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What some famous copywriters taught me

Few copywriters study enough. And many who commission copy study even less. So the partially-sighted serve the blind. No wonder, says Drayton Bird, most subscription copy isn’t very good.

By Drayton Bird

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.

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. 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 people 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.

A second factor compounds the problem: few of those who commission copy, and review it, know much about what works, what doesn’t and why.

A very cheap investment

Subscription copy is probably the hardest to write – yet few publishers pay very well for it. They often employ young, inexperienced writers and give them too little time to do jobs. So there are two reasons why most is not very good.

This is a shame, because copy is probably the cheapest ingredient in your marketing mix. Improving it costs relatively little, with very high potential return.

I don’t specialise in subscription copy, though I have written a fair amount – indeed I am working on some now. But, to be honest, the principles that apply to one kind of copy apply to all kinds.

For instance, the client I am now working for has a very sound strategy. He focuses more on incentives to reply than on the benefits readers gain from his publications. His chief competitor does the opposite. Both strategies are valid – but a remarkable number of marketers understand neither.

Anyhow, here are some people I learned most from – and what they taught me. Maybe you will learn a little, too. I hope so!

The trailblazer

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 60 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 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 by applying honesty and reason-why in almost all 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), I learned much, but principally that copy is ‘salesmanship in print’.

Your copy should do what a good salesman does. 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 capable US copywriters, 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 aim of each sentence is to make people read the next.

John Caples was the master of testing. When I was young I re-read his book, Tested Advertising Methods regularly. I still turn to it. From it I learned much, but especially – as another wise man, Richard V Benson, put it - ‘There are only two rules in direct marketing. Rule 1: 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. Caples said something well worth noting about this to a Wall Street Journal interviewer: ‘Times change. People don’t’.

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 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 the 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 words he said increase readership. Much later, when I wrote my own first business book, Commonsense Direct Marketing, I copied his approach and made it very personal. People are more interested in people than theory.

Reeves’ book, Reality in Advertising, championed the idea of the USP. I learned you must offer something different and better to succeed. And, 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 ‘30s. He wrote a book: How to write a Good Advertisement. I have had the same copy for 40 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, whom his peers named the best copywriter in the US – how to write witty, surprising copy. Unfortunately 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.’