A Conversation With
the Legendary Copywriter
Part 2 of 6

In this special interview issue …

  • Winning the Mind Game:  How to quickly and easily program your mind to automatically create grand-slam ads for you …
  • No Mentor?  No problem!  The best way to learn to write killer sales copy on your own …
  • The Big Secret:  How to keep ‘em reading for 24 pages or more …
  • And much more!

Dear Business-Builder:

Wendy here.

Two weeks ago, you read the first part of Clayton’s exclusive interview with the great Gary Bencivenga.

Good stuff, right?

Oh yeah!

So let’s dispense with any more opening remarks from me and get back to the interview …


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?


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.


What subject was your degree in?


I have a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.


Great. How did you come into contact with the great David Ogilvy?


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 the most from my first of 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.


What were the lessons that you learned from Ogilvy?


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.


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.


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.

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 e-mail then, I don’t even think we had fax machines. We had a very rough form of a fax machine …


The old Qwip machines?


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 you 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.

Watch for Part 3 next week …

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

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4 Responses to A Conversation With
the Legendary Copywriter
Part 2 of 6

  1. Another gem from Gary and Clayton. Thank you.

    It’s interesting about the format thing that Gary said (magalogs converting better than letters and formatbeing the most importnat thing).

    I wonder what sort of new formats could potentially work better online than long sales latter (contreversial I know :)

    With the event of videos, and Claytons webinar launches, etc. and Frank Kern selling out programs based on video only etc. perhaps we could see a more ‘engage your reader with multimedia’ then close em with shorter sales copy emails and order pages. 

    Nothing against long sales letter but I feel that sometimes people see it and go ‘oh that again’.

  2. Bill F says:

    This was really loaded with info. Great stuff!

  3. STeve Newdell says:

    Yes, I’m one of the guys who appreciates shorter copy. I like to read and write but I am finding that the multi-media "entertainment" idea does get my attention better, IF it’s well done. If it’s amateurish I just hate it — doubly so because I have a 2-year degree in TV Production and I see and hear everything wrong.

  4. STeve Newdell says:

    I’d better add this before I appear a complete idiot. As Clayton wrote, [We] have no right to success. We’ve got to earn it. Gary must be close to age 70 now and look at all he’s done, learned and — he’s still curious and learning. And new people like me never heard his name and know nothing of him. I’m a bit distressed by ads that say something like "write better ads by Joe Vitale" and I think, "Who’s Joe Vitale? Some 20-year-old with a goatee, and a ring in his ear standing in front of a new car? Damn it, it is Professor Joe Vitale, Ph.D. and he knows what he’s about so shut up, sit up and take notes! So now we have Clayton and Gary just two "regular guys" who happen to know more about how to motivate people than the evil creatures that launched the second World War! So, my comment about entertainment — like I’m entertained by the Martin Weiss discussions — are tempered with lots of good info that makes me sit through all of it and download it for reference. This FREE information is worth a fortune. Thank you gentlemen for your generosity. It’s just (wow) fantastic. sn

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