June 16, 2024

“If you can’t advertise yourself, what hope do you have of advertising anything else?”

-David Ogilvy

As marketers, copywriters and entrepreneurs, it is critically important to never lose our confidence…and to be able to talk about our passions, expertise and accomplishments in a way that conveys trust so that people will buy from us (or at least want to “play with us”).

But where do we cross the line from confidence to simply bragging?

And since bragging can lead to a perception of arrogance (where we can lose our audience forever), this is an important topic for all marketers and copywriters to spend time contemplating.

Once that line gets crossed, all bets are off if anyone you are communicating with will ever want to have a “play date” with you, much less buy anything from you.

I found this quote from Walt Whitman, and this should always be our starting point:

“If you done it, it ain’t bragging.”

But of course, it’s how you tell everyone about what you’ve done that’s the key…and it all starts with coming from a sense of humility first…well before you begin talking about your accomplishments.

It’s not all that hard to do this if you are originating in the right place…that is, everything works best when you are sincerely humble about all that has been bestowed upon you …which of course starts with gratitude that you are able to be so accomplished.

While it’s critical to never lose sight of the fact that we are personally responsible for all the good that comes to us, it’s also critical to never underestimate all the situations and conditions that had to be just right to make all that good stuff happen.

It may not be dumb luck, but you didn’t get here with just your smarts and good looks.

It is a constant battle to be an effective teacher or mentor and share all your genius without coming off as a pretentious ass.

I’m convinced that you will win that battle with a deep sense of humility which originates with an even deeper sense of gratefulness.

And no matter how much you teach and mentor with humility and gratitude, you won’t please everyone.

I have felt this firsthand…from readers like you in my online family…who got tired of me talking about my direct marketing exploits, seeing it as a way for me to brag rather than to teach.

That interpretation by some readers only makes me more sensitive to this issue.

In fact, when I get feedback like that, I begin by agreeing with them (and of course giving them an extra link to unsubscribe). 🙂

But I also ask for advice in terms of how I could have conveyed my successes and positive case histories (and the name dropping of other superstars that comes with the territory) with additional humility and sensitivity.

Bragging because I did it is fine; showing off is not fine.

Another aspect of staying grounded and confident is to see everything as constructive criticism rather than to jump to “I am an awful human being”; and being grounded and not arrogant (i.e. “they don’t get me and they are wrong”) when someone sees you as a braggart.

Staying within some middle ground so you can remain confident without crossing over into arrogance is the sweet spot.

And it’s why I implore you to keep this notion front and center, so you never get caught up in “reading your own press clippings” at the expense of forgetting where you came from.

In “The biggest mistakes of my career part one” I talk about some painful (yet useful) lessons around my lack of humility that have stayed with me my entire career…and will stay with me forever.

There are lots of ways to check your humility meter.

For example, I have had some of my best friends…some of them copywriters…slap me around about how many “I’s” are in my copy vs. “You’s.”

Check the meter regularly for how you write and how you speak.

Make it about “them” whenever possible.

Another good exercise is to look for extreme cases of confidence running amuck…where you see confidence crossing that line into arrogance…and it becomes a built-in, perfect reality check.

Examples are easy to find everywhere.

Just hop on Facebook right now (after you finish reading this of course). 🙂

Here’s one not from Facebook:

Before I left Boardroom (the company I helped build for 34 years), a copywriter wrote to me looking to write a promotion for us.

The opening line of his email to me:

“I can assure you that I will be the best copywriter who has ever come through the door at Boardroom.”

I could have gotten angry…or at least snippy…since this seemed to cross the line from confidence to arrogance without even reading the second sentence of his email.

My ego said, “Does this guy know that every great copywriter over the last 50 years has written for Boardroom, and it may be the most competitive environment in all of direct marketing to write a winner?”

And no matter how good he is, acknowledging those who came before would have gotten my attention more than his boastful, unsubstantiated claim?

I did not get angry or snippy since I wanted his hubris to be a teaching (and learning) opportunity for me…him too…if he chose to see it that way.

I had never heard of him–which again, if I let my ego take hold, I could have dismissed him outright because of that alone (i.e. “If I never heard of him how good could he be?”).

Instead, I went to his site to look at his writing…just to make sure he wasn’t the next Jim Rutz or Bill Jayme…and if I needed to tell him, “Shame on me!” for not hiring him yet.

That didn’t happen.

I can safely say that his writing was mediocre…dare I say not very good at all…and that no apology would be needed from me for passing him over in the past.

The bottom line was that he would be way too risky to give an assignment to.

Then I was ready to respond to him:

“I have to admit that you got my attention when you said you would be the best copywriter to ever write for Boardroom…and since I have never heard of you, I immediately thought I must have missed the boat on you all of these years…so thank you for introducing yourself to me.”

From there I let him down easy…saying that we only use copywriters who are very experienced in our various niches (which he was not)…and I also sent him a few pieces I have written about hiring the best of the best and my experience working with some of the greatest copywriters (who I hope he had heard of)–without trying to show him up and without bragging.

The subtle teaching moment hopefully occurred when he read, “You may not know it when you see it.”

In that post, I define the 7 attributes that were present in every great copywriter I have ever worked with…some of the greatest of all time…with #6 being “Humility.”

I think he got the message…and frankly, if he ever does become an “A List” copywriter someday, I don’t think he will remember me as an arrogant jerk (although that is still entirely possible, I guess).

However, I slept well knowing that I told him subtly to lower his expectations and work harder.

My biggest fear with this guy is that he will never become an “A Lister” without a huge attitude adjustment and understanding the real difference between confidence and arrogance.

I have this fear not only in terms of his personality but also in terms of how it will creep into his copy.

And he is not the only one I fear for in today’s marketing and copywriting community…a little less arrogance could be a good thing for many more folks in our world…which will lead to more powerful and effective promotions too.

I love this quote from the legendary John Caples:

“The most frequent reason for unsuccessful advertising is advertisers who are so full of their own accomplishments (the world’s best seed!) that they forget to tell us why we should buy (the world’s best lawn!).”

Did I say that arrogance will eventually creep into one’s work?

I began with a quote from David Ogilvy today and I found two other Ogilvy quotes to bookend this message …remember, David Ogilvy is considered by many to be the father of modern advertising (the original “Mad Man”) …and a true pioneer in all things marketing and copywriting.

These two quotes indicate how his far-reaching accomplishments never overshadowed his humble pursuit of excellence…despite being an industry icon and having a ton of confidence in his abilities:

  1. “I am a lousy copywriter”
  2. “If you ever find a man who is better than you are—hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”

Warmly (with humility and gratitude),


P.S. Another example of how “humility plays”… similar to David Ogilvy being “a lousy copywriter”…is this story from the Titans of Direct Response event in 2014…related to my experience asking some of the greatest figures in the world of direct marketing to speak at the event.

Many people asked me, “How did you get all of them to speak and how did you deal with all of those egos?”

It was easy (for the most part) because grace and humility are embedded in their DNA.

It’s something I look for in my heroes…and these guys didn’t disappoint.

They didn’t spend a second reminding me how great they are and how lucky I was to get them to speak.

Rather, they reminded me what my company meant to their careers, specifically the founder, Marty Edelston…who the event was a tribute to…since he had passed away the year before.

Add “honor” to grace and humility as part of their makeup.

Two of the speakers come to mind right away:

Gary Bencivenga (the best copywriter in the world alive today with more “unbeatable controls” than anyone in history); and Greg Renker (the top infomercial producer EVER and the man who ran a $2 billion agency at the time).

If you could have listened in on any of the calls I had with Gary or Greg before the event …or been on any of the follow up calls or emails after…what you would have heard and seen from these two giants was 100% grace and humility…and their gratitude for being part of such an amazing event.

Gary came out of retirement to speak after turning down dozens of opportunities over the years, which spoke to his need to pay it forward to those who shaped his career.

And he wanted his presentation to be “perfect” and 100% appropriate, asking for feedback and changes along the way.

Frankly, Gary could have stood on the stage silent for an hour and it would have been epic.

And Greg’s assistant called me before the event asking, “Where should Greg send his $3,500 registration fee?”

Of course I responded to both of them:

“Are you kidding me?”

Greg’s assistant’s response when I told her Greg did not need to pay anything and that she should bill me for all of his travel expenses…and add a fee for his appearance:

“Well, Greg just wants to contribute something.”

I thought I was in some bizarro world…but it was a valuable lesson that even folks like Gary Bencivenga and Greg Renker take nothing for granted and play the game of life with confident humility all the time.

Contribution indeed…

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Title Goes Here

Get this Free E-Book

Use this bottom section to nudge your visitors.