A Conversation With
the Legendary Copywriter
GARY BENCIVENGA
Part 1 of 6


Dear 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.

Over 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 …

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 are 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.

Watch for Part 2 next week …

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 1 of 6

  1. Clayton Makepeace,
    What a revealing interview !
    On Headlines, on credibility and on bonding with your copyreader!
    How do I find more on Rosser Reeves ?

  2. emv says:

    So that’s where Snap, Crackle and Pop originated!  That’s amazing.

    And it’s STILL a Kellogg staple, here in the UK as well – in fact, there’s a new Rice Krispies TV ad series running just now.

    Great interview – looking forward to the next installment.

  3. Clarke Echols (Resident scientist and rabble-rouser) says:

    Amen, brother Clayton…

    I was on the phone for a couple of hours last night with a client when he mentioned how much he appreciates not only the breadth of my knowledge of many subjects, but also the depth.

    I had been thinking about that this morning before opening your always welcome daily email, and concluded the secret to broad, deep knowledge is when you see something, don’t say "look at that" or "what?".  Rather:  Ask "why did they do it that way?" or "how does that work?"  It is when you ask "what" and "why" that learning occurs.

    And those are rooted in a deeper base:  Curiosity.  That’s why I have always loved Gary’s quote from Ezra Pound.

    And for anyone home-schooling or teaching their children to compensate for what schools aren’t getting done, my advice is the same as I tell my clients:  Feed their curiousity.  Help them gain more curiosity.

    I suspect the same applies in copy work.  Curiosity gets the letter opened.  Curiosity gets them to the next page by the cliff-hanger sentence at the end of the page that makes them want the rest of it on the next page.

    But to be truly effective, stick to the truth too.  One of the things I’ve always respected about the top writers is their humility and honesty.  I’ve never heard them caught in the "How Great I Art" syndrome like so many celebs.

    Now I"m dying to read the coming installments!

    Clarke

  4. Hi Clayton

    Thank you for taking the time to share this interview with us!

    There are a lot of differences in advertising and I have noticed this over the years. Brand creation and images, have evolved and stay with the person. Association with images eg Coca-Cola, McWilliams Wines in Australia..from clothes to medicines – psychologists to alternative medicine – each advertisement presents a different brand and something unique to that product/person. Something memorable that will stay with the viewer long after the advert is over.
    ____________________________________________
    "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."
    _________________________________________Thank you for this eye opener and continued inspiration!Wishing everyone continued success,Sue in Aus
    http://www.marketingforlife.com.au  

  5. Alex Newell says:

    that stuff on USP is GOLDEN!

    Thank you so much – this has been eating at me for months.

    Ahhh to relax

    :-)

    Alex

  6. Charlatans?? lol That means goofballs in Spanish!!This was awesome Clayton, you guys are amazing!

  7. Clayton, anything you can bring us by ‘Legendary Gary’ is a ‘stop work for 15 minutes and read’ thats for sure.

    Thanks heaps, great start to the day for me in Australia.

    John

  8. Very Good, Mr. Bencivenga!

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