A Conversation with
the Legendary Copywriter
Gary Bencivenga
Part 4 of 6

Dear Business-Builder,

Wendy here.

Ready to do a little more eavesdropping on Clayton’s interview with Gary Bencivenga?

I know I am. 

Today, Gary reveals an important principle that’s ignored by most marketing people.  It’s something you can put in action for yourself – and rocket your response and sales.

But enough chatter from me.  Let’s get back to the interview …


I read Rosser Reeves and Ogilvy and Caples and the rest, but without a doubt, the greatest advances in my career have come from reading you.


Thank you, Clayton. What a compliment. You have just made my day. Thank you. Considering how high you’ve carried the banner, that’s quite a compliment. Thank you.


Well, studying every one of your packages has been just eye opening for me, and I remember telling you in that conversation that one of the things that struck me was that you consistently made a friend before you asked for the sale.


I think you have to do that because people don’t buy from other people unless they believe them and unless they trust them. If you don’t sell yourself first, you’re trying to short circuit the process by just rushing to the bottom line, rushing to the close of the sale too early.

Salesmanship has changed over the years. It used to be, in the days of Elmer Wheeler and “Sell the Sizzle and Not the Steak,” the life insurance agent or the real estate broker would try to corner you and answer every objection you could raise and just out of exhaustion, the hapless prospect would buy the policy or agree to do whatever the salesman wants – buy the encyclopedias or the pots and pans that the door-to-door salesman was selling.

But you know something? You don’t see door-to-door salesmen much anymore. I haven’t seen one in years. You don’t see the Avon Ladies anymore. You don’t see life insurance agents going around door-to-door anymore. Why is that? It’s because salesmanship has changed. We’ve all been marketed to so much, we won’t stand for being manipulated that way anymore. As a prospect, you just won’t put up with it. People don’t like to have to buy because they can’t come up with a clever answer to the life insurance agent’s comeback. We’ve evolved because we’ve been marketed to so much over the last several decades. We’ve evolved from a nation of much more manipulatable prospects to tough customers and the whole nation is like that.

So if you just try to come onto people with the same old forms of salesmanship that used to work 10 to 20 years ago, they just don’t work anymore because a) you don’t have my trust; b) you don’t have my values; and c) you’re not my friend – and I’m not going to buy from you unless I first have those feelings. So you’re not going to just trick me into buying with snappy comebacks to my three or four reasons I’m not sure that I want to buy.

There’s a great movie about this called "Boiler Room," where they show how these people who used to do telephone marketing from the boiler room would have scripts with the snappiest comebacks to anything that the person might say about why they may not buy. They would try to embarrass people into making an investment over the phone. That way of selling, in most cases, has gone by the boards. It’s dying.

This is especially true in our field, where we try to sell to 1,000 or a million people at once. They could blow us off without us even knowing about it just by tossing our mail or clicking “delete.” Given that, I think that the best way to be selling anybody in the marketplace now is to win a friend first and the best way to do that is through an e-zine.

More and more, ice cold direct mail packages sent to ice cold prospects are going to fare poorly compared to promotions sent by people who have an e-zine relationship with somebody. And by that I mean an e-zine that really gives very high value as opposed to selling so much. I counsel people in all markets of goods and services to really develop a relationship with their prospects through a very valuable e-zine. Hold back on the selling. Just resist. Rein the selling in for a while. Establish a relationship of giving very valuable helpful information first and then introduce the sales later.

Even with e-zines, I get so many of them now, and I don’t even open them much anymore. I send most of them to an e-mail address I have at a place called Spam Arrest. And at Spam Arrest, I go through all my marketing-oriented e-zines and I’m sure I’m not untypical in this way. They’ll give me a listing of the latest e-mails that I have – 25 at a time – whether they’re e-zines or personal messages or whatever. And I’ll just go down and I’ll check them all to be deleted. And then I’ll uncheck maybe three that I’ll want to read, out of 25. And the others get automatically deleted when I hit the return key. I delete them all just based on the subject lines. And we all do this.

Even very top marketers have entered a place in my mind, and I’m sure in the minds of lots of others, where I automatically don’t open their e-mail anymore because I know I’m just going to be pitched something. I only open those e-zines where there’s going to be honest to goodness nuggets of information, not just another sales pitch. So most of the people out there, even with e-zine marketing, they’ve gotten the technology right but they don’t have the psychology right.

Just as you say, win a friend first and then try to sell later. It’s so much easier to sell something to somebody who you have a relationship with. So the first sale that you have to make is that relationship, not the product. You just put it so well before, you first want to make a salesperson a trusted friend rather than somebody who is just selling you a product.

Clayton: And that’s what I feel that you’ve done whether by design or just intuitively in so many of your packages. In the Skousen package, the line “We investors are fed up” was that way because friendship is quite often based on commonality. Instead of the vaunted expert touting his past successes, you just climb in the boat with the prospect. “What are we going to do with this problem?” And that’s wonderful.

And I feel that’s so much easier to do once you’ve established an e-zine relationship with your prospects. You can capture names very easily with an e-zine if you give good information and use that as a basis for growing your own list.

You’ve seen this, I’m sure, Clayton, in your work. Who do you get most of your business from? It’s not from people who are just walking in the door for the first time. It’s from clients that you have a relationship with. When they think of a new assignment, you’re probably booked up for 10 years but whether it’s you as a writer or you as the copy chief or creative director on the assignment, they don’t even have to think twice. Because they know you, they like you, they trust you, and you’ve gotten great results for them. So it’s not even a question of, “Should we use Clayton for this?” It’s, “Gee, can we get on Clayton’s schedule?”

I’m sure you’ve had that experience. And it’s the same for everybody who has sold anything over a period of time. We’ve all found that it’s much easier to sell something to somebody who’s satisfied with the relationship with you and with your past performance. And that’s one of the most important principles of marketing and yet so many people just ignore it.

So many people in the Internet marketing world just want to find that one hot product to sell, make a fortune, then find another hot product to sell in a totally different market. But business just doesn’t work that way. You really need to find a product or service from which you can get lots of repeat business because that’s the most profitable and easiest business – when people are coming back to you again and again. I’m sure that’s worked for you in your business. It has worked for me in my business. For 25 years, the same people were keeping me as busy as I could be.

Clayton: Gary, I would be fascinated to hear about your process when you’re approaching a package. Everything from the ways you identify themes or the approaches you want to address to one of the things that you just said that I think you could probably do a 500-page book on – the concept of “What are they really buying?” What are you really selling?
Gary: Right. You’re not selling grass seeds, you’re selling a greener lawn.
Clayton: You’re not selling drill bits, you’re selling holes.

Exactly right. But you can really expand that. As I was saying before, you’re not just buying a newsletter. I want to buy a relationship with somebody, one person I can trust in this investment world, where everybody else is on commission trying to sell me something. Boy, I would really appreciate a relationship with somebody who is truly objective and doesn’t have any product they’re going to sell me except their advice. That’s what I realized we were really selling with Skousen, and it’s why that package was so successful.

So if you dwell on that question more deeply than the next copywriter might, “What are we really selling?” you’d be surprised at the answers you can come up with. Major, blockbuster breakthroughs.

Clayton: I notice in a lot of your financial packages for Phillips, for example, you were selling things like simplicity or reliability, consistency, growing reliably richer and those kinds of things instead of just selling the obvious, which was the big profit.

Right, exactly. Because most people don’t put their serious money into risky, “ten bagger” opportunities. Again it gets back to knowing your market – and some of this I can elaborate on as I answer your question about the process. But it really comes from knowing your market well, as to what most people in that market believe, and if you try to exceed their level of belief, you’re going to lose them. I learned long ago that the only people who invest and who therefore are going to buy an investment newsletter are people with money.

Most people with money are probably over 50 years old because you usually need that much time to accumulate a substantial amount of money. Furthermore, they really don’t want to lose it. So they’re very risk averse, though they may like to hear about the occasional investment that goes through the roof.

Sure, there is a sub-market of people who really are into that – the way casino gamblers are red hot for that kind of information. But most investors, by and large, want a safe way to invest their nest egg, their retirement money, and they’re not going to bet it on a penny stock. They might take a flyer on a penny stock, but if you could address the main portion of their wealth, they will really reward you handsomely.

To get back to your question about my process – it’s probably a little bit unusual, but it is more encompassing than you might at first think you would hear from a copywriter.

I mentioned before about how Think and Grow Rich and similar books and tapes have influenced me. I’m probably Nightingale-Conant’s biggest customer. But I think every great achievement begins in the mind first, before it manifests itself in the material world. Think and Grow Rich – well, how do you grow rich? At first you have to start with a thought that you want and intend to grow rich, and the same holds true for a great breakthrough in a package. But let me back up for a moment to the very start of the process.

This doesn’t happen anymore because I’m not taking clients anymore, but when I was taking clients, the phone would ring and somebody would ask if I’d like to do this assignment. And I’d say, “Sounds interesting, send me everything you can on it. Let me get to know it.” And I would receive everything and go through it very carefully. I especially wanted to see the advertising that’s being used for it. In terms of the advertising, I will call upon my knowledge of the craft that I’ve developed over all these years.

What I really want to know about the advertising is whether or not I see an easy way for me to beat it. If the advertising was created by somebody like Clayton Makepeace, it’s an immediate turnoff. In fact, there are about five or six writers who I would feel that way about, and you’re certainly at the top of that list.

If Clayton Makepeace has written the advertising, and you’ve done a bang up job, but this client is just getting greedy and curious to see what somebody else can do, I’m not very interested. I’ll know right away if it’s your work, Clayton, even if you didn’t tell me you wrote it. I could usually tell. I can certainly tell if a great writer has written it and if a piece is a great piece. And if it is a great piece, I’m much less interested in competing against it. After all, why should I waste my time with a much lower likelihood of success? We’re not in this to prove how macho we are by taking on all comers. We’re in it to maximize our return on investment.

That’s like Warren Buffett. He doesn’t try to turn every wacky investment into a superstar performer. He says, “You don’t have to swing at every pitch. I’d sooner let 1,000 bad pitches pass me by at the plate – there are no balls or strikes – than swing at every pitch. I just want to swing at the one I think I can whack out of the park.”

I’m the same way. I like to see a great product suffering from really weak advertising. That’s my perfect scenario. It’s just as Warren Buffett wants to see a great investment that the rest of the world doesn’t realize is a great investment yet.

At first I would look at the advertising and the product to see how strong the product was and how strong the advertising was. In terms of the advertising, I can tell if it’s strong based on my knowledge of the craft, just all the things that we copywriters learn over time. You learn to recognize good headlines and good offers and good guarantees.

So I apply that screen to the assignment and see if I can find a toe hold somewhere. If it’s fairly well written, do I see a toe hold? Do I see someplace where I can beat it? So I’ll analyze every part of the package. Is the headline very strong or is it just fair to middling? If I can find myself coming up with something that I could pretty much realize is going to be stronger in that department, well that’s a plus.

Then I’ll look at the body copy, the bullets, the offer, the guarantee, the premium, every component in there and if I can come up with a good feeling that I can beat each one of those components, then it’s a slam dunk. Then I can beat the overall response rate because the package is nothing more than the sum of its components and if I can see my way clear to improving upon each component, then it’s a slam dunk that I’ll beat the whole thing.

So I’ll look at the advertising through that screen. I’ll also – and this is where a lot of copywriters go astray – look at the product from the point of view of my product knowledge. And this is why I think it’s so important that copywriters should specialize in certain parts of the marketplace. I don’t think there are many copywriters who can be equally successful in all areas of the market, with all different products. Especially not when there are other very well trained copywriters in every other market that they’re thinking of entering.

I’ve always been very knowledgeable about health. I’ve been a health nut for about 30 to 40 years. And, just because that’s where most of the work was, I was always into financial products. So I know those two marketplaces very well. I know what will generally sell. I know lots of tests that didn’t perform well – and that knowledge is very valuable in knowing whether this product is valuable or not. This marketplace is always changing so you have to keep up on what investors are reading now. You’ve got to know the books and newspapers that they’re reading and understand what’s on their minds now. You’ve got to keep up with what’s happening in the economy and what they’re worried about. Once you reach a certain level of knowledge, it’s fairly easy to keep up with the marketplace.

If I’m really comfortable with those two things: 1) that I can beat the advertising that I see in front of me or at least have a reasonable chance of doing so after doing a lot of research; and 2) the product is a strong one with great credibility elements to it and some great reasons why the prospect can benefit from this, then I feel very confident about it and I’d be willing to take the assignment.

Watch for Part 5 Next Week.

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

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6 Responses to A Conversation with
the Legendary Copywriter
Gary Bencivenga
Part 4 of 6

  1. Sebastian says:

    Greatpost-Thank You!!!

    I got a Headline for my industry

    Why Home prices MAY go up in 2009!


  2. Jean-Francois Guilbert says:



  3. Jon Weston says:

    Its funny you should say that you delete a lot of the top marketers emails Gary, because I *always* find myself reading yours, for the very reason you cite during your chat with Clayton — you’re actually providing useful nuggets of information, and you’re not selling me every… single… day!

    Thanks a million.

  4. ROHN ENGH says:

    Good conversation, guys. Good lessons.  Did you ever watch a group of people look at a person blow up a balloon?   First you have a colorful piece of rubber. It’s usually sitting on a table. The person picks it up. It dangles from his thumb and index finger like a slippery worm. There’s a hush in the room as he puts it to his mouth.  Everyone knows this red balloon can defeat this person if he can’t get it right. Like blowing the candles on a cake. You gotta get it right. Pace yourself.  And everyone knows he could turn this slippery piece of rubber into a delightful experience as it grows larger and prettier and will bounce around the room from the gentile nudges from the smiling group.    The balloon always succeeds. If he can’t blow it up, there’s always that guy who says, “Here, let me try it.”  Three cheers, some chest pounding, and a living room volleyball game ensues.   Have you noticed the copywriting progression here?  Amateurs usually start the way this story ended. They are ready to begin their copy, all puffed up and pontificating. Beating their chest and eventually the copy fizzles out with a message that feels like a vague slippery worm.   –Rohn Engh    

  5. I totally agree with Internet Marketers wanting to sell one hot product after another.

    I’m so lucky to have had run an offline business that use direct response marketing and understand the need to HAVE a business instead of just SELLING products/services.

    Crossing over to internet marketing, i can see the big picture clearly and am glad to not have the get-rich-quick mentality that a lot of IMers adopt.

    Great blog!

  6. This article was the bomb! I have to confess, I LOVE SELLING KIRBY VACUM CLEANERS. I DREAM ABOUT SELLING KIRBY’S!! I CAN KNOCK DOORS TILL MY HANDS BLEED, GET IN AND DEMO THE SHIT OUT OF YOU, MAKE YOUR WIG STAND UP AND CLOSE THE SALE AT WILL.. It’s all about telling the homeowner a killer story. Damn this article lit a fire under my ass, thanks guys!

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