The copywriter in the coal mine

With copywriting legend John Carlton coming to my Titans Mastermind meeting next week as a guest speaker, I was reminded of a conversation I had with him a few years ago that is as relevant today as it was then.

John and I were ranting about all sorts of things…John is the most “constructive ranter” in the world (and I know “ranter” isn’t even a word…but Merriam or Webster never met John).

He made the brilliant observation that the next “big things” in marketing may not be in the areas of whiz bang technology but rather in the blocking and tackling that we career direct marketers are still especially good at…including such mundane things as state-of-the-art list segmentation, creating irresistible offers and of course, writing kick ass copy.

And while I always bring guest speakers to my events who are on the cutting edge of marketing techniques, there are also copywriters on every “Titans agenda” as well.

World class copywriters Jon Benson and Mark Ford will be joining us at the event next week…as well as marketing greats Rich Schefren, Dean Jackson and Richard Viguerie…although I will make the case here, as I have made in the past, that we are (and they are) ALL copywriters.

A few of you even scolded me when I called myself a “copywriter wannabe”…

I am proud to be a fundamentalist when it comes to direct response marketing but I am also not a Luddite—I know that technology will continue to move at the speed of light.

But no one can argue (with me anyway) that great creative and copy still rules.

Those who spend more time storytelling and less time figuring out the next big “Ninja technique” (hate that term), will be the winners for the long haul.

Great copy and innovative creative approaches create businesses.

Ninja techniques create revenue events.

Both are critical to the big picture as long as we are always thinking about the long game.

As far as today’s topic goes, the subject line refers to the expression “the canary in the coal mine”…and for those of you who aren’t familiar with its meaning, I quote from Wiktionary:

“An allusion to caged canaries (birds) that mining workers would carry down into the mine tunnels with them. If dangerous gasses leaked into the mine, the gasses would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.” 

Now I don’t want you to think my thesis is that we should sacrifice our copywriters for the sake of saving the lives of real human beings…yes, copywriters are people too. 🙂

But my observation (as well as Carlton’s) is that the best copywriters are always ahead of the curve; and because of their insatiable curiosity and need to research everything at the deepest level before putting pen to paper, they are in the best position to warn us of what is happening in the marketplace…and what will make people move to action.

We can stop the metaphor here…no one needs to die to make my point today (canary OR copywriter)…but I want to talk about some examples of why I think top copywriters are the folks to watch if you want to know the best route through your marketing tunnel (and yes, that’s “tunnel,” not “funnel”).

Also, as one of my copywriter friends said the first time I shared this idea a few years ago:

“No copywriters were harmed in the writing of this article.” 

At the Titans of Direct Response event in 2014 I began the trend of putting as many copywriters as possible on stage at the events I host…many are shy by nature but they are never shy once you get them going, talking in depth about their craft.

At Titans, there was a panel consisting of the top four copywriters who I worked with the most at the time of the event, four writers responsible for over 600 million pieces of successful direct mail over 20 years (just for my former company Boardroom).

I affectionately called them my “Mount Rushmore of Boardroom Copywriters” and they are heroes to me: Eric Betuel, David Deutsch, Arthur Johnson and Parris Lampropoulos are not only “canaries of the highest order,” they became the most important partners to our business (which was consistently $80 million to $100 million in the period they wrote for us, hitting a high of over $150 million).

Note: I’ve also got a “Pre-1995 Mount Rushmore of Boardroom Copywriters” who I have highlighted in previous posts.

Gene Schwartz, Gary Bencivenga, Jim Rutz and Mel Martin are those guys—just go to my blog page and put any one of their names in the search bar to learn more.

Bencivenga was also on stage at that sameTitans event in 2014…his final appearance as a speaker and he delivered a presentation for the ages.

Schwartz, Rutz and Martin would have been on stage had they still been with us…but I know they were smiling down from above.

I’m not just name dropping here.

My point is that we always had the good sense to hire the best and we were never cheapskates when it came to hiring top creative talent…why leave this critical area to amateurs?

That’s lesson one for today.

Back to the coal mine for some additional lessons.

One thing our best writers were able to do for us at Boardroom was to perfect what I call the “Bloodhound” concept.

Our founder Marty Edelston, was not the expert in any one area we wrote about…but he was the most inquisitive man on the planet…always looking out for the average Joe.

The way all of our copywriters were able to write in his voice and create a powerful watchdog for average Americans was amazing to behold.

Like the best copywriters who ever lived, Marty was a canary in a coal mine himself,  protecting consumers from all the bad advice and bad guys they encountered every day.

Marty wasn’t the only bloodhound for information in this partnership.

The copywriters were equally aggressive in how they approached what we often called “inside information” and their mission was to help consumers get the edge whenever possible.

The Bloodhound Publisher only hired Bloodhound Copywriters.

And even if you are not like Marty, you should hire like Marty.

One more thing: Those copywriters didn’t simply push an “easy button” to write like this.

They read, researched, studied…and then read some more.

And researched some more.

And studied some more.

And I bet when they got up to take a shower, they shampooed, rinsed and repeated a few times too…then it was back to reading, researching and studying.

Four interesting lessons I learned specifically from Parris Lampropoulos and Arthur Johnson:

 

1) The best creative platform might be the reality right in front of you 

A Boardroom trademark was how we brought our experts together on a regular basis…whether at our famous “Boardroom Dinners” or just assembling experts from a particular discipline to meet and debate to see what sparks would fly.

When they got together in a moderated discussion those sparks always turned into the best story ideas.

Marty once brought together all of our tax experts in one meeting from all over the country…and he was smart enough to not only invite our editors to listen in but also one of our copywriters (Parris).

What came out of that meeting were dozens of the best story ideas…but also a blockbuster control package for our newsletter Tax Hotline.

What Parris figured out was that the concept of a “secret meeting of the country’s top tax experts spilling the beans on things they would not normally talk about in public” was a differentiator that would make Tax Hotline the most attractive publication of its kind at the time.

The secret meeting was the premise of the new control, a control that was impossible to beat for over a decade.

 

2) I’m not a doctor but I play one in direct mail

When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, one of the first calls I made (after finishing up with the doctor and then alerting some family and friends) was to Parris.

I knew I had a lot of research ahead of me in terms of choosing the right treatment and doctors…but I also knew that one of my ace copywriters had read more and written more about this particular cancer than most doctors I would talk to…especially in the alternative treatment area.

I knew that with one phone call to Parris, I would benefit from the fact that he was a copywriter who never wrote about anything about a topic before he researched everything on that topic.

 

3) Not a face for radio

Arthur Johnson was our partner in some of the most successful infomercials during the mid-2000’s for our books The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets and Bottom Line’s Ultimate Healing—as both a writer and on-air talent.

Arthur not only co-wrote the scripts but he appeared on screen in an interview format with legendary newsman Hugh Downs.

And what did we call Arthur in the show?

“Medical Writer and Editor.” 

And that couldn’t have been more accurate.

He was on the show because of his command of the material and his relationship as a reporter of the life-saving information the doctors who appeared on the show were sharing.

We couldn’t have found anyone at the time who was more passionate and knowledgeable.

Who better than an ace copywriter for this job?

Arthur had read the books cover to cover and had pulled out what he thought were the most important treatments and research consumers needed to know right now.

He put the time and effort in and it showed in his writing, editing…and his on screen performance.

Those infomercials weren’t just marginally successful…they were groundbreaking.

And going from direct mail to TV with these health books, back to direct mail with the TV offer, then online with the new offer, and back to TV with additional shows, this “franchise” probably created revenues north of $200 million for Boardroom.

I guess it pays to read, research and study to be become the best writer and editor.

I remember Hugh Downs asking Arthur on the set during one of the shoots (off camera):

“Where did you study medicine?”

He could have answered, “Everywhere there is cutting edge information to write about.”

I know he didn’t answer “in medical school.”

 

4) Don’t leave your best material on the cutting room floor 

Always allow your copywriters to probe your editors, your gurus, your experts to make sure there is not more “stuff” in those incredible brains that could create some of the most exciting and breakthrough articles or concepts…which will lead to more compelling promotion copy…and yes, more sales of your product or service.  

When our copywriter thought the material in one of our health newsletters was boring and had little in the way of cutting edge information, he went and probed the doctor-guru of that newsletter encouraging him to share with him everything he avoided writing about because he feared the editors might find some of the most cutting edge information too controversial.

From that probing, new assignments were given to the editors to get the proper backup for the most exciting content that had previously been off limits.

The best studies and findings that could be backed up properly became the core of a new blockbuster control package.

I’m not recommending to ever be irresponsible and make up stuff that’s not true; but don’t give up easily when there is an opportunity to share what has never been shared before and all it might take is a little more research.

You’re reader must constantly say, “Wow, I didn’t know that” rather than, “So what?”

This reminds me of the classic Henry Kissinger story which I call, “Is this the best you can do?” (my version of it):

A speech writer for Kissinger went off to write a speech for him…brought in his first draft…and Kissinger sent it back to him to improve it.

Assume for the purpose of this version of the story this happened 7 or 8 times.

Finally, the writer brought the 9th version and said, “This is the best I can do…I can’t do any better…”

To which Kissinger replied:

“OK, now I will read it.”

 

A+ copywriters usually won’t consider showing any of the first “8 versions” to a client—that is, until they have played Bloodhound and immersed themselves in everything they need to know to write world class copy.

I don’t know about you, but that’s who I want as my marketing partner.

 

Warmly,

Brian

 

P.S. It’s not often I get to share the stage with great copywriters unless I am hosting my own event…and in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway hit, Hamilton: 

 “I am not throwing away my shot!” 

Two superstars from my Titans Master Class, Kira Hug and Rob Marsh, are hosting an event you don’t want to miss:“The Copywriter Club” on February 15-17 in New York City.

I am honored they asked me to speak.

And you will be blown away by the other folks who will be speaking.

I will be sharing the stage with some fellow Titans Mastermind and Titans Master Classmembers, Marcella Allison, K.C. Baney, Kevin Rogers, Kim Krause Schwalm, Abbey Woodcock…plus a host of other amazing speakers (15 in all) who I know I will learn a ton from…and I think you will too.

All of the details on the event are here.

You’ll also see on the event page that I am partnering with Kira and Rob to give away a copy of the Gene Schwartz classic, The Brilliance Breakthrough, How To Talk And Write So That People Will Never Forget You (with accompanying workbooks)  to all attendees…a $195 value in itself.

That giveaway alone makes this event a no brainer to attend….the admission price is a steal.

And if any of you decide to sign up as a result of this P.S., send me an email that you did and I will send the first ten (10) people an audio disc of the entire “Titans of Direct Response” event from 2014…the event Dan Kennedy called “the event of the decade.”

The full Titans DVD package sold for $2,000, tickets to attend were $3,500 to $5,000 each, and this is a recording of the entire event.

I really want to see as many of you as possible at “The Copywriter Club” in New York on February 15th…so that’s an extra bonus (an “ethical bribe!”) from me.

Also: If you are attending, send me an email and I will bring you a copy of my book, The Advertising Solution and present it to you personally at the event.

 

Hope to see you there!

Lots of canaries are leaving their coal mines to show up at this one!

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