A Conversation With
Million-Dollar Copywriter

Part Two

In this special interview issue …

  • How a little "romance" can grab your prospects’ attention and sell them your product …
  • The ultimate key to advertising success in today’s crowded market …
  • The truth about traditional benefit-oriented selling — and how it just might be killing sales …
  • The one part of every promotion that’s even more important than the headline …
  • What you must know about your prospects before you write a word of copy …
  • A simple way you can get better, more profitable copy out of every copywriter your hire …
  • The most common blunder in advertising today …
  • And much, MUCH MORE!

Dear Business-Builder,

I shared part of my conversation with Arthur Johnson, an "A" level copywriter who has experienced astounding success. 

If you missed it, click this link to read it.  But make sure you come back here.  What Arthur says is of tremendous value to anyone who writes copy or works with writers.

CLAYTON: What do you think the two or three most important elements of a direct mail package are? Where do you spend most of your time?

That's a good question. I obviously think that the headlines and cover are the most important elements. Strangely, I try not to think about them in most cases until the last few days that I'm working on the project. So I guess you could say that I work on those for a month for a magalog.

What I like to do is start out by writing the stuff that is the least important, or maybe has middling importance. And then only in the last few days do I tackle the stuff like the introduction, headlines, and that kind of stuff. So in that way, I guess you could say that I think those are very important.

Even more important, though, than any headlines or words, I think, is the whole concept of the promotion and the strategy behind it. You really have to know what you want to do before you start putting pen to paper. You want to know what your strategic goals are.

If you can figure out all the substantial points you want to make, then you will not get obsessed about style as long as you can get them down, and you won't have that much writer's block. I'm a firm believer that writer's block comes from not having anything to say. If you have something to say, you'll be able to say it.

CLAYTON: Very true. I do the same thing. I came to it in a different way. Clients always want to know, "What's your headline?" I don't know that until the second or third draft usually.
ARTHUR: Exactly.
CLAYTON: I usually just put in a temporary headline.

I really owe that to David Wise who has been my art director on so many projects. He's actually got a very good head for copy. And I should have mentioned him as someone that I will often show the copy to, obviously before I show it to a client.

CLAYTON: And he gives you a critique too.

Yeah, there are not too many designers that I would allow to do that, because some designers don't have that kind of thought process, but David does. Some years ago when I was pestering David about what the headlines ought to be and trying to brainstorm with him, he said, "Why are you worrying about this at this point? You should be worrying about that in two weeks."

And I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah." And I don't know if he was just trying to get me off the phone or not, but I took him seriously, and I tried it, and it worked like crazy. It was great. Once I discovered that I didn't have to write the headlines before I actually wrote the unimportant stuff, it was so liberating.


I've written about this in our e-zine several times, but one of the pieces that you've done that I admire the most is your control for Dr. Douglass.

One of the reasons I admire it so much is it came along at a perfect time in the marketplace, when consumers had been just absolutely bombarded with all kinds of outrageous health claims for the last — well, since 1990, when we launched Whitaker.

ARTHUR: Right.
CLAYTON: And yours comes along and really did a great job of addressing the skepticism that most people have towards these miracle-cure doctors that are out there, as well as skepticism towards the medical establishment that's telling you that you can't have anything that you like.
ARTHUR: Right.
CLAYTON: How did you come to that headline, "Had Enough?"
ARTHUR: Well I can't talk about the specific headline, but I can talk about the entire package.

I was kind of forced into it because Dr. Douglass had come to Agora from a different publisher, and so he had all of these newsletters that I could look at as deep background, but I couldn't use them to put together premiums or anything.

So all I really had to sell — it was a launch essentially — and all I really had to sell was based on reading his books and talking to him.

After I had done that, I kind of said, "You know, I don't really see any new miracle cures here." And then I said to myself, "What do I really like about this guy?" And I said, "I guess what I really like about this guy, that he's got a really good sense of humor. He's a cantankerous guy, but he makes it appealing, and he's got a really healthy skepticism about everything." If Health & Healing is alternative medicine, Dr. Douglass, I think, is contrary in medicine.

And I said, "How can I make this appealing?" Instead of making him sound like some Old Testament prophet, what if I made him sound like Will Rogers, this lovable guy who gives you this disarming smile and cracks a joke about something, and you realize that's a much better way to demolish what you're opposing? And when I discovered that, then subtly all of my own frustrations with everything I'd read in alternative and mainstream medicine for the last 10 years came pouring out. So in a way I was just venting.

CLAYTON: Well, it is beautiful; it's a great package. And it came along at just the perfect time in the market.
ARTHUR: And that was one of those packages that almost wrote itself. I must say, most packages are not that easy to write, but this one was. It really came from the heart, and I just had a marvelous time. And as I was saying, I'd read P.J. O'Rourke, and then I'd sit down.
CLAYTON: I recently wrote an article for the financial market and used your package as an example of really getting in touch with the resident emotion of the prospect. Instead of ignoring the fact that people are growing more skeptical and frustrated, it really harnesses that emotion and turns it into a big advantage.

That is so important. That is one of the things that I'm always trying to do when I approach a package, is to get inside the emotions of my prospective audience, and particularly with reference to how they feel about everything — their family, the political issues of the day, and how they feel about all the junk mail they're getting in the mailbox.

I really want to get behind that and find out what they're frustrated about, what they're afraid of, what gives them joy, and what gives them pride. And then I try to become them. And I think part of that came from writing collectible copy.

There's a lot of bad collectible copy out there; it's really easy to write bad collectible copy. It's very formulaic, and I'm sure somebody could create a computer program to write the collectible copy you mostly see in Reader's Digest and TV Guide these days. But to write really good collectible copy, you're writing about something that doesn't really have any benefit at all.

So all you've got to go on are emotions.


So many copywriters today begin by reading books on how you have to focus on benefits throughout all of your copy. I came up through the fundraising area.

And I didn't have a product. I had no benefit. So what I had to do early on was to learn to focus instead on emotions.

ARTHUR: Yeah. Marty Edelston has an expression that I particularly like in reference to that. He'll say, "You gotta seduce the prospect."
CLAYTON: Yeah. I don't remember who it was, but they used to talk about the lifted veil, where it was just like a beautiful woman raising the hem of her skirt slightly.
ARTHUR: That's right, but just enough, not too far.
CLAYTON: Not too far, that's right. If you don't mind, could you take me through your mental processes? You were talking about the strategic goals of the package, which is what a lot of people think about in terms of a platform or the major overriding theme of the package. Take me through the mental processes that you go through when you have a blank slate.

Well, the first thing I try to do is get a very good handle on what the product is, and what really differentiates it from everything else out there in the marketplace.

Now if it's a publication, that is a lot more difficult than if you've got a physical product. I think writing for "hard products" like supplements or collectibles or something like that is easier in a lot of ways because you really know what the product is, it's very defined.

When it's a publication, it's a lot less defined, and you are gonna define it in some ways. But I start out by trying to figure out, if it's a brand new product, how it's gonna differentiate itself from everything else in the marketplace. If it's an established product, what made it so successful, and why is it sufficiently unsuccessful for people to want to hire me to promote it. First I try to get the context, and that takes a day or two.

And then I spend about a day or two studying the control, if there is one, and other current controls in the marketplace to figure out what I have to be better than. I take that really seriously; I think you really have to do your homework in that particular area.

Even if you despise the current control, which is easy to do if you're a successful copywriter, and we're all arrogant or we wouldn't be copywriters. We wouldn't have the guts to put a word down on a word processor. But you have to think of the control as the Bible, and you have to think, "Okay, this must be working," and in each case, you've got to figure out what you can say that will top that.

And then you really have to do a lot of research on the product itself, and you have to find out more about the product than even the client knows, and that's what takes the bulk of the time and preparation.

And after I've done all that, then I sit back and try to construct the mind and emotions of the audience in myself. It's almost like a method acting approach. You really want to feel their pain and what they do. That's how you start. Then, and only then, can you start talking to them.

CLAYTON: You spend a lot of time talking to people who are quite different than you in a lot of ways. How do you make that jump?

Well, it helps to know a lot of people. And I think that's one of the reasons you can get better and better the older and older you get, because you've met more and more people, and you have a wider experience with a wider range of people.

Hopefully you get to learn about these people through your everyday life. And every time you're writing about somebody, one of the things I do when I'm trying to get into the mind of the prospect is to say, "Who do I know that most resembles this prospect, and how would I talk to them?"

And if I'm lucky, it's a loved one with whom I do talk, and with whom I have a lot of empathy, because you have to love the prospect too. And if it isn't, then you have to fall back on things like books and movies and other ways of getting to know people that are not quite as satisfactory.


There's a great movie called What Women Want with Mel Gibson where he's an ad executive, and he was trying to get an account.

And his daughter comes home, and he's wearing pantyhose as a way to get in touch with female customers.

I love that movie. My other favorite one on advertising is called Crazy People, with an ad exec who gets put in a mental institution, and before you know it he's got all the inmates writing copy.

ARTHUR: I don't think that I've seen that one. I should also mention that an early influence on me was Mad magazine — I mean the great old days of Mad when their biggest target was Madison Avenue.
CLAYTON: Yeah, that was great, I was a big fan too — Alfred E. Neuman. What are the biggest mistakes you think clients make in working with copywriters? How can we help them help us?

I've been thinking a lot about this. The clients that I write the best copy for are the clients that "adopt" me and embrace me the most. They sort of treat me as if I'm a member of their team, and introduce me to everybody else on the team, and ask me if there's anything else I'd like to know about the product, and trust me to make a contribution.

That sounds awfully vague, but I think the clients I can do the least for are the clients that hold me at arm's length, and give me a contact, and that is the only person I talk to, and it's often somebody who is not very senior. And then you are really only gonna be as effective as your contact enables you to be.

And if the contact is not a senior talent in the company, then you are really crippled. So I think that if you're a client and you want your copywriter to write the best thing possible, introduce him or her to as many senior-level people as possible — I should say senior-level people who actually have an influence on the creative decision-making in the company.

I hesitate to say this, because unless you're a really strong copywriter, that can totally overwhelm you. You're so overwhelmed by what all these important people want, that you don't even think about what the prospects want. But when you get up to our level, I think it's really important that you are able to talk to these people, to these decision-makers.

CLAYTON: I think Boardroom is really good at this.

They're fantastic at it to a fault.

My first few jobs with Boardroom, I went through a lot of pain just getting to know what it was that Marty wanted out of a package.

After a few go-arounds, when I was able to figure out what he wanted, and he was able to figure out that I was gonna sell a lot of products for them, we got along like a house on fire, and now it's a great relationship. Now they'll share anything with me, and they're only too anxious to help me figure out how to home in on it.


One of the great moments in working with Marty, for me, was on my second job for Boardroom — this was probably in the early to mid ’90s — and I needed to ask Marty a question. I called him up, he gets on the phone, and he says, "What did I do wrong now?"

He was so vulnerable and so friendly, and it was really easy to work things out with him because of that attitude.


Yeah, it is. I should say my first three jobs were painful, but they were also very successful, and we did work things out. But I was new to them, and they were new to me, so we had to figure each other out.

CLAYTON: Yeah, I think that whole chemistry thing is a major factor for young copywriters. It was for me, because I found myself often in a situation of trying to decide whether to please the client during the process of writing the copy, or to be a pain in the ass and really fight for something that I felt was right. And it was hard for me, personally, to find that balance
ARTHUR: Very hard for me also.
CLAYTON: I assume that you look at other writers' work from time to time. What's your pet peeve? What do you see in other writers' packages that you feel is a major mistake that they're making?

I think the most common blunder is telling people stuff they already know. I think that if you approach advertising these days from a strictly classic advertising background, you're probably not gonna be interesting enough for people to read. I think the threshold of boredom is a lot lower these days.

When I open my mailbox and see stuff that looks like stuff I've seen before, and it's saying stuff that I've heard before, into the wastebasket it goes. I think these days, sin number one is to be boring. Sin number two is to not be credible. But if I had to choose between credibility and interest, I'd choose interest any day.

CLAYTON: Is there another mistake that you see in a lot of packages out there?

Yeah, I think a lot of packages are overwritten. In general, I see a lot of really good writing out there, but the stuff that irks me is when — suppose a package actually has a headline that really grabs me and is saying something different. If I open up a spread and the copy doesn't move real quickly, they lose me.

I think that particularly when people are writing long-format copy — also in short-format copy, but especially in long-format copy — I think a lot of copywriters feel that they're writing by the pound, and that they have to plod through a lot of details in order to fill out this enormous magalog. And I think that if you're doing it right, the package should be so tight that there's not even room to take out a sentence without it losing something, and I don't see a lot of copy that's written that way these days.

CLAYTON: Have you ever had the opportunity to mentor younger writers?

Yes. It started when I was in the copy department at the Franklin Mint. I actually had some opportunities to edit people, but I was so young at that point that I was a horrible editor.

When I went onto the product side, and writers had to write stuff for me, I really learned to look at the big picture, and I really learned to work with the copywriter to help them write better copy for my product. I guess that was a starting point.

And then in the ’90s when I went on board with this collectible doll venture, which was a startup, I had it specified in my contract that I would not be expected to write copy. I wanted to be a more important player than a copywriter. Then I was very much mentoring every copywriter that I worked with to try to dig down into the essence of this doll we were talking about, which is a very emotional kind of selling.

And then for a long time I wasn't doing it — after about 1997, when my career in writing for magazines and newsletters and other publications really took off. I was not doing that much, but I've started doing it again just very recently. I find it kind of rewarding. When it works, it's even more fun than writing your own copy, because you get to just write the fun stuff.

CLAYTON: How many packages do you turn out a year?
ARTHUR: I would say about 12 big jobs, and any number of small jobs.
CLAYTON: And you're using copy cubs to help you with some of those?
ARTHUR: The big jobs, no. I pretty much do them all myself.
CLAYTON: So you bring in copy cubs to help you with the smaller jobs.
ARTHUR: It kind of works the other way around. I help the copy cubs on the other jobs; they don't help me.
CLAYTON: Oh, I see. They come to you and say, "Would you critique this?"
ARTHUR: Exactly. If a client signs me up for a package, it's me all the way through.
CLAYTON: What's the smartest thing you've ever done to increase your income as a copywriter?

Two words: John Finn.

I may be great at selling other people's stuff, but I'm not nearly as good at selling myself as John Finn is.

CLAYTON: That's great. For the sake of our readers, let me add that John is an agent for a number of high-level copywriters, helping them secure better clients and bigger paychecks.

I have known John for a few years now. When he approached me, the very thought of having an agent didn't appeal to me. One of the things that I've been really blessed with is that I've never really had to solicit work. It's always come to me.

So when John Finn approached me and said, "I want to be your agent," I was a little skeptical, but I went ahead with it because he seemed to know a lot of interesting and very successful people like you. Almost immediately my income increased, and it's had a ripple effect on the rest of my business too.

CLAYTON: That's great. I'm gonna recommend that people check out John's website at www.johnfinn.com.
ARTHUR: One more thing I might add, just to really make John blush if he happens to read this, is that he is not only a tireless worker on behalf of the people he represents, but I have found him also to be very honorable and very understanding, and just a real pleasure to work with.
CLAYTON: I have too. I met John in 1974 in a condo in Redondo Beach, and we've been kind of buddies ever since. At a couple of key junctures, he's made an introduction that's just turned out great. I've sent several writers to him as a result, and his administrative assistant Lydia is a crack-up.
ARTHUR: I have not met her.
CLAYTON: Oh, you'll love her. She's one of those deadpans with a dry sense of humor, just wonderful. Arthur, we've taken our hour. Is there anything else that you've thought about that you'd like to share?
ARTHUR: Well, for anybody thinking of becoming a copywriter, I would have to say that it can be one of the most rewarding professions that you'll ever be involved with. But I think it's like what you would say to anybody who wanted to go into music or something like that: you really have to want to do it bad. And if you feel that you must write, God bless you, go for it.
CLAYTON: Absolutely. Arthur, thanks a lot. I appreciate it. I hope this is the beginning of a real good friendship.
ARTHUR: Oh, I should also mention my wine website.
ARTHUR: I do this, and it is strictly not-for-profit. I started it because I thought that I might be able to make money writing websites, and then I found out that it's not profitable at all. But I kept the website up; it's called wine-people.com.
CLAYTON: Great, we'll include it. We'll invite everybody to come on over.
ARTHUR: Okay, take care.
CLAYTON: All right, buddy, you too.
ARTHUR: Bye-bye.

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

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4 Responses to A Conversation With
Million-Dollar Copywriter

  1. mark says:

    Good post!

    Thanks for giving so much back to the copywriting community.

    Might have missed it but how’s your’re nicotine withdrawal going?

  2. mark says:

    Here is something you may not believe…

    I was sitting in traffic as I read your post and just posted the above comment…almost immediately after I hit “send” my maserati was rear ended by another car…

    As the other driver (terease) and myself chit chatted about things while we waited on the Deer Park Police (Long Island NY) to arrive I discovered we both were not only in advertising…but were readers of the posts on your website.

    You have a big following.

  3. Joe says:

    I think this is the same guy that’s in the bottomline infomercials with Hugh Downs. He may be a good copywriter but after watchin him pitch( my god take an acting class ) on tv… well, to be polite I’ll leave it at that.

  4. Larry White says:

    Clayton, thanks for another excellent interview.

    Your comment about a beautiful woman raising the hem of her skirt slightly reminded me of the instructions given to us in an eight grade history class many, many years ago.

    When the teacher was asked how long a book report should be, she responded “Like a woman’s skirt – long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting”.

    Strange, but that might be the only thing I remember from her class back in the early 60s.

    Happy New Year to you, Wendy and everyone else at The Total Package!

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