Ideas are irritating.
Sometimes they’re right there in your face, shouting at you like an arrogant teenage kid who thinks they know best…
Other times they’re nowhere to be seen, like your broke mate Steve who’s always in the toilet when it’s his round at the bar.
I’ll tell you what…
From now on, let’s boycott ideas.
Who needs them anyway?
Well. Er. Hmmm. That’s the problem.
I DO need them. And so do you.
If you want to be a top, TOP copywriter the one thing you’ll need in abundance – more than any other skill, in fact – is the ability to come up with good IDEAS.
They are at the root of all good copy.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you: without a strong idea backing it up, any piece of copy will be limp, full of waffle and ultimately a failure (or a bomb as it’s known in the trade).
Whether it’s a 24-page direct-response sales letter or a three line PPC advert, it needs an idea behind it or it’s going to suck.
I think most proven copywriters will admit; the ability to come up with good ideas can cover almost any other flaw you might have as a writer.
Can’t spell so good? Don’t worry, that’s what spellcheck is for.
Not too hot on grammar? Who cares, read your copy aloud or get someone to read over it for you.
Struggle to edit yourself? Waffling isn’t ideal but a thumb over each sentence will show you which ones aren’t necessary and they’re easily deleted.
But here’s the catch…
If you can’t think up new ideas… you’ve got a major problem and you need to fix it ASAP.
Quite simply it’s a matter of balance: if you want something new to come OUT of your brain, you’ve got to put something new IN.
You see, your brain is like Audrey II from The Little Shop of Horrors: it demands to be fed.
Or for a less freaky – but still weird – image, imagine it’s like Short Circuit demanding ‘input’.
Despite what some people will have you believe, I just don’t think ideas come out of nowhere. No. I’m sorry. It’s nice to imagine they drawback the curtain and sexily saunter into the room… but no.
Ideas are like those new shops you suddenly notice have opened. You can’t remember seeing the premises being renovated or new signs being put up – just one day it wasn’t there and today it is. But just because you didn’t notice the work being done doesn’t mean it wasn’t.
Ideas are definitely built.
Only problem is they’re built in your subconscious (which is why you don’t see them being built) and it’s difficult – no scratch that – it’s IMPOSSIBLE to know exactly which raw materials you need to build them.
Therefore you need as many different raw materials as you can get your hands on.
The good news is: anything is useful, from high-brow literature to crappy reality television.
In fact, the one thing I would recommend when it comes to feeding your brain with the raw material you need to subconsciously build ideas is this:
Consume equally as much that has nothing to do with copywriting as with what does.
So sure, read Cialdini’s Influence and by all means read whatever colourfully designed paperback the Heath brothers have on the market at the moment…
And yes, as any good copywriter worth their salt will advise, you should read one sales letter a day (or at least one a week) to stay on top of your game.
But don’t stop there…
To give you an idea of how much random stuff you need to consume to come up with new ideas, here’s what raw material I credit with helping me write my two most recent sales letters.
Three graphic novels: one a biography of Fidel Castro, one an account of Freud’s most famous patient (The Wolfman) and one about the famous flapper girl Kiki of Montparnasse.
Three fiction books: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa and Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem.
Two non-fiction books: How Music Works by David Byrne and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (strictly I was actually re-reading this).
In honesty I’ve read about five sales promotions in full: one oldie by Bill Bonner and another by Mark Ford (Michael Masterson), one of my own and two newer ones by friends, one that flew and one that bombed. Oh, and the packs I’ve worked on with my own junior copywriters.
I’ve watched four films: Wreck-It Ralph and Despicable Me, which are both obviously children’s films; Scenes from a Mall, which was a favour Woody Allen must have owed someone and The Squid and the Whale, about a literary couple going through a divorce.
I’ve also been intermittently re-watching the Sopranos, strangely watching a reality television in the UK called Got To Dance, which aims to find the best dancer in the country (and is actually quite good) and I’ve been to see a couple of games of football, in varying divisions.
And finally I’ve been listening to new records by My Bloody Valentine, A$AP Rocky and the Deftones.
Sounds tiring, right?
Especially when you consider that during my consumption of all this random raw material I also spent a week in Amsterdam, where I visited the Rijksmuseum and the slightly less salubrious Hemp museum.
All in all that’s just over a month’s worth of input into my brain and obviously that’s not counting the stuff that I picked up from interacting with people on a day-to-day basis, talking in the pub over a few pints and catching up on phone and email.
I don’t list all this stuff to try to impress you, instead I want to illustrate my point: it’s a LOT of random raw material.
But just think what all that is doing in my mind…
Take a detail I read about how Fidel Castro could have been killed before any of his revolutionary business if it wasn’t for one sympathetic soldier sending him to a public prison…
Think how that might interact with watching a surprisingly emotional performance by a Canadian dancer in Got to Dance.
How – or even if – this information will appear directly in a sales letter, we simply do not know.
The detail about Castro could influence a passage about chance, perhaps, and how small decisions have huge consequences.
The dancer might inspire a passage about ignoring what others think and following your dreams.
What we do know is that my brain now has a vast resource of raw material to delve into and potentially build from.
Once you’ve fed your brain, as a copywriter, you must trust it to do its work.
Yes there are exercises you can do to tease out ideas and by consciously separating the left and right sides of your brain you can encourage new thoughts – perhaps I’ll cover them another time.
But ultimately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in writing so much copy over the years is that the ability to come up with new ideas is fundamental to your success as a copywriter…
And in turn, the one thing that any copywriter of any level must do to develop and maintain that ability, is to always keep feeding your brain with a vast variety of raw materials.
I hope you take this thought on board…
I hope this article may even contribute to your own raw material…
And I hope you have many new and breakthrough ideas throughout your copywriting career.