not in real life. Not in copy.
And if you don’t explain why you are so good, people disbelieve you. These facts are unknown to many marketers, but year after year my partners and I have had considerable success just by applying honesty and reason-why in quite a range of markets.
The most able
Claude Hopkins was perhaps the most able copywriter ever – so good that allegedly by 1917 his boss used to give him a blank cheque every year and let him set his own salary.
From his book Scientific Advertising (1926) – which I assume you have downloaded from one of my sites and read several times – I learned many things, but principally that copy is “salesmanship in print”.
Your copy should do what a good salesman would do. A salesman gives every good reason for buying; a salesman forestalls objections; a salesman is not brief. Yet little copy does a complete selling job, and many still imagine brevity works best. It doesn’t. Time after time I have seen long copy work better than short on everything from politics to loans to self-improvement.
In my first days in mail order I met some very ingenious copywriters from the US, especially Gene Schwartz, whose copy sold more books by mail than anyone. He taught me the power of having a fury to persuade – I can describe it no better.
Monroe Kane explained why it pays to repeat a good proposition several times in different ways. Gene Griffin taught me that just one extra word in a headline could transform results. Some years later, Joe Sugarman put in my mind the idea that the main purpose of each sentence is to make people read the next one.
John Caples was the master of testing. I re-read his book, Tested Advertising Methods regularly when I was young. I still turn to it and recorded a commentary recently. From it I learned much, but especially – as another wise man, Richard V. Benson, put it, “There are only two rules in direct marketing. Rule1: Test everything. Rule 2: Refer to rule 1.”
Where Ogilvy and Reeves learned
Two of my other teachers admired Caples. David Ogilvy with whom I worked for some years told me one night over dinner that he and Rosser Reeves agreed that they learned all they knew from Caples.
Many people think the things Caples discovered all those years ago no longer apply.
On this Caples said something well worth noting to a Wall Street Journal interviewer: “Times change. People don’t”.
I guarantee that if you go on the internet you will find at least one piece of copy today that is stolen or adapted from Caples, who was writing over 8o years ago
David Ogilvy once told me the secret of success was charm – and often said “the customer is not a moron: she is your wife”. So I try to avoid the usual crass, copywriter’s superlatives and treat the reader like an intelligent person. It works.
When I joined the Board of the Ogilvy Group I noticed something surprising and instructive at my first Board Meeting. David, who knew more than anyone, took most notes. This confirmed my belief that study was the key.
His book, Confessions of An Advertising Man, had a prodigious effect on me in my first big job as a creative director.
I tested many things he mentioned, like using certain words which increase readership. Then, much later when I wrote my own first business book,Commonsense Direct Marketing, I copied him and made it very personal. People are more interested in people than theory.
Reeves’ book Reality in Advertising sold the idea of the USP. I learned you must offer something different and better to succeed; or failing that, if you talk about things others do, but don’t mention, you will outsell them. So I spend a lot of time looking for such opportunities. Again, very few copywriters bother.
100 ideas to steal
Vic Schwab was partner in one of the first specialist direct response agencies, back in the ‘30’s. He wrote a book called How to write a Good Advertisement. I have had the same copy for 49 years. And I still refer to the list of 100 headlines in it when I’m stuck for ideas.
I cannot honestly recall all the people I have learned from. My favourite client. Victor Ross, former Chairman of The Readers’ Digest, with his colleagues pioneered the use of sweepstakes. They also developed the Yes/No option: make people choose and you get more replies.
John Francis Tighe refined this to Yes/No/Maybe, which works even better. We use this technique constantly – but very few others do.
I tried to learn from another friend – the late Bill Jayme, named by his peers as the best copywriter in the US – how to write witty, surprising copy – but I lack the talent. So I just have to fall back on constructive theft and adaptation.
I learned the importance of that from Murray Raphel, who said, “Search the world, and steal the best.”
And now it’s your chance to get a steal of a deal …
Would you like one of my young birds to write some copy for you?
I keep a very close eye on them and nothing goes out until I’m happy with it.
You get 100% Bird at 50% of the price – I’d call that a steal.
And I still guarantee you results, or you pay nothing.
Want to know more? Email Gerald (email@example.com) with ‘Feed young bird’ as the subject.