If you work in copywriting, there’s probably a copy of The Copywriter’s Handbook somewhere near you…
Maybe it’s in that drawer you’ve not checked for a while… or hidden on the shelf between the Ogilvy, Hopkins and Schwartz… heck, it might be right next to you, acting as a coaster.
Point is: this book is everywhere.
And so it should be.
You see, its author Robert W. Bly – or Bob, as he’s better known – is one of the most respected copywriters working in the industry today.
Along with giants such as Clayton Makepeace, Gary Bencivenga and Paul Hollingshead… Bob Bly is responsible for many of the most successful direct response pieces that are circulating around the world today.
I’ve seen him speak in the US numerous times and he’s always full of insight, sharing practical nuggets that you generally don’t get from most stage speakers.
I caught up with him over email recently to find out what makes him tick, which writers influenced him and to discuss whether hope is a stronger emotion than fear.
Here’s what we spoke about:
AGC: A lot of people have an image of copywriters as lazy hacks firing off a few sentences before shuffling into the nearest bar, where they settle in to complain how difficult it is overcoming procrastination. But you blow that image out the water, right?
BB: Certainly. I have to be at my PC in my home office. I am not mobile. I despise writing on laptops and cannot write in airports, Starbucks, etc.
AGC: And you run a pretty tight routine, too?
BB: Yes, I work from around 6am to 6pm Monday through Friday.
Morning and early afternoon are for the heavy lifting of writing copy for clients; later in the day I relax writing stuff for my info marketing business and my articles and books.
AGC: It’s interesting that you refer to “writing stuff for your info marketing business” as “relaxing”. I get what you mean; I spend a lot of my supposed ‘downtime’ working on part-time projects that anyone outside of writing would think the same as my actual job. Do you think that’s something common in successful writers: that you spend your spare time writing as well your ‘work’ time?
BB: In my case it is that I don’t have a lot of other interests. Writing copy for clients is my day job and my bread and butter. And it’s the hardest thing I do. Writing copy for my info marketing business is my vocation, though we could live nicely off it alone, and it is easy lifting for me, as is writing essays, columns, articles, and my nonfiction books – over 80 published to date.
AGC: So, who’s your biggest influence in the industry? Past or present?
BB: David Ogilvy.
AGC: Ha. If I had a pound for every time that name came up! What do you think made him such a massive influence?
BB: Because although it is common today, back then it was rare for a major Madison Avenue ad guy to make sales and not creativity or cleverness the priority.
AGC: Despite his love for direct response, Ogilvy’s remembered most for his work in the indirect world. What copy medium do you prefer writing for – online, DM campaigns, television, etc?
BB: Like you I am a direct response copywriter. I prefer direct mail, online sales letters, and e-mail marketing. Also enjoy direct response print ads.
AGC: So what’s the one piece of copy that you wish you’d have written?
BB: The famous ad for the Institute of Children’s Literature “We’re Looking for People to Write Children’s Books.”
AGC: I love how the opening paragraph of that piece establishes the demand so immediately. A potentially huge objection is just smashed to pieces right there. Of course, that piece is a great example of offline copywriting. These days you’d likely find long copy like that online. Do you think there are any major differences between writing copy for online or off?
BB: The differences are important but mostly minor. The essence of copy is the same online and offline. The biggest difference is the ability to have video online.
AGC: I agree. The guiding principles remain the same. And naturally, online or off, it really comes down to targeting the emotions of your reader. Do you think there are certain emotions that are more effective?
BB: Hope, benevolence, fear, greed.
AGC: Interesting that you put hope before fear and greed there. Chance? Or do you think hope can be more effective than the somewhat more cynical classics?
BB: One very famous health writer whom I cannot name says he has tested hope vs. fear a zillion times. Every amateur who writes health dives into fear, but what the consumer wants is hope.
AGC: That’s very interesting. A slightly more technical question, but one I always like to ask: if you had to pick five words that you always had to use in every piece of copy, what would they be?
BB: You, free, now, new, today.
AGC: A good selection. Especially that “you”. It’s an obvious thing; addressing the reader in second person is so important. Yet it’s a mistake most new writers make, always writing I this, I that. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made, which since influenced the way you write?
BB: My first few years I primarily wrote copy for audiences I knew well (engineers, technical managers) and so did not have to ask my clients much about their market.
When I broadened into other areas, I realised that my clients often understood their target market much better than I did, and so I now spend about as much time understanding the market as I do the product.
AGC: Outside the industry, who’s had the biggest influence on your writing?
BB: Samm Sinclair Baker.
AGC: I’ve not come across him much before. But he wrote a lot of self-help stuff, right? What was it about him that had such an effect on you?
BB: He thought the reader was so important that when writing a book, he would flip through magazines until he found photos of people whom he thought represented his ideal reader. He would then cut them up and tape them to the wall so he was always glancing at them as he wrote the book, which he wrote as if speaking to them.
AGC: I like that. A very literal way of imagining an ideal reader! Talking of books, what’s your favourite book on copywriting?
AGC: A classic. And outside of copy?
AGC: You know, I’ve not read nearly as much John Irving as I should’ve done. Garp was great too, and I’ve been meaning to read Until I Find You for a while now. A trip to the bookshop is in order. And in the meantime, I’ll say thank you, Bob.
BB: No problem.
AGC: One last question that I like to ask everyone I speak to: imagine you’re the last guy speaking at copy seminar and everyone has heard everything by now, what’s the one piece of advice you’d offer?
BB: Stop studying copywriting already and start actually writing copy for clients or your own products.
AGC: Ha. I like it. And there you go, dear Reader… Bob has spoken. Get gone from here and get busy writing!