A Conversation with the Legendary Copywriter Gary Bencivenga Part I


In this special interview issue …

Welcome, Business-Builder!

If the thought of an extended interview with Gary Bencivenga doesn’t already have you quivering with anticipation, you are obviously in desperate need of a quick course in direct response marketing lore.

Three decades ago, when I was just beginning my journey in this fascinating business, eagerly devouring everything by John Caples, David Ogilvy, and Dan Rosenthal I could lay my hands on, Gary Bencivenga had already served a personal internship with each one of them.

When I was barely scraping by as a freelancer – writing ads for water heaters and local banks and dreaming about breaking into the super-lucrative financial publishing business – Gary ruled the roost, writing one blindingly brilliant control after another for the biggest mailers in the industry.

Gary doesn’t know it, of course, but in a very real way, he was my mentor. I spent a fortune I didn’t have at the time subscribing to every publication he promoted just to make sure I got samples of his promotion packages.

Whenever one of Gary’s inspired promotions arrived in my mailbox, it was a red-letter day: Like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day all rolled into one. Studying those Bencivenga controls taught me more – and made me more money – than all the books by all the great masters who had gone before combined!

So let’s dispense with hype and horsesh*t: Right now, the Internet is crawling with charlatans claiming to be the greatest copywriter alive – and then urging you to pay them a fortune for their books and courses. Many are complete frauds – scam artists who have never had a single hot control for a major mailer – looking to make a quick buck off of you.

Other self-proclaimed experts really have made millions writing copy – most of it aimed at selling their own books, courses and conferences, but rarely if ever competing against top writers in the real world.

Only a handful of copywriters in our generation have ever competed at anywhere near Gary Bencivenga’s level over the long haul. And if our little fraternity held an election today, Gary would be unanimously elected King. Gary showed us the way and we worship the ground he walks on.

And as a bonus, Gary is the nicest, sweetest, most humble, and the most generous guy you could ever hope to meet.

Yeah, I admit it: I genuinely love Gary. I want to marry him and have ALL his babies.

… So as you can imagine, it was an absolute thrill to spend a full 90 minutes picking his massive brain for ways to help you get bigger winners more often.

Here’s how it went …

  • USP Heresy: Why your obsession with the “Unique Selling Proposition” could be lowering your response …
  • Winning the Mind Game: How to quickly and easily program your mind to automatically create grand-slam ads for you …
  • No Pain, No Gain! The painful (and enormously profitable) secret for honing your sales copy to razor sharpness – and driving response rates through the ever-lovin’ roof!
  • “Yeah, Sure!” The two most dangerous words in your prospect’s mind – and the single best way to neutralize them …
  • The New Magalog: The next great direct response format breakthrough is already here – are you making the most of it?
  • Beyond Benefits: Why prospects don’t give a hoot about what you think you’re selling … and what to offer them instead to drive response rates sky-high …
  • And way too much more to list here!

Clayton: Hi Gary, I really appreciate you doing this.
Gary: I like doing this. Especially with somebody as knowledgeable and somebody I respect as much as you. So this should be fun.
Clayton: That’s awfully nice. I spent some time on the phone this morning with Carline. Did she send you the picture of the two of you?
Gary: Yes, I looked at it about a half hour ago. What a beautiful picture. I just wrote her a little note back. I said, “Thanks for the photo,” and I just wondered how you came by it because you weren’t at the meeting.
Clayton: No. Carline is or was one of my copy cubs. I kind of got her started in the business.
Gary: She’s fantastic.
Clayton: She is – I have her booked up for the next two years with one of my clients. You were doing mostly freelance when you were really active. What I’ve done more of lately is to pick up a client and get involved in all aspects of his marketing and then bring in other copywriters to get both acquisition packages done for them and also back-end promotions.
Gary: That makes a lot of sense, Clayton. I know that some major clients now are starting to pay royalties just for those who do the copy chiefing.
Clayton: Right. It’s cool because I get to bring in more copywriters and bring in more people and do less of that opening the vein and bleeding on the page.
Gary: I wish I had thought of this idea. I’d have more blood in my veins. That’s really a smart way to go. I guess you have to be very careful, Clayton, about who you decide to bring in on a project because you don’t want extra work trying to untangle a mess rather than fine tuning a few things.
Clayton:
That’s true. Quite often, you find a writer doesn’t work out and so you don’t return to that writer and end up writing it yourself. But other times, you wind up finding these little gems. It’s how I found Parris Lampropoulos and Carline and Bob Hutchinson and Kent Komae.
Gary: Oh my goodness, you have a better farm system than the Yankees.
Clayton: Well, I’ve struck out a few times, too.
Gary: The names you’ve mentioned are stars.
Clayton:

They’re all doing quite well. That’s gratifying. As you know — and I think we’re of one mind about this — one of the most rewarding things you can do is to help younger writers get going.

What are you doing now? I know that you’re semi-retired but I suspect you still have lots of irons in the fire.

Gary:

Yes I do. I really don’t take any client work anymore, with the one exception of a food and wine newsletter that I’ve become a partner in. That’s just been a lot of fun. My wife and I are active in helping a charity for disabled children and we throw a big Hamptons food and wine party every year.

During that first event, we met somebody named David Rosengarten who is a TV chef and has a newsletter. And he said, “Gee, well, I’ve helped you with your charity event, can you just take a look at my newsletter?” And I said to myself, “Oh, another guy with another newsletter. They all think it’s so easy.”

But I read the newsletter and just fell in love with it. David is a brilliant writer. In my view, he’s the world’s best food and wine writer. He’s so colorful and just makes the subject come alive.

As things wound up, I became a partner in the marketing part of his business and that’s one thing I’m doing now. So we’re having a lot of fun hanging out with great chefs at their restaurants, having a lot of wine and traveling and eating a lot of great food and it’s all part of business research. So it’s a lot of fun.

Clayton: Cool! Why don’t we go ahead and get started with the “official” part of our interview? Let’s begin by having you tell us a little bit about your background, your family life, childhood, growing up.
Gary:

I was born in 1946 in Brooklyn. It was a very fascinating time and interesting place to be because Brooklyn really had been a bedroom community to New York City — Manhattan. Just on my street, for example, I’d say, counting both sides of the street, one block, there were maybe 12 apartment houses at least six stories high with anywhere from 50 to 100 families in each one.

As the baby boom really exploded, just on my one little block, there were literally hundreds of kids and every block for miles in each direction had the same situation. So Brooklyn was just teeming with kids my own age of every kind of background you could imagine. From hoodlums and gangs to kids who would ace a perfect score on their SAT when they grew up, and everybody in between. You got to know and interact with just about every personality imaginable.

On our floor in my apartment building, next door to us there was a rabbi with his family. On the other side of us was a man who was an investigative journalist for the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. In an apartment on the same floor was a gypsy woman who always wore a kerchief and would bring us strange concoctions when one of the children was sick.

It wasn’t a melting pot — it was a melting vat. And when you were swimming around in this great soup, you couldn’t help but pick up the flavors and seasonings of many other people and cultures and backgrounds. It made me tremendously curious about life, and I think that’s a trait that any writer really benefits from, being curious. I think it was Ezra Pound, the poet, who penned the line, “Curiosity. Advice to the young, curiosity.”

Larry King grew up in that same environment, not too many blocks away from where I lived. Living among so many people instills in you a curiosity about anybody that you meet. Like Larry King does on his show, he can be interested in a person from any type of background and find very interesting questions to ask. That’s a great trait to have as a copywriter.

Clayton: It sounds too like you were fairly outgoing to have met and spent time and actually experienced all of these different people.
Gary:

Yes, I guess so. You could not help but be outgoing when there’s so many people around you. During World War II, not many apartments were built in New York City — which was also true of most of the country because of the war effort.

My parents were very lucky to have landed our apartment when they got married. It was a two-room apartment, just a kitchen and a bedroom for four people.

So you had to be outgoing because you couldn’t spend much time inside, in such a tiny apartment. We were out on the sidewalks and on the stoops and playing in parks most of our young lives.

Clayton: What did your dad do?
Gary:

He worked for the New York City Parks Department. He came of age in the Great Depression and felt there was nothing better than a secure city job. So he took a job at the New York City Parks Department. He loved working with flowers and bringing beautiful greenery to the city.

But he also had a great knack with words and he was an amateur copywriter. And one of the things that led me into becoming a copywriter was just seeing how my dad would always enter these contests — 50 words or less on why you like a particular product. He got really good at winning these contests. He created some great slogans. For example, he penned, “If it’s Borden’s, it’s got to be good.” For Gimbel’s Department Store, he wrote, “From pianos to thimbles, you’ll find it at Gimbel’s.” The most famous one that he ever wrote was for Rice Krispies, “The cereal with that snap, crackle and pop.”

Now, he wouldn’t win much for these prizes. There was one contest that he won when he was young, in the Great Depression. He won $5,000 during the depths of the Great Depression, which really helped his family stay afloat for a while. But for these much more famous slogans he would win relatively minor prizes. This was his hobby. He would collect all the box tops and send them in with his 50 words or less slogan and very often would win.

He didn’t create the cartoons for Snap, Crackle and Pop; that came later from Kellogg’s ad agency, Leo Burnett. But he did write those words for one of these 50 words or less contests.

Clayton: Amazing! It sounds like your future was pretty much predetermined.
Gary:

In an odd way it was. TV started becoming available in households in the 1950s and I started watching commercials. I was just attuned to them because my dad was always talking about advertising and his latest slogan.

Now when I tried to get into copywriting, my first job was in direct response. I really wanted to wind up doing TV advertising, but the only opening I could get into was in the direct response department at Prentice Hall. And I thought, “Well that’s a start and I’ll get my feet wet here and eventually migrate over to the more glamorous world of TV advertising” — which still has never happened, after 40 years.

It was funny when you mentioned that my future was set. The first assignment I got from my copy chief, he said, “Write a letter about this book.” It was a biology teachers’ guide. They would sell these books by mail order to the educational market, to the self-improvement market, and so on and this was my first assignment. For each chapter I wrote a slogan. Not knowing any better, I just imitated what my father might do. And the copy chief said, “What’s with these slogans? This is not how you sell.” He had to educate me about the difference between sloganeering and writing direct marketing copy, which was my start. Since then, I’ve never gotten out of the direct response department.

Actually, there is a big difference in the different worlds of advertising. Most people don’t understand the reason why much TV advertising is like it is. Or the reasons why slogans and brand image advertising are more important. Or even the theory of the USP, the Unique Selling Proposition, which was initially created to create better TV advertising.

With TV advertising, the point of sale is far removed from the exposure of the advertising to the audience. So if you’re watching a commercial on 60 Minutes on a Sunday evening, you might not get to the store until Thursday, so you have to have a mnemonic device or something very powerful embedded in your mind so when you do see that product on the shelf, you’ll remember the commercial.

We in direct marketing don’t have such a heavy burden of having the sales separated by time and place. We can close the sale right on the spot. So much of what works in TV advertising — namely mnemonic devices, or USP, which focuses on one reason to buy — really doesn’t apply to direct marketing.

I know this sounds like heresy, but I’d much rather have in a good direct mail package three or four or 10 good reasons to buy, than to have to sacrifice nine of them in favor of the one USP. The USP really can be misapplied to direct marketing where you have the luxury of closing the sale on the spot and can give one dominant reason to buy but also seven or eight other reasons. You don’t have to abide so religiously to a single Unique Selling Proposition.

Clayton:

Our 24-page magalogs would be pretty short if we focused on just one selling proposition.

Going back just a little bit, tell me about school. Did you have the experience of others recognizing writing ability or salesmanship in you at a young age?

Gary:

No, not really. I didn’t seem to excel much in school. I did go to Catholic school for most of my school years. My Catholic school was very good about drumming in the basics. We didn’t have music appreciation or drama appreciation. What we did have, though, was a constant focus on what makes good sentence structure and basic arithmetic and later algebra. So it was those basics — how to construct a sentence, how to diagram a sentence — which, at least in my experience, gave great understanding of how sentences should be built and how paragraphs should be built on strong sentences and how whole essays eventually could be built on the same very rational and logical structure. So that did help a lot.

My dad and mom really couldn’t afford to send me to college after high school. So I had the choice of finding some blue collar work, like most of the other relatives who had come in generations before. And I really wasn’t sure. I knew I wanted to do something with writing because I seemed to have an aptitude for it and, as you pointed out, an exposure to advertising because of my dad’s involvement with it.

I got a job writing copy during the day and I went to college at night. It took me eight long years to get through college at night, but I did. The thing I’m most proud of my whole life is just hanging in there for eight years of college at night, though the degree never really did much for me at all. It really didn’t count because eight years into a copywriting career I really knew what I wanted to do with my life. But I’m proud of just having had that persistence. Maybe a thousand times during those eight years of going to night school, I would say, “Why am I doing this? I’m not even interested in these courses. I’ve got a term paper, I’ve got exams to study for, I have a young family and they need attention, I have a full-time job and I’m taking work home from that. What am I
doing this for?”

But I just kept hanging in, saying, “I committed myself to that and I’m going to do it and I’m going to see it through.” That habit has stood me very well through the years. Once I know I make a commitment to something, it’s going to be very hard to stop me. I attribute it to that experience of just developing enough persistence to get a college degree in eight years of night school.

From that I really am a believer in that old aphorism that your thought becomes your action —your action becomes your habit, your habit becomes your character, and your character becomes your destiny.

I had found that whenever I wanted to develop something, whether it’s a habit of becoming a better copywriter in some way or just some other type of self-improvement, this line of thinking really helps.

Maybe I’m jumping ahead here, but I had really a great leap in my development as a copywriter when a famous writer whom you know, Daniel Rosenthal — I worked with Dan for a while — introduced me to the book Think and Grow Rich. I was learning my craft very well until then, but I had never really been opened up to these ideas about how to enhance your own mind power for any reason including making your own mind work better. So that book was really a turning point in my life as well because it opened me up to many other self-improvement books.

The secret’s right there in the title, Think and Grow Rich. It starts with your thoughts, and then your thoughts become actions, and your actions become habits, and your habits become character, and character becomes destiny. So that line of reasoning really has helped me throughout my life.

Clayton: What subject was your degree in?
Gary: I have a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.
Clayton: Great. How did you come into contact with the great David Ogilvy?
Gary:

I have had the privilege of working with some really top people in advertising. But I probably learned the most from John Caples. After Caples, I probably learned most from my first several copy chiefs — names that nobody would ever know. They were really wizened copy chiefs who had seen thousands of split run tests and could save you a lifetime of learning.

The very first one gave me probably the best advice I have ever gotten. He said, “You’re new to this field, here’s how you’re going to learn. On each assignment, I’m going to tell you to go to the files. I’m going to tell you to bring out one handful of ads that have worked like gangbusters. Then I’m going to tell you the book titles and files of ads that have bombed. I want you to look at the ones that bombed and don’t do anything that they’re doing. I want you to look at the ones that were blockbusters and try to assimilate much of what they do into your new piece, and that’s how we’re going to take every assignment.”

It was great advice and even to this day when I have a young writer or somebody who wants to get into the field and wants to know the best thing they can do, I tell them to do pretty much the same thing. I also recommend that they get themselves a great mentor who will review their work, such as I imagine you would do with the copywriters you work with.

Other than that, the best way to learn is by just going to the files or, if you don’t work at an ad agency yet, signing up to receive the publications and offers of great direct marketers like Agora Publishing, Phillips, Healthy Directions, Rodale, Boardroom, KCI — the usual gang of suspects. And before you know it, you’ll be getting a free course in the best advertisements that are being written today.

That was what my first copy chief taught me. I eventually wound up at BBD&O — Batten Barton Durstine and Osborn. Somebody once said that agency’s name sounded like a man with a suitcase falling down a flight of stairs. BBD&O is where John Caples worked for most of his life. I worked in the direct marketing department there and got to know him.

He was a great teacher and a very congenial, kindly man. And you can pick up so much from reading his books. Even today I like to reread his scriptures of direct marketing. It’s like the Old Testament. You just read it. It never gets tired. It’s just so fresh and powerful.

In fact, I was having lunch with David Deutsch once — great copywriter — and he said, “You know, I try to keep up on my craft and instead of reading maybe 100 books, Gary, what I think I should have done with much of my learning time is read 10 great books 10 times each.” I thought that was a very trenchant observation because books by Caples and Ogilvy and Claude Hopkins, those are the ones you really need to read more than anybody else.

After working with John Caples I got to work at David Ogilvy’s company, Ogilvy & Mather, in their direct marketing division. And that’s your original question: how I got to work with David. I never really worked with him. It wasn’t like John Caples, where I knew him personally.

David was the head of a giant agency, probably one of the biggest four or five agencies in the world and was very fond of direct marketing. He would gather all the copywriters in big groups and teach us the principles. Or we’d have big assemblies around the holidays, and he would tell us what campaigns he thought were great from the various departments at the agency.

In that way I learned from him. But it wasn’t like he would come into my cubicle and put his arm around me and go over my copy sentence by sentence with me. It was much more being in the army with a great general at its command and learning all you can because you never knew when he would pounce upon your ad as one of those he was going to analyze in front of the group. You had to always be on your toes.

Clayton: What were the lessons that you learned from Ogilvy?
Gary:

Ogilvy said that he and Rosser Reeves, who were two of the greatest copywriters in general advertising of the 20th century, learned more from John Caples than anyone else. More people know David Ogilvy than Rosser Reeves today because of his books. But both Ogilvy and Reeves said that they learned more from John Caples than anyone else and they shamelessly stole from him and most of what they espoused came indirectly or directly from him. So there is that lineage of masters teaching other masters.

Many of the lessons that Ogilvy would preach came directly from John Caples — mainly that your headline is 80% of the sale in space ads. And I make that distinction because sometimes people mistakenly apply that to direct mail. In direct mail, Ogilvy said, your format is even more important than your headline. And I have certainly found that to be true as a magalog almost always outpulls an envelope with the same headline on it.

So that was one great lesson in space advertising: your headline is 80% of the sale. And your format is equally as important in direct mail

Other lessons — Ogilvy loved to write with charm. He said, “You’ll never bore somebody into buying something,” so he would fill his copy with charm. He taught this mostly by example. If you ever read any of the great ads written by David Ogilvy, you’ll see they’re very tightly written. He wrote a whole series of ads to help sell clients on joining his ad agency — “How to Write Advertising that Sells,” “How to Write Food Advertising that Sells,” “How to Write Travel Advertising that Sells,” and so forth. He loved, as did the nuns in my Catholic school, nouns and verbs. He wasn’t big on adjectives and fairly despised adverbs, such as “very.” Almost always you can dispense with the word “very.”

He wrote tightly written ads that were charming and very interesting. He would do great research on whatever product he was selling and come up with fascinating facts about it. He wanted his ads as interesting as articles and he wrote them that way and expected his copywriters to do the same.

Clayton: Arthur Johnson told me that one of his biggest secrets is understanding that the ad needs to be entertaining to a degree. To keep a person reading for 24 pages.
Gary:

Yes, that’s true. However, it can also be a trap. Rosser Reeves, who wrote and theorized about TV commercials, warned about “vampire video,” where sometimes the entertaining element can run away with the ad and you come away from the commercial remembering the joke, but not the product. For example, take the famous campaign for Alka-Seltzer, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” It was one of the most entertaining campaigns, but it turned out to be one of the worst campaigns ever for Alka-Seltzer because after they really went gung ho with it, sales plummeted.

As you know, we have a much stronger discipline in our work, so entertainment has to be used carefully. You have to leaven in just the right amount because you can’t let it run away with itself. While a touch of entertainment, like a pinch of salt, can add flavor, the main meal in advertising is well-targeted information of great interest to your prospect, which has a natural connection to what you’re trying to sell. Many ads try to be entertaining with extraneous elements, which really don’t lead to a closed sale. But if you can make your copy interesting with thoughts and facts that not only are extremely curiosity provoking and interesting but also help you close the sale, that’s really getting good.

Clayton: Tell me a little bit about how you became a freelancer.
Gary:

After working at the Ogilvy agency, I was ready to go out on my own and try to make some big bucks as a freelancer. I had heard of other copywriters doing very well and I received a call from an executive headhunter who said, “Gary, I know you’re thinking about going out on freelance but there’s this little ad agency up in New Rochelle, New York” — which is a suburb of New York City, about 45 minutes northeast — “that is looking for somebody just like yourself. Somebody who knows direct marketing and worked at Ogilvy, or knows the Ogilvy style of advertising. Why don’t you go see them even though you’re thinking of going out and doing freelance?”

So I went to see them mainly because of a letter that Dan Rosenthal, the agency’s owner, had written to this headhunter. It said, to “try and persuade somebody who really knows how to write salesmanship in print because if they do, we treat the copywriters at our agency like salespeople. In fact, our top copywriter here this past year has made” — this is in today’s money — “$750,000 a year.”

It wasn’t that high, it was about one tenth of that but that’s what inflation has done. This was in the early 1970s. So at that time a salary of $75,000 was equal to about $750,000 today. That’s what Dan Rosenthal was making just from commissions on his advertising.

I wasn’t making anywhere near that, so I thought maybe I should see these folks. If nothing else, maybe I could freelance for them. But Dan convinced me to join him by saying, “No, it’s not really in your best interest to go into a freelance career yet. Why don’t you hang out with us? We are applying methods of salesmanship in advertising that’ll go way beyond what most people have even discovered yet and you’ll have a chance to make some really good money.”

So I did go with Dan and I lasted there for about five years. I became a copy chief and a creative director and then he wanted to have a whole new path in his life. He wanted to move to California. But our copy department was in New Rochelle, and he tried to make that work for a while but it was very cumbersome to get copy through a department that was half in New York and half on the west coast. We didn’t have email then, I don’t even think we had fax machines. We had a very rough form of a fax machine …

Clayton: The old Qwip machines?
Gary:

Yeah that’s what it was. I couldn’t remember the name. One page, long time to send, and for some reason a horrendous garlic smell oozed from the machine.

Dan and I along with several other good copywriters, worked together for about five years. It was sort of like the Beatles, we had a great team for about five years, and then it was just time to go out on our own, in our own direction, so that’s when I went out on my own.

It was about 1977 and by then I really knew what I was doing. I had spent about 10 years, prior to teaming up with Dan, learning from these great copy chiefs at Ogilvy & Mather and a lot from John Caples so I had a lot of street-smart copywriting tips.

And with Dan, we formulated a system that was really very powerful, and with those two things together — we virtually could not be beaten. We took out an ad that said, “Announcing an ad agency that guarantees to beat your best ad by at least 10% or your pay us nothing.”

We were so cocky that we even said, “You test us and if we don’t win, not only won’t you have to pay us anything, we will pay for whatever you spent to test us. In other words, if you take out an ad in The Wall Street Journal and you spend $10,000 testing our half of the test — and our half loses — we’ll give you $10,000. That’s how sure we are we’re going to win.” We got a lot of clients that way. Mainly it was due to our methodology of focusing on the key points that make direct marketing copy work.

So after that, I went out on my own and I did very well with what I learned at the agency.

Clayton: Did Dan have Silver and Gold Report at that time?
Gary:

Yes, yes. In fact, Dan was the owner of that company because we also would launch our own products as well as do work for other clients. So, sure, yes, he was the publisher of that newsletter.

We had so much success and so many opportunities because we were among the few people who knew what we were doing. We were like alchemists who could turn products into very successful businesses because of the direct marketing knowledge that we had. It wasn’t widely known, not nearly as well known as it is today.

Clayton: Can you tell me a little bit about the approach or the template that you and Dan used?
Gary:

It wasn’t so much a template, it was just applying everything very religiously that we had learned from studying Claude Hopkins and Rosser Reeves and David Ogilvy and John Caples and several other great masters of selling in print. More than anything else it was what Dan would call the “CRIT” system, which was short for Critique System.

I think you’ve worked with Dan, haven’t you Clayton

Clayton: Sure have.
Gary: I’m sure you’ve heard that word, that odious little word, “Crit.”
Clayton: Were his crits as ruthless back then as they are now?
Gary: Yes, yes.
Clayton: He’s sadistic. He takes joy in making his crits as insulting and negative as possible just for the fun of it.
Gary:

I know. I have the scars, believe me. But it was a great system. You had to be on your toes. For those who don’t know what we’re talking about, it was a system by which the writer would distribute his copy to everybody working in the ad agency — the receptionist, the account executives, the art director — anybody else who could be persuaded to read it.

Everybody would take their best crack at ripping the ad apart. Now this sounds like a devastating experience but you develop a thick skin after a while. Most of the time it would be up to you to accept or reject the criticisms that were coming back at you. All the people involved in the process would do their best to rip the copy apart, to point out holes in the argument, to say, “You’re not convincing me here, I don’t believe this for a second, this offer makes no sense,” and so forth.

Every possible mistake from grammar and spelling to psychological missteps or paragraphs that didn’t connect well, paragraphs that went on without subheads, all of it noted. Everything that could make something less readable or just annoyed anybody for any reason or just made them not want to read any more. They’d say things like, “You’re boring me here” — and that would be a comment in the middle of one paragraph. You’d distribute the work this way in the copy department which is itching to vent some of the fury that they have just been put through because they recently went through the same process.

Clayton: You nailed them last week.
Gary:

Exactly. It’s payback time. As weird and as sadistic as it sounds, it produced fantastic copy. It didn’t produce fast copy by any means because you would go through many, many drafts this way until almost everybody in the place said, “Wow, this is singing now. I’m ready to sign up for this myself.”

So it was a very cumbersome, lengthy process. Sometimes clients would be on the phone month after month yelling, cajoling, begging, “When is my copy going to be ready?” And we’d say, “It’s being worked on, it’s being worked on.” When it was finally finished, they’d have a campaign that they could run for years and outpull virtually anything else they’ve ever run unless they were very lucky beforehand.

This was the system we followed. We had a lot of knowledgeable people take out their blue pencils and just scratch out or question anything that they didn’t like. But then after a time you learned to internalize that process. You probably do it in a nicer way, Clayton — but I’m sure with the people that you mentor that you point out weak spots and shore up areas that need more proof or persuasive arguments or whatever. I’m sure you do that.

Clayton: Absolutely, and it really honestly just depends on what kind of mood I’m in.
Gary: I’m sure that’s not true. For the process to work, you have to be intellectually honest. Evaluations should not change with your mood.
Clayton: Well sometimes I look at it as a creative writing assignment, especially when the copy’s boring. Then I’ll dive in and get rather verbose with my crits. Other times, you’re right, you’re looking for credibility, you’re looking for persuasiveness, and you’re looking for specificity.
Gary: I think the biggest enemy we face today is not weak headlines or artwork. It’s the tremendous amount of clutter that you have to compete against. When you look at your email this evening, you’ve got maybe 100 emails that need attention and each one was crafted lovingly and with lots and lots of care — and you couldn’t care less. You’re just deleting each one with a very quick trigger finger. That’s an enemy that we have to face rather than going to a very receptive audience and having them judge us paragraph by paragraph. You don’t even get a hearing much of the time these days.
Clayton: You had a fantastic article in one of the early issues of Bencivenga Bullets on, if I remember correctly, the two most important words in advertising. You said, it’s not “you,” it’s not “free,” it’s “yeah, sure.”
Gary:

I gave a seminar at Rodale once. I had the good fortune to never have lost a split run test at Rodale against some very tough competition selling books for the book division. I competed against Gene Schwartz and most of the top names out there, and I never lost.

So they called me in to ask, “How are you doing this? Tell us the approach that you’re following.” So I ran through a whole list of headlines from their advertising, as well as many other examples from our daily lives. For example, what politicians promise every November — “I’m never going to raise your taxes and I’m going to give you universal health care” … “I’m going to get rid of crime in our schools.” And what does everybody say once that’s out of their mouths? They say, “Yeah, sure.”

That’s the biggest problem that most B-level copywriters face. They’re always looking for ways to increase the strength of their headline, and the easiest way, apparently, is to increase the hype or ratchet up the promise. But usually that’s going on in the wrong direction because you’re sounding more like the politician who is promising an even more undeliverable promise. Since everybody out there is looking for a way to dismiss you as quickly as they can because they’ve got 100 other messages to get through, as soon as they see an over-promising headline, that is the first permission that they have to just blow you off.

You’re usually much better with an under-promising headline. A great example that I learned in the days that I was working with Dan Rosenthal was for one of our clients who sold gold and silver coins and bullion. In this case it was an ad for silver. The headline was a famous headline that ran for many years, “Why the price of silver may rise steeply.” Thinking I was such a hot-shot copywriter, I said to Dan Rosenthal, who I believe was the author of that headline and the great, great ad that followed it, I said, “Why are you saying, ‘may rise’? You should test a headline that sounds a little stronger, a little bolder, such as ‘Why the price of silver will rise steeply.’ That way it sounds, Dan, like you believe what you’re predicting.”

So we tested my version and, of course, it bombed. It’s counterintuitive, but “Why the price of silver may rise steeply” outperformed “Why the price of silver will rise steeply” maybe by 200%. And the body copy was exactly the same for both versions. It went into why inflation and why a silver shortage is about to exert irresistible pressure under the price of silver to cause silver prices to go higher. It gave every reason why silver was going up. It was full of proof and full of facts and full of figures, plus an opportunity to send for a booklet on how you can profit on the coming rise in silver prices. As I say, it created land office business on the strength of that ad but I could never understand why “may rise” pulled so much better than the more forceful “will rise.”

But it’s because of that disbelief factor. Most investors are savvy. So as soon as you promise something that really is unknowable such as “will rise,” they know that you can’t predict the future. But when you build in a little bit of understatement, you suck them right in.

So I’ve learned to apply that principle in many, many headlines. One of my best headlines for Hume Publishing was “Get Rich Slowly.” I created an enemy out of all of the get rich quick investment courses and opportunities out there by saying, “Look, if you’re tired of all the hype, this is the course that you should be buying because if you got $2,000 to $3,000 to put aside each year, this is a course that could easily get you to the $1 million mark. It’s not going to happen in three, four or even five years, but if you want to retire with $1 million and can only put $2,000 aside in an IRA each year, this is how it’s done.”

That ad was virtually unbeatable for several years with a headline that the client didn’t even want to test, “Get Rich Slowly.” They said, “Gary, have you lost your mind? Who wants to get rich slowly?” So I said, “Look, people are so tired of ‘get rich quick,’ it’s not believable anymore.” Nobody buys without belief, so if you advertise something that can be believed, then most of the battle is already won.

Clayton: I think that’s fascinating, and I think it kind of ties into that the “Lies, Lies, Lies” package you did for Mark Skousen’s Forecasts & Strategies, which you must be tired of talking about.
Gary: No, no, not at all. Most people probably don’t even know that package but yes, you’re right…
Clayton: That is the classic of financial newsletter promotion.
Gary: Oh thank you. That was extremely successful and ran for many years.
Clayton: And it was really wonderful because there’s not even a hint of a benefit in your main headline. It simply seized on a resident emotion — the skepticism and frustration of investors who had heard it all, tried it all and were continually disappointed. And then in the deck copy, you came on with “Why we investors are sick and tired of these things that are happening to us.” And then the real payoff was, “How getting richer is the best revenge.” I’m doing that just from memory — that’s how powerful it was.
Gary: You remember it better than I do.
Clayton: My goodness, when was that?
Gary: It was the early 1990s.
Clayton: Yeah, and I still remember that headline. I can still visualize the package and the wonderful cartoons they used.
Gary: That was an example of humor actually working in copy. We took every target of anger that an investor can have — lying politicians, with a cartoon of a classic looking politician, taking an oath to the flag, and if you look closely, his fingers are crossed. And he says, “I promise never again to raise taxes.”
Clayton: And the broker in a pinstriped suit behind a desk, smoking a cigar.
Gary: And the guy from the IRS was Darth Vader. The cartoons were just wonderful and that added a little bit of that entertainment factor you were talking about before but in an appropriate way. It was part and parcel of the sale.
Clayton: There were a couple of things that I loved about that. One was the little phrase, “we investors” in the deck copy. Because it immediately got Skousen on the side of the reader, it immediately made us friends.
Gary:

That’s so true. I’m so glad you picked up on that, Clayton, because that is a great technique to use. Instead of the usual “I’m trying to sell you something,” which sort of sets up immediately in the reader’s mind a you-versus-me mentality, I found a way to shift gears by saying, “it’s you and me against these other guys.” And if you can create an enemy in your copy, that’s what happens. You set up a three-point discussion and you come around from your side of the desk to be on the reader’s side of the desk and then it’s you and the reader against the enemy that you’re railing against.

It’s a very effective psychological and copy technique to use because it takes the copywriter out of the role of trying to sell the prospect something and puts them both on the same side, as if the copywriter were a friend, consumer advisor, and helper.

Clayton:

There’s another thing about that headline that’s very instructive, especially as I look back on it now. People often wonder why Rush Limbaugh, for example, is so successful. He has no real product to sell. He doesn’t make your life better in any way. There are no benefits, really, for buying his books. But the service he provides for you is that he puts your thoughts and your feelings — assuming you’re in agreement with his politics — into words. He gives you an outlet for the emotions that you’re feeling about the things that are happening in the country. That emotional release is valuable to people, and as a result, 20 million people listen to him every week on the radio and buy his books and newsletters and so forth.

I felt that the “Lies, Lies, Lies” package did something very similar and it did it beautifully. It was one of the first-rate resident emotion packages that simply went to a group of people who had strong feelings about the subject at hand and spoke to those feelings, and by doing so, validated them. But they were actionable feelings and you were able to come back with a solution, a way to assuage that frustration in those people. I felt that was so much more powerful than simply going back to them as one more direct mail package promising huge profits.

It was wonderful and it opened the way for me and also for every other copywriter I’ve talked to, to begin thinking about how much more powerful emotions are than a mere intellectual argument in terms of making a sale.

Gary:

That’s a very astute analysis, Clayton. I think what helped me to create that package — and this is something I do before I start any assignment — was to ask, “What are we really selling?” And you try to come up with different answers to that question. We’re not really just selling a newsletter, which is 12 sheets or eight sheets of paper a month. What are we really selling? If it’s just a newsletter, everybody had always answered, “We’re selling investment tips.” But since there was so much competition from other copywriters and other publishers selling the same kind of investment tips, I reasoned if we change the answer to the question “what are we really selling?” we can open a whole new way to talk to our market.

Let’s think about it. What are we really selling when we sell a newsletter from an investment advisor who wants to advise you on the most important financial decisions of your life? Well you’re really selling a set of values, a partnership with somebody that you have to trust. The best way to come to trust somebody is to see that they do share your same values.

I call this the “Credo Technique of Copywriting.” The first issue of Bencivenga Bullets is about this technique. In fact, in that bullet I say what I believe about advertising. I believe advertising is designed to sell and not to win awards and applause. I believe you can always sell with integrity. I give the other beliefs, very strongly held beliefs that I have about advertising and that accomplishes a couple of things.

Number one, it tells what I’m about and if you have the same values, then we’re a match. So I sell you on me before I try to sell anything else. If you sell not only the end product that the advisor or the person behind the product of service is offering — whether it’s the chiropractor who’s selling his services or attorney or whoever it is — but also mention the person’s values that you also feel very strongly about, you sort of bond with them in a way that’s much more powerful than any list of how-tos or other types of bullets purely based on information. You’re bonding with them on a level of trust, which makes you different from every other person out there who is just trying to sell something because they want to sell it.

Clayton: You probably don’t remember, but in the early 1980s, you and I had a telephone conversation. I was with a company called Security Rare Coin.
Gary: Oh yeah, that’s coming back to me now, yes.
Clayton: You are my mentor, by the way.
Gary: Oh, I didn’t know. Well thank you, what an honor.

To be continued in next weeks issue …

Yours for Bigger Winners, More Often,
Clayton Makepeace Signature
Clayton Makepeace
Publisher & Editor
THE TOTAL PACKAGE

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8 Responses to A Conversation with the Legendary Copywriter Gary Bencivenga Part I

  1. Pavel says:

    Wow, finally! I found this interview. I knew it had to be somewhere on this site but nothing (including the search box) helped… until I occasionally decided to check the top menu buttons.

    … which leads btw to the conclusion that site navigation is not exactly user friendly (considering also the fact that this comment seems to be the first, after all:).

    Anyway… Bencivenga is my favorite copywriter (maybe because of psychological mindset), so this interview is a real treat. Thanks a lot!

  2. Thanx for this interview…opening my mind to be more effective copywriter.
    Thanx a lot…

  3. Joe Swopes says:

    Awesome Clayton, incredible to read the convo between two awesome writers. Dang I wish it was in audio though! I much prefer audio lol, but I read it anyway, will finish the second half later tonight.

    peace.

  4. Hidradenitis says:

    Great interview, packed with nuggets of helpful copywriting gold. I appreciate you making this available free of charge. Is there anyway to get the audio version?

  5. I came across your site by accident when trying to find out more about Gary Bencivenga.

    As a graphic designer interested in how best to communicate through – well – graphics and copy, I found this interview highly instructive and can’t wait to read the next part.

    Many, many thanks for sharing this freely.

    Jon

  6. Pingback: Por el Poder del Marketing! | Marina Escribe

  7. jim staughan says:

    I wish I had read this years ago .

  8. Mr M,

    first off, Thank you.

    second, What a refreshing mine of hardcore copywriting gold.

    Gary’s emphasis on integrity and earning trust is missing in almost everything else I’ve come across. What a counter- -intuitive notion, that of actually reducing the hype factor to increase believability. I’ve seen his bullets site before but I’ll pay MUCH closer attention now.

    Eric

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