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


Dear Business-Builder,

Wendy here with the final part of the interview Clayton did with legendary copywriter, Gary Bencivenga.

In this segment, Clayton gets Gary to reveal secrets of client relationship management and more.

Whether you’re a copywriter or a marketing director who hires and works with copywriters, you’ll find these secrets invaluable to your business.

So let’s jump right on in!

Clayton:

We’ve already taken a half-hour longer than I promised but I would like to ask you one final question. Let’s discuss the client relationship. A lot of the people who will be reading this are people who hire copywriters and work with them. What are the things the client can do to help you produce stronger copy, and do it more quickly?

Gary:

That’s a very good question. Over the years I developed a “please don’t do this” list. Here’s an example:

“Suppose I work my tail off to produce a breakthrough package for my client and it becomes the control. Eventually, that new control starts to weaken. At that point, they will often invite some other writers to take their best shot at beating me.”

What would gall me is when another writer would look at my package and then capture every essential concept almost in the same sequence of conceptualization and put it into “his” package. He’d put different words around it of course, perhaps add a different premium or two, but his package is really just a mirror image of what I’ve done, with just enough changes that he, under some guise of fairness, could call it his package and not mine anymore. In other words, the words have changed, but the concepts really haven’t. Or if he did add a concept or two, they probably didn’t help or hurt that much. I call this “barely legal plagiarism.”

Basically, in effect, the writer does a mirror image of my package under his name. That would drive me crazy. The point is – and this goes back to my “please don’t do this list” – I would tell clients, “Look, if you want me to reserve my best ideas for you, don’t let this happen. It’s for your benefit as well as mine.”

How does this hurt the client? Well, there are many writers out there who, if you let them be lazy, will be bone-lazy. If you let them get away with just mirroring what somebody else has done without breaking new ground, you’ll never get anything else out of them – even when you demand it. They’re always going to take the path of least resistance because everybody in life seems to have more work than they can handle. And if you’re a client who settles for somebody merely imitating somebody else’s package, that’s the only thing you’re going to get from that writer. If you spoil each writer you work with that way, you’re never going to get original breakthrough packages.

It also de-motivates your best writers. It de-motivates me to give you my best ideas. After all, if I have a breakthrough concept, why would I give it to a client who would allow it to be swiped, when I have other clients who will protect my ideas?

This isn’t a legal issue, by the way, where the imitative writer violates the rule of copyright. The person does change the words but the melody is pretty much the same. So I have no legal recourse – and really have no desire to go after the client or the writer legally anyway. I have better things to do with my time.

So, it’s not a legal issue, it’s an incentive issue. I say to my clients, “When you let other writer’s swipe my ideas, what have you done for my incentive to give you the next blockbuster idea? You’ve just trained me to give it to somebody else who will protect me – and I don’t want to do that. I don’t think you want me to do it to you either. You don’t want me to go elsewhere with my best ideas. If you want to protect the flow of great ideas, by all means test other people but don’t let them get off easy by taking either half or two-thirds of my package and just rewording it and cheating everybody in the process, including the lazy writer himself. The writer shouldn’t, for his or her sake, be allowed to do that because then they’re not being forced to come up to their best level of originality and thinking.”

That was a bugaboo and I’m sure you’ve seen that too, Clayton. You have a great control package and all of the sudden arriving in the mail is a package that sort of looks like yours, all the same ideas…

Clayton:

It’s paraphrased. They just sat down and paraphrased your copy.

Gary:

Some hot new writer! The client may even say, “Wow Clayton, you’ve got to meet this guy, he’s really good.” Meanwhile you’re thinking, “Yeah he must be my kind of guy, he sounds so much like me!”

That’s one. And I have another. I didn’t have this so much after I got a reputation and people would learn to trust me. But earlier in my career, people would retain me and then want to tell me what to write. Ogilvy had a great saying for that. Whenever a client would try to dictate the copy or come up with some cockamamie headline that Ogilvy knew wasn’t going to work, he would say, “Look, why keep a dog and bark yourself?” I look at it the same way: “If you hired me to do this, just let me do it and then judge me on that basis. Don’t try to dictate to me what I should write and judge me on whether I succeeded or failed. At the very least, let me have my own test. I can try to work with what you have your heart set on working, unless it’s really atrocious.” I don’t want my name on a package that’s atrocious.

Of course, very often a client has a really great idea and you shouldn’t resist that. You should run with it. Sometimes they’ll have an idea that’s not so great and you think it’s not going to work, but who knows? Maybe he’s onto something, but give me another shot at something [else], which I feel has a much higher probability of working.

That’s another thing that I’ve always done through my career is take at least two swings at the ball. I would tell a client, “Look, in researching this, I’ve come up with several ideas, any one of which could work. My favorite is a very high-probability concept, but I have others I’d like to test, as well.” You want to always put your best efforts forward. You always want to have house odds. It’s like casinos and gamblers are both participating in the same activity. They’re both gambling but the casinos always make money and gamblers almost always lose. Casinos always rake in good fortunes just by slanting the probabilities in their direction ever so slightly.

So I say to the client, “Let’s do that on your package. For Package A I’m going to employ every high probability technique I know that has created breakthroughs for other people over my career in this business. And I’m going to take certain powerful techniques from other peoples’ packages that I see working. Everything that I can bring to the table to raise your probability of having a homerun, I’m going to put in this package. That’s Package A.

“But over here in the second package, Package B, I’m going to break a rule or two. We’re going to really get original. I’m going to use most of the same high probability bullets and offers and premiums and subheads but maybe I’m going to try a headline that has never been done before to give you that element of freshness. So grant me two test panels and I will double your chances of succeeding.”

The smart clients say, “Sure, it’s not going to cost me that much more to test the second panel, and the benefit I gain is that I’ve virtually doubled my chances of success.” The point is, every now and then, that second package will win.

Now, most of the time the high probability tests will win. That’s the one with the big benefit headline, an expanded subhead – I’m telling you the formula that I’m sure you probably follow, Clayton – curiosity-provoking bullets, a great credential up front, and so forth. Following all the way through, it looks very interesting to read, under a hot subject, emotional language all the way through – all the things that we pack into our magalogs and other formats. So that will be the high probability one.

Also, I love to test something that is really different, something radically different. Even in the offer, the back-end, maybe instead of charging $200, let’s test $3,000 for this. Who knows? It might just work. It could be anything that could, if it works, gives you a whole new business. Sometimes, not as often as the high probability one, but every now and then you hit on one of those and it really is a blockbuster. So I call that my package insurance.

I never want to go naked into a test without my high probability version because, for everybody, that usually will be the winner. But you don’t want to cut yourself off from those riskier packages that every now and then open up a success unlike anything that anybody has ever seen before.

Clayton:

That’s wonderful. I wish I had thought about that in the early going because whenever I was going up against the control, I was always torn by that question. It was always an either/or for me. It was, “Do I try something radically new and different and pick the smaller odds, or do I go with a high probability concept that is more of a sure thing?”

Gary:

Yes, that’s exactly the choice you face. Most packages that are working utilize concepts that have come before. So if you’ve come up with a concept that you’ve never seen, it’s probably not a good sign but it could be a great sign, we just don’t know. The odds are small but the payoffs could be much greater.

Clayton:

Just a bonus question: as far as I know you were the first to really exploit magalogs.

Gary:

No, actually not. That honor belongs to Jim Rutz, the copywriter, and Ed Elliott, the designer. They did the first magalog for Personal Finance. I did the second one for Personal Finance, which beat theirs. But as soon as I saw that format, my eyes lit up. These guys discovered a format so powerful I don’t even think at first they knew how powerful it was even though it did become a control. I had a standard number 10-package control for Personal Finance for KCI. They came in with a magalog. On the front was a cartoon of an investor with a dartboard and he was picking his teeth with one of the darts and on the dartboard were the various investments.

I had the background from Ogilvy and Caples who said to never make your space ad look like an ad – always make it look like an article. Ogilvy had tested this and when a space ad looks like an article, his very scientific readership study showed that 500% more people read the ad than if it looked just like an ad. In other words, headline, body copy, call to action –– every word is identical except the layout. If you run in The Wall Street Journal and you make it look pretty much like a Wall Street Journal article, even if they slap that slug on there that says “Advertisement,” you’ll get a 500% boost in readership for that ad.

And that was pretty consistent across all the space ads that he tested. That means right out of the gate you get a 500% increase in readership by making your ad look like an editorial article. Caples has always preached the same thing. As a matter of fact, in one of his books, he tells about a test in Reader’s Digest. I think it was an 81% increase in actual orders for Reader’s Digest when it looked like an article instead of a typical ad.

There’s lots of evidence for space ads but I could never think of a way to harness that same principle with a direct mail letter. As soon as I saw that first magalog, I knew these guys had done it. And they didn’t realize they had done it because very few magazines have a cartoon on the cover. So they found a very entertaining and informative format but most magazines really look like magazines with a photo on the cover, like Business Week or Forbes or Time.

Magazines aren’t cutesy with a cartoon – so I saw my opening, my toehold. I went back to Personal Finance and said, “Look, I know you’ve got a new format and I can do that format too. I’ll make mine totally different with different copy. I believe my existing copy is still very strong actually but there’s this great new format.” And they asked, “What do we even call this format?” I said “Well, it looks something like a magazine but it sells like a catalog, so let’s call it a ‘magalog.’” So I named it, but it was Jim Rutz and Ed Elliott who invented it.

Now, what I did for mine – having had that training from Ogilvy and Caples saying to camouflage your ad and make it look like an article – was to make our magalog look just like Time magazine. We gave it a red border. We used a real photograph – not a cartoon of an investor. It looked just the way Time magazine might. We put a real photograph of a headshot of Richard Band. He looked like the “Man of the Year” on the cover of Time. We said something like, “Hottest investment opportunities of the next year,” and the bullets said “Great opportunities in treasuries, page 5; Once in a lifetime real estate opportunity coming up next year, see page 7,” and so forth.

We had all the same body/copy articles on the inside as my previous direct mail package, but we made them look like real articles with photographs. And then the copy read like an article written by Richard Band, the editor. Let’s say we’re talking about real estate. We talked about which forms of real estate are hottest right now and said, “By the way, we have a special report on how to make money in single-family homes. They’re great investments for the small investor. You’ll get that report free for signing up with Personal Finance.”

For every article, whether it was on bonds or stocks or whatever, we had a little tie-in to a premium. But the article was a real article, it gave a lot of good information. This new venue, called a magalog, was very valuable to read itself.

When I asked myself, “Can I beat Jim Rutz’s package?” I saw that I had a much better cover. We had a bigger, broader table of contents just the way a magazine does. And we had lots of photographs throughout that looked more like a magazine. So when I analyzed all the components of my package versus Jim’s, I felt pretty confident that I was going to win, and I did.

When we started rolling out, Time called up and said, “You’re using our red color on your cover.” And we said, “What do you mean your color? How can you copyright a color? You can’t copyright a color.” And they said, “We have a lot of lawyers who say we can.” Vickie Moffett at KCI didn’t want to get involved in a big legal tangle so when they mentioned their lawyers, she said, “Well, how do you feel about blue?” They said, “Blue’s okay, that’s not our color.” So we went with blue, and it went almost as well, not quite as well but still it was a giant hit for several years.

Clayton:

All of us remember what a huge lift we got when we started testing magalogs. I was in 6 x 9s at the time and was running very long copy, up to 24-page sales letters. But going with magalogs really radically changed how I wrote my copy as well. Instead of being a sales letter, I was now writing value-added copy that rewarded the reader for plowing through my 24 pages by giving him practical things that he could use now.

Gary:

That’s very true. That immediate gratification is very important.

Clayton:

Yeah. Everyone’s looking for the next big format breakthrough though.

Gary:

I really think it’s here already. I think it’s the e-zine. I’m finding that with the clients that I’m a partner with, I almost don’t want to do direct mail anymore. It’s too tough to send a 24-page magalog to a prospect who doesn’t know you. I don’t think direct mail will ever be dead, but rising paper costs, rising printing, and rising skepticism argue against people responding to cold mailings that are trying to sell them something right on the spot. I think these factors argue instead for an elongated courtship of an e-zine that is of great value – where the selling process starts more subtly, a lot more softly. Perhaps in the future the most profitable use of much direct mail will be to drive people into an e-zine relationship.

Direct mail is also destined, inevitably, to become the province of higher-cost products. When I started, you could sell a $12 book by direct mail and make a lot of money. You can’t do that anymore. My first freelance client was a little company called Farnsworth Publishing and we sold a lot of books. I would write a space ad that would run in The Wall Street Journal on estate planning or some form of investing or how to buy a small company or other very esoteric subjects. We also had an active direct mail campaign for the same book, a #10 package and a letter selling a book for $12 or $19. You couldn’t possibly cover that cost today, you’d go in the hole.

That bar is constantly being raised. I think pretty soon it’ll be very hard to make money on a $39 offer unless you’ve got a very healthy back-end and are willing to break even or even lose a little money up front. Again, it depends on what you’re selling.

I think one of the great things that you did, Clayton, for Phillips Publishing was your package for Health & Healing. It wasn’t just a homerun, it was a grand slam World Series winning blast in the bottom of the ninth inning. That’s how memorable your Health & Healing launch package was for Phillips.

That package built that newsletter to astronomical heights. I don’t think anybody could’ve ever envisioned that. I’m sure that Tom Phillips never thought that this little newsletter on health that he just launched as an additional product to have, would become the towering profit maker of Phillips Publishing.

But not only that, it was such a perfectly natural vehicle for selling vitamins and supplements to those who are signing up for the newsletter. So the newsletter in effect became a paid advertisement. The prospects would literally pay to receive additional offers for supplements and cruises and everything else that you would want to sell associated with Dr. Whitaker, who is the editor of the newsletter.

So you had 500,000, or however many subscribers they had in time, each one paying $50 a year to start with, and I guess those prices ratcheted up over the renewal period. I can’t even do the arithmetic. I think that would break my calculator just to figure out the money they were making on the subscriptions. And then there’s all the money coming in from supplements and vitamins and all kinds of arthritis remedies and water filters and all the other back-end products. That was just a gigantically profitable business that you helped them create.

Clayton:

They only thought I wrote that package. That was a Bencivenga package from beginning to end.

Gary:

Is it too late to tell Tom this because I understand he was just made extremely wealthy by the sale of that company? Maybe somehow you can finagle for me a slice of what he just received.

Clayton:

We sold between one and two million subscriptions in three years.

Gary:

Wow. Clayton, I had nothing to do with that. We all learn from each other and I learn from you and that was your homerun totally unaided by me.

Clayton:

I think this interview should be absolute must-reading for every soul in the direct response industry, Gary. Your insights are staggeringly brilliant. Is there anything else that you’d like to add before we close?

Gary:

No, that’s it, Clayton. When I was coming up through the ranks of the direct marketing agencies in Manhattan – Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO and a couple of others – my favorite time of the week was on Friday afternoons when most writers would kick back and just meet in the copy chief’s office and shoot the breeze about great campaigns and funny art directors and neurotic account executives and other comical gossip. We’d just tell jokes and learn from each other about advertising.

Mostly we young guys just shut up and listened because the old timers had so many great war stories of campaigns that were breakthroughs and how they were developed and funny characters they met along the way, like the art director who slept in his cubicle because his girlfriend threw him out and he had no place to go and that’s the real reason why he was so early for work in the morning – he lived in his cubicle.

Those sessions were just so instructive and I think this is sort of the modern day equivalent of that – where two guys just talk shop on the phone and if we can help others save some time by avoiding the mistakes we made, so much the better.

Clayton: I just want you to know, Gary, that if there’s ever anything at all that I can do for you all you have to do is ask. I don’t know what plans you have for Bencivenga Bullets or future products or services or educational tools or whatever, but just count me in.
Gary:

The Bullets are free and I offer them to anybody who wants to learn what I know. Just go to www.bencivengabullets.com. I want to leave something of a legacy, partly to carry on in the same tradition of those great old copy chiefs who taught me. You don’t have to know thousands of things to be a really good copywriter.

A relatively small handful of insights as your guideposts will save you years of effort and save clients perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in their testing. Those are the secrets I share for free in the Bullets.

Clayton:

Gary, thanks a lot, I really appreciate it.

Gary:

Okay, Clayton, it’s been great. Take care.

Clayton:

Take care. Bye.

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

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

  1. Clayton and Gary,

    Thank you for sharing these gold nuggets of wisdom with us. Now, how do I get you two to write for me?  :)

    Sincerely yours in parenting success,
    Debra Sale Wendler
    http://www.adhdparentingtips.com

  2. Robert Schwarztrauber says:

    Thank you Clayton and Gary!

    Just listening to you guys shoot the breeze about copywriting has been so informative over the past 6 sessions. I hope you might do
    it again! Total Package and  Bencivenga Bullets are must reads…
    right up there with the classics you always recommend. Thank you
    both for your generosity in sharing these brilliant insights.

  3. Jean-Francois Guilbert says:

    DEARS  CLAYTON,
    YOU MAKE A IMPORTANCE FOR DISCUTION TO YOUR CLIENT, I MANY TIME EXPLICATION TO IS REALY VERRY IMPORANT TO YOUR CLIENT EXPRIMED YOUR DESIRE IN YOUR PERCEPTION OF YUR STRATEGY FOR US.

    EXEMPLE MY FOR DISCUTION TO CLIENTS ANGLOPHONE IS A ERROR BECAUSE THE PERCEPTION AND  EXPECTATION TOWARDS HIS PRODUCTS HIS PRODITS IS REPRESENTATIFS OF THE CIENTS OR CONSOMATEUR.  INPORTANCE OF WELL COMPREHENTION IN HIS GLOBALITER EXPRESSION OF THE PROSPECT.
     
     ME I WORK WITH French-speaking one, AS MY PROJECTS STARTING IN JANUARY OF THE ASSISTANTS OF ALL LANGUAGES HIS PROSPECT OF ALL NATIONALITY.
     WHILE AWAITING A BILINGUAL SECRETARY GO TO DIALOGING OF THE English CUSTOMERS.

    My PRIORITY IS THE NEW WORLDS AND THEIR COMCEPTION MORE IMPORTANT THEIR PERCEPTION, can IMPORTS THE RACE, THE RELIGIOUS, THE COLOR OF THE SKINS, THE ORIENTATION SEXUAL, THE PEOPLE THIS IS MOCKED TOTALY THE REGLES  NOT NEXISTE PRACTICALLY MORE, THE COUNTRIES, THE FRONTIERES AND CONTRY NOT EXISTING MORE, THE POTENTIAL one AND INTERNET SOUNDS THE PRINCIPAL SOURCES OF EDUCATION  NOW IS  THE PLANETE AND THE HUMANS, for 2 years I TALK ABOUT YOU THE GLOBALIZATION, THE PENSEE BIG HAS TO CONVERT INTO TAN THAT PSYCHOANALYST AND HYPNOLOGYST MANY MANY YEARS OF THERAPY OF THE HUMAN BEHAVIORS, THE EMOTIONS, AND EMOTIONAL REACTION….  THEY FAUS UNDERSTAND THEM.
     I AM NOT A  OF MIRACLES MAKER  BUT I HAVE CONSACRED MY LIFE HAS MY PASSION THE HUMAN BRAINS IS THEIR MECANISME IST  MY FORCE AND IS  OF THE CASE BY CASE I do NOT can SELL PRODUCT PRE MAKE AND A POLISH  NOT WORKING, KEEP GLOBALIZATION AND MONDIALISATION , I HAVE A SONDAGE TO EXPLICATION MORE 18 -24 YEARS PERCEPTION IS …..

    THE Brainstars
    jean-francois Guilbert

  4. Pingback: Did you know Gary was once arrested for fornicating with a Cow?

  5. It would be nice to have links to the other interviews in the own page…

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