Letter to a New Copywriter
Congratulations. You have embarked on a wonderful journey.
Many of the most successful people in advertising and direct marketing began just like you. They've gone on to become creative directors, presidents of huge companies, professors, even famous authors.
David Ogilvy wrote copy. So did Lester Wunderman. And no matter how much they accomplished, they were most proud of the fact that they were copywriters.
You may think that you should be writing novels, plays, movies or even poems and sonnets. But as a copywriter, your words can have an enormous impact on the world.
You can raise money for worthwhile causes and issues you believe in.
You can persuade people to vote -- for a certain issue, or for a particular person.
You can help bring music into their lives, or great books, or humor.
You can open their eyes to wonder and adventure, and take them anywhere in the world.
You can help people appreciate life, add richness and meaning to it, and even inspire them.
An advertisement for Steuben Glass began like this, "A Persian poet once wrote," If you have two loaves of bread, sell one - and buy something to feed your soul."
You can build enduring brands and great companies.
And your words can last for a long, long time. The classic letter for the Wall Street Journal has been their control for over 27 years.
Copywriting is a career that can take you places you never dreamed of -- no matter where you start out.
I began my career as a copywriter with Ogilvy & Mather in New York. They published a creativity test in a local newspaper. Over 300 people took the test, 35 were invited to a weekend training course.
They hired two of us.
At the time, I was working for a furniture moving company.
What fascinated me about my new job was that I had to learn about lots of different businesses. And before I could get bored, I'd move on to something else.
Once, after spending a grueling day at General Foods, another copywriter turned to me and said, "We just spent 10 hours talking about coffee. Tomorrow, they're going to spend another 10 hours talking about coffee.
"But we get to talk about beer!"
As a copywriter, I've spent time in a 747 flight simulator for KLM; filmed a plane crash while shooting a commercial for Lufthansa; met Mario Andretti, Loretta Lynn and dozens of other celebrities.
I've worked on everything from coffee, beer, soap, furniture polish, soft drinks, Q-tips, and deodorants to software, long distance service, enterprise portals, video conferencing, and credit cards.
I've written about everything from the Queen Elizabeth 2 "A City at Sea" to tiny hummingbird figurines "Shown Actual Size."
But I didn't write this to share my experiences. I just want to give you three little pieces of advice that can make a big difference in your career.
1. Be a Great Listener
I have always found that ordinary copywriters are talkers.
They're fascinating to listen to. They have great stories and observations, and often a good sense of humor.
But great copywriters are listeners. They absorb information, and are always hungry to learn more.
They know that the solution to most problems can often be revealed by the person explaining it.
Gene Schwartz is one of the world's best direct marketing copywriters. Denny Hatch says, "No writer in the business can match Schwartz's energy, intensity and ability "
His first rule of copywriting is "be the best listener you ever heard."
In a speech he gave in 1993, Schwartz describes the package he did that launched Boardroom Reports. He was hired by Martin Edelson, the publisher, who asked him, "Okay, what do we do?"
"I said, "I'm gonna sit and I'm gonna listen, and you're gonna talk." He talked for about four hours, and I just sat there taking notes."
"Now my copy was 70% his conversation. The headline was "How to Get the Heart of 370 Business Magazines in Just 30 Minutes a Month." It was his thing. It was his idea. All I did was write it out and give it to people."
One of my own techniques is to ask the client, "What do you think is most important?" Or even, "What do you think I should do?" It's rarely where I end up, but it's always a great way to start.
The second piece of advice is something that you probably already do, but it will become even more important as you progress in your career.
2. Take it Personal
You may not be signing your own name to the letter that you're writing.
You may not be the one who prepares the brief; or decides the strategy; or chooses the format.
You're probably never the one who decides how much time you have on the project.
Regardless, it is you who are responsible for every word in the copy.
And whether or not it works.
You should feel that every project is a personal challenge -- and it is up to you to do the very best job you can with no excuses.
Dr. Sheldon Kopp is the author of the self-help book, "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him." It's an extraordinary book, and it includes "The Existential Laundry List."
Number 33 on the list says "All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data."
But number 34 says, "Yet you are responsible for everything you do."
Several years ago, I made a presentation to a major client that included the work of several creative teams in the agency I worked for. The client looked them over and said, "What would you do?"
The question startled me.
"You mean, what does the agency recommend?" I sputtered.
"No," she said quietly, "what would you - Alan Rosenspan - recommend?"
The question forced me to admit that I didn't feel strongly about any of the work we were presenting; and I promised to come back in a week with something better, which I did..
Six months later, I had my own agency, where I did all my own work. But it was work that I believed in.
3. Push Yourself
You're probably the very best judge of your own work, more than your boss, the account people or the client.
You know when you've done a great job, or a not-so-great job.
You know when you've tried your hardest, and when you've just coasted.
In fact, you're the only one who really knows.
And the more you push yourself now, the more successful you'll be, and the faster you'll get there.
When I began as a copywriter, I wrote at least 3 or 4 versions of everything I did. Even memos. But that's not just the passion and energy of youth.
When I recently presented to American Express, I did 12 different versions. I did full layouts (my own roughs) with headlines and subheads.
The result: we beat their long-standing control twice -- and we're still using the ideas.
Elmore Leonard, the author of Get Shorty was once asked what's the most profitable kind of writing. "Ransom notes," he answered.
He was wrong -- it's copywriting.
If you work hard and become good at your job, you can earn huge amounts of money; live a creative, challenging and satisfying life; and even accomplish something important.
I wish you the greatest success on your journey.
© Alan Rosenspan & Associates