American Writers & Artists Institute

Copywriting Genius

For This Copywriter,
Studying Packages That Didn’t Work
Provides the Clues for a Winning Promotion


CG: Lee, please tell us about yourself. What was your job prior to becoming a copywriter?

Lee: Copywriting was my first full-time job. I had completed 30 credits of graduate school in American literature and I intended to teach on the college level. I was getting married, though, and needed a daytime job.

CG: Did you know what copywriting or direct response was… before you became a copywriter?

Lee: No, I had no idea about what copywriting was or even about direct mail. I had never taken a marketing course - or even a business course - in college.

CG: How did you become a copywriter?

Lee: I had wanted to get a job as an editor. I couldn’t find anything and I needed a job of some kind. A relative got me an interview at Prentice-Hall to become a library sales representative. They offered me the job, but I turned it down because of the travel involved. They were nice enough to have me take a copywriting test for their College Department, and somehow I passed.

CG: Were you self-trained or did someone help you? Did you have a mentor of some type?

Lee: I was basically self-trained. On my first day at Prentice-Hall, I was handed a sheet of copy guidelines developed by Richard Prentice Ettinger, the company’s former chairman. Prominent among the ten rules: “Never use humor - there is nothing funny about separating a man from his money.” Very early on, I started reading The Reporter of Direct Mail Advertising and my bible was Dick Hodgson’s Direct Mail and Mail Order Handbook.

A Well-Experienced Copywriter

CG: How long have you been writing copy?

Lee: I broke in as a copywriter in 1964, 42 years ago. There were several years on the agency side when I was not writing any copy, and that’s one of the reasons I left the agency business.

CG: What was the first project you worked on as a copywriter?

Lee: I do not remember the first project. In the College Department at Prentice-Hall, you did mostly self-mailers to try to get professors to adopt the textbook. The first one could have been the classic McGregor and Burns text on American government.

CG: What was your worst failure as a copywriter?

Lee: Over 42 years, I’ve had many efforts that didn’t generate any response. In a majority of these cases, there were other factors involved – poor product concept, bad list strategies, lack of an offer. On a pure copy basis - not looking at results, but at how the copy met the creative brief - my worst failure might have been a promotion for Belmont Race Track. The agency I was with had this as a long-time account and was between regular writers. I just kept striking the wrong tone, misunderstanding what is in the typical bettor’s head.

Arming Himself With a Wealth of Information

CG: Lee, let’s talk about your methodology. What’s the first thing you do when you get an assignment - study old controls, research the subject matter, talk with the editor?

Lee: It’s always a combination of activities to get myself steeped in the company and its product or service. I not only study old controls, but test packages that were miserable failures. Many direct marketing-focused companies do not have customer research, or any kind of market research. That means I will seek general research about the topic from magazines in the field, and also spend some time in online research. In the particular case of this control, I did have a one-on-one conversation with the founder and editor.

CG: What do you need the client to supply you with for the project?

Lee: Sample product, testimonials and case histories, profiles of the customer base, any research they’ve done. Many of my smaller clients don’t give me creative briefs, so we fill one out together – either in a phone conversation or via email. I’ll also want samples of controls and flops - as already indicated - plus list usage histories, and any data on offer testing.

CG: How do you research… or get to know the target audience?

Lee: There are a number of ways I get to know the target audience. Testimonials and customer correspondence are helpful for learning concerns and language. I visit web sites of other marketers targeting the same audience to get an idea of their approach and of course look at direct mail from others targeting the audience. Then I’ll talk to people I know in the target audience. For example, if I’m working on a package for customer management software, I’ll talk to colleagues, friends who use it.

Concept Statements Get the Project Rolling

CG: How do you come up with the theme or idea for the promotion?

Lee: In most cases, I come up with three or four themes in the form of concept statements. These briefly position the product or service and then describe the components of the package. For example, two different concepts for a hearing aid manufacturer might look like the ones below (only partial concepts shown). So the client decides which of the three strategies to pursue. And sometimes, we take elements from all of the concepts.

Concept 1

Concept 1

CG: Do you develop the headline first or start with the body copy?

Lee: I always start with the headline. One reason is that the concept behind the headline has already been outlined in the concept statement. I’ll play around with both tone and length but the message is the same. The envelope is always first, the letter always second. Sometimes I’ll move to the response form before I do the brochure (if there is one).

CG: After you finish a draft… do you let it rest for a day or so and then re-read and make edits?

Lee: I may let the envelope teaser copy, Johnson box and letter opening rest for a day. Once I start on the body copy, I’m pretty well locked into the project. I may read through the body copy once and make some minor edits, but I normally edit as I’m writing.

Knowing When to Put Your Pen Down

CG: How do you know when the copy is done, and you can submit it to the client?

Lee: To me, copy is never really done. You can always improve it. You submit it when you know that for the time you have been given, it’s your best shot. You ask yourself, “If I had another day, would the changes I might make really improve response?”

CG: Do you specialize in writing for certain products? If so, which ones?

Lee: I’ve had success in a number of different areas: insurance and financial services, publishing and information services, business software and services, consumer lead generation and fundraising. I generally stay away from jewelry and other merchandise, health products and astrology-type offers.

CG: How would you characterize your style of writing (great at creating a conversational tone, strong on offer, etc.)?

Lee: I don’t have a single style. I change styles to mesh with the target audience and nature of the product or service. One client in the healthcare arena, when she was considering using me, said, “You write differently than we do. Our packages talk about our products. You write to the prospect and talk about his/her situation.”

From Test Suggestions to Project Design

CG: Do you make suggestions on what things the client could test on your package… such as alternative headline, lead or offer?

Lee: When I submit concept statements first, that gives clients an idea of key elements to test. Then within a particular concept, I may suggest tests of outer envelopes, leads or offers.

CG: How involved are you in the design?

Lee: That really depends on the client and project. I prefer delivering the whole package – selecting and working with the designer – and in those situations I’m intimately involved in design decisions. But, often, I either work with the client’s in-house people or outside designers they pick. That sometimes translates into my not seeing the design until it’s too late. With clients who are national, heavy mailers, that’s okay… but with start-up mailers, they don’t know the difference between direct mail design and annual report design.

A Control That Has Lasted Three Years

CG: What are the statistics on this package… such as how long it has been a control, number of times mailed, how much it beat old control?

Lee: It has been a control for about three years, and has mailed nine times. The same shell was used for other continuing education programs issued by the same publisher. It beat the old control by 20% in net response and did considerably better than that in cost per new enrollee. The old package was much more expensive, and the premium offered cost the mailer much more, as well.

CG: Did you develop the theme of this package… or in conjunction with others?

Lee: I came up with the idea of mailing an “Explanation of Benefits” package. I thought that was the best way to focus the psychiatrist’s attention on time and cost savings. The previous control certainly had those two benefits present, but they weren’t as clearly etched.

CG: What was the goal… to bring on new subscribers, increase the pay-up rate, expand theuniverse of lists…?

Lee: The goal was to acquire new enrollees to the program, but at a lower cost than the control was doing.

The Factors That Create a Winning Promotion

CG: What’s the driving force behind this promotion?

Lee: I think there are a few things. For the busy psychiatrist, we’ve made the pertinent information, the benefits, extremely accessible. For the anal in the group, we provide details in the brochure. The second factor is the pricing. By this time, the client had tested discount pricing in his previous mailings, so the heavily discounted cost per credit – emphasized a few times on the Explanation of Benefits sheet – really helped.

CG: What emotion were you tapping (exclusivity, fear, greed, prestige, etc.)?

Lee: Previous packages had emphasized fear (falling behind in state-mandated continuing education), but we shied away from that. Greed was more important – not just saving money, but, just as critically, saving their precious time. With increased insurance paperwork, psychiatrists have less time for themselves.

Developing A USP and Credibility

CG: Did you come up with the idea of the chrome pen as a premium?

Lee: Yes, that was my idea. Psychiatrists, our target audience, are among the few who still make use of a pen. The client liked the idea on its own, and it was much less expensive and easier to ship than their previous premium (smoked salmon).

CG: How were you able to build credibility for this product?

Lee: It was relatively easy in this case. The company had been doing this program for 20 years and had approval from all the big medical/psychological associations. Then there was the panel in the brochure with the entire faculty. And the iron-clad guarantee that the client already had been using.

CG: Is this product unique to the marketplace? If not, how did you make it stand out fromthe competition?

Lee: There are two other direct competitors, and many indirect ones – other ways (including cruises) to pick up CME credits. We differentiated by hammering that it’s at-home study, easy-to-do and worthwhile.

CG: Did you pick the color of the carrier?

Lee: It looks different on the PDF’s. It’s actually a brown kraft. I picked it because it works well with the “Explanation of Professional Benefits” teaser copy.

CG: In your opinion, why is this package working so well for so long?

Lee: I’d have to say first that the official envelope works well with this audience. The prior control was very promotional. Second, we layered the information content. The “Explanation of Benefits” sheet highlighted the basic offer and what the program does; the brochure gave great depth of content. Third, a very clear and easy response form.

Easy to Work With… But
Determined to Get a Control

CG: Now that you see the package in print, if you could change anything about this package, what would that be and why?

Lee: There are always things to change, but here I would have pushed the client to spend more money on the brochure. Adding another panel would have given the copy more breathing room and dignity. The other thing was to try this in a 9” x 12” envelope.

CG: What’s it like to work with you on a project?

Lee: I stopped being an “angry young man” about 25 years ago. I’m a pussycat to work with – flexible, on-time on about 95% of my assignments, and almost always on-strategy. I found that being a nice guy helps business. BUT, if I feel that the client’s revisions are going to damage response, I’ll fight like hell.

CG: If you could choose another career besides copywriting, what would that be and why?

Lee: It’s a bit late in life now. When I turned 50, I seriously thought about going back to school and becoming a psychotherapist, but the psychologists I talked to told me I was crazy. And there was the very early dream of teaching American literature on the college level. And the never-ending dream of being a great American novelist.

CG: What advice would you give up-and-coming copywriters to help them learn their trade?

Lee: Study control packages. Figure out what makes them work by comparing them to packages going to the same market which have not worked. Same thing with email. Read the classics – Caples, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Rosser Reeves – because many of the principles still apply.

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