While speaking with legendary copywriter, teacher and coach, John Carlton 10 years ago, he said something that has stayed with me…and it has resurfaced again today…and it is as timely as ever.
If you have ever had the privilege to chat with John, you know conversation usually turns into a “rant” (or series of rants) …and this conversation 10 years ago became a rant—always constructive and never angry—which is probably why it has stayed with me all these years.
In fact, 5 years ago, Perry Marshall decided to invite me and John on a call which he recorded for posterity—and he titled it, “How to Galvanize Your Audience with a Pulse Pounding Rant.”
I learned so much from that conversation that I chose the video interview as part of my welcome series to these Sunday blog posts…and if you missed that post and the video you can check it out here.
I am not living in the past on this subject bringing up quotes and videos from 5+ years ago…in fact everything in this updated post is more relevant today with AI taking over the copywriting world.
It’s worth revisiting. Carlton’s insight, “rants”…along with some concrete examples of how it plays out on the marketing and copywriting battlefield.
Rants involve injecting your personality (on steroids) into what you say and write…which is one antidote for writing “anyhow copy” (i.e. boring, mundane, not readable).
Or only relying on AI rather than using it as a (rocket fuel) starting point.
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).
In that rant disguised as a conversation 10 years ago, 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.
ChatGPT wasn’t even a gleam in his eye…it didn’t need to be for a sage like John.
Timeless quotes are timeless for a reason…and I will tell you what he said to me in a minute that has stayed in my brain for a decade.
A few of you have scolded me when I called myself a “copywriter wannabe” over the years…but I have gotten past that notion…with more evidence this week when I was one of the only non-copywriters invited to speak on a copywriting summit…more on that in the P.S.
I am proud to be a fundamentalist when it comes to direct response marketing…which is one way of saying that I am not a copywriter…and I am not apologizing for that.
I hope I remain relevant despite not being a copywriter.
At least a copywriting summit with some of the best copywriters in the world thinks so. 🙂
I am also not a Luddite—I know that technology will continue to move at the speed of light.
We’re living through an apocalypse of technology right now.
But no one can argue (with me anyway) that great creativity and copy, written by the best storytellers, 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 of marketing but with caveats on the latter…which John made clear to me a long time ago.
As far as today’s topic goes, the subject line refers to John’s initial share (rant) and it 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.”
John replaced “canary” with “copywriter” …which is perfect.
Now I don’t want you to think my thesis suggests we sacrifice our copywriters for the sake of saving the lives of real human beings…yes, copywriters are people too.
I assure you that no copywriters were harmed in the writing of this post.
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.
As I said previously, this is even more critical today with AI becoming omnipresent.
I received an email this week from a young copywriter lamenting that he seems to have made a big mistake choosing copywriting as a career given what’s going on with AI.
I told him to fear AI if that is all he has in his toolkit; but there is still a lot of room for heart and the human touch in everything we write.
That wasn’t cheerleading…I believe that in my soul.
We can stop the canary 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 pay close attention to if you want to know the best route through your marketing tunnel (and yes, that’s “tunnel,” not “funnel”).
OK…I admit the metaphor is too good.
At the Titans of Direct Response (TODR) 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.
See the proof in the P.S. from 25 of the best.
At TODR, 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 second “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).
Not to mention the Grand Master Canary, Gary Bencivenga, who was part of my original Mount Rushmore and who was also on stage at that same event…his final appearance as a public speaker…and he delivered a presentation for the ages.
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. ChatGPT or no Chat GPT.
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” approach.
Our founder Marty Edelston was not the expert in any one area we wrote about…but he still signed every sales letter with authority…because he was the most inquisitive man on the planet…always looking out for the Average Joe.
The way all our copywriters were able to write in his voice and create a powerful watchdog for average Americans was amazing to behold.
Like the best copywriter 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.
I talked about this concept during my interview at the upcoming copywriting summit…please read the P.S. to get free access to this awesome event.
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…then it was back to reading, researching and studying.
I would expect them to use ChatGPT if they were writing this copy today…as a starting point…but they are the copywriters in the coal mine, understanding that not everything that’s been written previously is the best they can do.
Four interesting lessons I learned watching these masters weave their stories:
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.
See Chapter 10 in my book, Overdeliver, for more about these “Intentional Dinners.”
When the experts got together in a moderated discussion those sparks always turned into the best story ideas.
Marty once brought together all 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” as the differentiator…that is, the content was “secret” too.
The secret meeting was the premise of the new control, a control that was impossible to beat for almost seven years.
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 cancer than most doctors I would talk to…especially regarding alternative treatments.
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 before he researched everything on that topic.
I was not disappointed with what he shared, the evidence being that I’m alive and kicking and will need to find something else to kill me besides prostate cancer. 🙂
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 canary…er…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 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.
Your reader must constantly be thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that” rather than, “So what?”
Sounds obvious…but is this the kind of copy you are writing or demanding?
All of 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…submitted his first draft…and Kissinger sent it back to him to improve it.
Assume for the purpose of this version of the story (this post is way too long already), 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-List copywriters usually won’t consider showing any of the first “8 versions” to a client—only to their closest confidants, peers and core feedback loops–until they have gone “Full 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.
P.S. It’s not often I get to share the stage with great copywriters unless I am hosting my own event…and when it happens, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway hit, Hamilton:
“I am not throwing away my shot!”
Jack Turk, a five-year veteran inside Titans Xcelerator and a “magician” (both literally and with copy), is hosting an online event you don’t want to miss.
And not just because it’s free.
It will blow your mind.
I’ll talk about it next week in more detail—it goes live on February 8th—but for you early adopters and quick starts, click here and reserve your seat now.
Hope to see you there with 25 of my closest friends and speakers….mostly copywriters who may be wondering why I’m there…but I know. 🙂
Lots of canaries are leaving their coal mines to show up at this one.
P.P.S. This will be a busy week on another front…on Wednesday, January 31st, my partner Chris Mason (with an assist from me) will be holding his second “Profit Partnering Workshop.”
It will be two hours of interactive conversation and learning…my Titans Xcelerator members can attend for free, so if you attend, you will get the added bonus of exposure to the best and brightest, and most giving, marketers and copywriters on the planet while you receive top-notch instruction on how to create “deals for a lifetime.”
Deals that are profitable while always keeping integrity front and center.
This is not about a bunch of “deal hacks” or “short term partnerships” …this is about real collaboration techniques…including multiple ways to create compensation where both sides will be equally pleased…all for fun and profit. 🙂
We could have called it the “Lifetime Value Collaboration Workshop”…maybe we are due for a name change…although “Profit Partnering” is more catchy.
And…if you want to join Titans Xcelerator before next Wednesday, you will be able to attend this workshop at no additional charge…plus free admission to ALL subsequent events and workshops I host…in addition to receiving any of the products I sell at a 50% discount.
That’s the tip of the iceberg if you join Titans Xcelerator…which is the best value in masterminds anywhere.
It’s a de facto Board of Advisors and a marketing insurance policy…and more.
Membership has its privileges.
Either way you need to be there.
Can’t wait to see you!