What some famous copywriters taught me

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.

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 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 steal from me. If you've not joined my merry little club yet, and this post has struck a chord with you, you really should join.

There's no risk - my money back guarantee takes care of that. So why not join right now?

It's just $1 to take it for a spin. And there is nothing else like it on the net - or anywhere else, come to that.

Best

Drayton

34 thoughts on “What some famous copywriters taught me

  1. Tim Reid

    Thanks Drayton. This is a reassuring article. My old advertising boss once told me “Timbo, there’s no such thing as an original idea.” At the time, I remember feeling shocked. I felt every idea I came up with had to be exactly that. Now, hearing a similar message from you, I will ease in to a life of guilt-free pilfering.

    Reply
    1. Drayton Bird

      A person I greatly admire recently ran a line first used by Caples in about 1930. She did not even know it was not original.

      It is pulling like an express train. The opening “Who else wants …?” is still pulling away happily – for me and many others.

      The word “weird” used by Caples many decades ago works all the time – I used it today.

      “Originality is the most dangerous word in the advertiser’s lexicon” – Rosser Reeves, then stolen by David Ogilvy

      Reply
    1. Drayton Bird

      Napoleon said that morale is to numbers as two is to one.

      I am utterly convinced that talent is not nearly as important as knowledge.

      Knowledge only comes from study of results and practice.

      I would say 19 out of 20 firms don’t measure their results; nor do they tes.

      Of the ones that do most draw no conclusions; and of the ones that draw conclusions most do nothing.

      For over 30 years I have worked on and off for one firm which is a household name throughout the world.

      I know that it would take an hour’s study to transform their online costs.

      They aren’t interested. They are making money. They prefer the swinish comfort of ignorance to the refreshing breeze of reality.

      They are not unusual. It is usually vested interests at work; people who fear change and challenge.

      I know of another firm who lead the world in reputation.

      They did not want to act on results they themselves said were “outstanding” because they did not fit in with what one head office job’s-worth didn’t agree with.

      Depressing. But good news for those who act!

      Reply
  2. Vicky

    Hi Drayton,

    I joined your merry band of scribes just this week, and I’m already seeing the benefits. Thank you. Like someone said above, it’s very reassuring to know that you don’t have to come up with original, clever ideas all the time.

    My question: how do you convince your clients to test? I note in the comment above that some of them simply won’t – but what about the ones that will bend? Do you have any tips on tact (although I note from your book that you’re not the most tactful man around!), diplomacy or assertiveness? A tried and tested method of presenting the benefits to a sceptical client? Hints on working around a designer’s ego?

    Thank you, for your accumulated wisdom and willingness to share it.

    Vicky

    Reply
    1. Drayton Bird

      One way to get clients to test is not to assert but to demonstrate.

      Show them the results of some tests.

      Point out what those results mean in profit.

      “If I could increase your profits by 25% in 48 hours would that interest you?”

      If they are not your tests, but someone else’s that is often more convincing (and easier).

      The only way with designers is, again, to get them to test.

      If they can read, Professor Wheildon’s book on design helps as it demonstrates with real examples. (The the latest edition has an amazingly crass cover).

      Reply
  3. Jansie Blom

    I just told my boss that if there’s one reason for me having moved from my small little town to the big city (other than being flat broke and needing an income), it was to be introduced to Drayton Bird. You’re the Michael Martinez (the SEO guy) of copy. Brilliant, straight-forward and just plain beautiful. I thought I wanted to be a writer of fiction, but you manage to make copywriting sound even better than a Steinbeck novel!

    Reply
  4. John Falkinder

    It’s amazing how time dulls the memory. I hadn’t forgotten the significance of the references behind the quotes of Raphel and Mozart but had forgotten the actual quotes. Enjoyed the article and the “whack on the side of the head”.

    Also brings to mind this one from Steven Wright; “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.”

    Cheers – John F

    Reply
  5. Corine

    I see a lot of interesting content on your blog. You have to spend a lot
    of time writing, i know how to save you a lot of time,
    there is a tool that creates unique, google friendly articles in couple of minutes,
    just search in google – k2 unlimited content

    Reply
    1. Rezbi

      Oh my.

      Did you actually read the article? Maybe you would have noticed this part:

      “Another is that people don’t practice. If you want to write well, write often. Every day. For as long as you can.”

      I’ll let you ponder on that.

      Reply
  6. James Kiyengo

    Sure there is no need to re-invent the wheel! Most people are lazy to write meaning there is even much more to copy from what they talk. Only one of a million people have something new. The rest of us simply have to follow. And actually bench-marking is copying from many and making the best combination. The quickest way to learn ins to read; meaning that if we do not read we cannot easily get better, if we stop being better we cease being good. It is important to at least write it with a smile!

    Reply
  7. Victor Carroll

    I’m trying to get my $27 (plus) dollars to you for membership, but keep getting blocked off by tech problems every time I click up your video that never works…..If you’ll send me an enrollable e-mail, I would love to come on board.. must be a server techno outage somewhere….

    Very truly,
    Vic Carroll

    Reply
  8. Troy

    Drayton I have only recently found you, buy you are my favorite marketeer- and if you could see my inbox you would instantly recognize the compliment.

    In print you are as venerable as wine, smooth as felt, gritty as Comet, wise as Plato and clever as Heisenberg.

    Thank you for transcending the medium and projecting your humanity and personality into every paragraph.

    Oh, and the books listed here are so getting read!!!!

    Reply
  9. Jim

    An incredibly thorough article Drayton. And very helpful to anyone who wants to know the history of great copywriting, and who to study. If every beginner copywriter read this article FIRST, then followed its direction, I imagine there would be a lot more good copywriters around today. And, a lot less really shitty copy :-).

    Thanks Drayton for this goldmine.

    Jim

    Reply
  10. Sean Lukens

    Hi Drayton,

    I first stumbled upon Bill Jayme’s name in the introduction to your book, How to Write Sales Letters that sell (Still my favorite book on the subject next to Collier’s Letter Book – I must say, though, yours was more pleasurable to read). I’ve since read a great deal about him but never any of his letters, aside from some oft-quoted openings. I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of his “Cool Friday” letter and was astonished by its combination of elegance and simplicity, not to mention the breadth of knowledge and detail. I’ve searched endlessly for more of his letters to no avail. All I’ve found are some info-marketers selling swipe files of his work for $400-500. It seems absurd to pay that for access to someone else’s work…. unless they have the rights to it, which I doubt. So, to come around to my point… I’m hoping you may know where I can find some more examples of his work.

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom and insight,
    Sean

    Reply
    1. Drayton Bird

      I am pretty sure a friend of mine has copies. I have a few somewhere in a garage in Bristol that Bill gave me when I visited him in 1984 …

      Reply
      1. Sean Lukens

        Hi Drayton,

        Thanks for the response. Apparently, Bill Jayme’s estate still owns the rights to his work, which would probably explain why his stuff is so damn hard to come by. While purchasing a collection of his work is undoubtedly a worthy investment, I’m just starting out, so I’ll have to put it off for a little while. In the meantime, anything you might have would be greatly appreciated. I’ve managed to scrounge up 6 or 7 from places like Andy Owens’ newsletters and Richard Hodgson’s book on sales letters, but that’s about it.

        Reply
        1. Drayton Bird

          Because I’m bloody senile I can’t remember but I think Ghulam Nabi Rezbi who is a member – and a pretty god copywriter, too – has a lot of his stuff

          Reply
  11. Gerald Richards

    Excellent article Drayton and well worth the read. You make some very good points why it is necessary to pinch others’ thoughts and ideas. Where else do we gain knowledge without being cognisant of what’s gone before?

    Reply
  12. Gerald Richards

    Vicky,
    Your dilema reminds me of what Peter Senge said “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed”
    There are three perceptual positions 1. I perceive the issue from my position 2. I perceive the issue from your position 3. I perceive the issue objectively. None is either right nor wrong, just their approprietness. To sell an idea we may have to use all three positions. Drayton has given you some really good ideas.
    Perhaps some questioning of the client may be of use, for example
    “With this project, what is it you wish to achieve?”
    “How will you know you have achieved that goal?”
    “If you were to engage in testing, what do you think the results would show?”
    Sometimes a substitute word can move people to action. “Feedback” can be substituted for “Testing”
    “Ms Client, a an dynamic business leader (as a leader in a dynamic ever changing industry) I would imagine it is important that you stay on the ball through effective communication and having robust feedback loops”
    “To ensure you are constantly up-to-date with the ever changing market place, what quantitive feedback mechanisms would be of use?”

    Reply
  13. Mahesh

    Hi Drayton,

    very interesting and pushing reading. Your all writings, as i read, are as such. It was my opinion that when you steal something it is plagiarism but in copy writing if you want to give the best you have to study, search and steal. The best ideas of talented people always work. It is true for the centuries and will remain true for the future centuries too. Your ideas are of great value for me. I am a writer, I have five books to my credit in two indian languages, Hindi and Punjabi. One of my books have won the National award recently.
    I am new to copy writing. I am still studying and learning the craft. I am sanguine, I will learn a lot from your writings.

    Thanks and regards

    Mahesh seelvi

    Reply
    1. Drayton Bird

      On the matter of originality and plagiarism, two quotes and one opinion.

      “I never tried to be orginal in my life” – Mozart.

      “Talent copies; genius improves”- I don’t know who said that.

      Some years ago I commented as follows: If you start by trying to be original you may never get it right. If you start by trying to get it right you may well end up being original.

      Reply
  14. Mahesh

    Hi Drayton,

    Excellent advice Mr. Drayton.
    In literature, if you are not original, you are nothing but in copy writing if you are original you are nothing.
    The old best ideas and writings can make your copy a worth reading proposition.
    You are a genius Mr. drayton.
    thanks and regards

    Mahesh Seelvi

    Reply
  15. Mahesh

    Hi Drayton,

    Thanks for giving such a deep insight as to how you can make your copy work. The time change but not the people, you are absolutely right in quoting this.
    You can test this saying in your daily life. The people who are superstitious from the centuries are superstitious today also. Times have changed, human is trying to settle on mars but the people are at the same place. Only who have changed themselves have grown but those who have not are at the same place.
    The matter is that you can test such people with the same old techniques, they were tested centuries ago. This sales funda works. That is why the old tested methods of selling work today. So there is no hitch in testing them again and again. You are right my dear Sir.
    thanks and regards

    Mahesh

    Reply
  16. Kenny

    Great book list Drayton! Thanks for sharing your ideas. I was wondering if you have watched the show Mad Men now on netflix? It ran for 7 seasons. Wikipedia says that the lead character, named Don Drayper, the creative director of a mid sized ad agency around 1962 on Madison Ave in NYC, is suspected to be Ogilvy and was wondering what you think about it since you worked with him.

    Reply
    1. Drayton Bird

      I think it extremely unlikely. Draper seems very American. Ogilvy came over as very British and showed off a little in his choice of clothes. He was a bit of snob too, though very funny when he wanted to be.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *