A Conversation With
the Legendary Copywriter
GARY BENCIVENGA
Part ll


Glad you’ve joined us for Part II of our interview
with Gary Bencivenga. Let’s jump right in where we left
off last time.

Clayton:

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.

Gary: 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.

Clayton: 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.

Gary:

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 manipulable 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 email 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 emails 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 email 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.

Gary:

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.

Gary:

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.

Gary:

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.

Like you, I imagine, I always have an incentive in my compensation agreement where the better I do for the client, the more money I could make myself. I really want a very strong likelihood of long-term success with it. Assuming all of those factors are positive, the next step I would take is to envision a blockbuster success. As I said before, every achievement begins in the mind before it manifests itself in the material world, so I would envision a great success.

In my mind, I would hear my client calling me in two months saying, “Gary, you did it again. This is unbelievable. The phones are ringing off the hook. The postal trucks are lining up, bringing these bags of orders in. Oh man, the next time you’re in town you have to let me take you to dinner.” I would envision the entire phone call with a thrilled client absolutely jumping up and down with how thrilled he was that I wrote the package and how the responses are just pouring in, burying his mailroom with checks and orders.

I would see this whole vision in my mind. I would taste the celebratory dinner that I was going to experience with my wife Pauline to celebrate this latest triumph. Your subconscious mind wants to manifest the images you place before it with great emotion. So indulge your fantasy about success.

See the accomplishment in the rehearsal studio of your own mind. Tell your subconscious, “This is what I like to experience, help me do it!” So if you start celebrating before you’ve even put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, just getting that very exciting vision of how you’re going to experience success, it frees up tremendous subconscious resources for you to achieve that success and very effortlessly also.

You’re effortlessly teaching your mind what’s going to be happening. Your subconscious mind, as Maxwell Maltz taught in Psycho-Cybernetics, is a goal-striving mechanism. When you give your subconscious a target that you want to hit, it will pull into itself and eventually share with your conscious mind all kinds of resources that you never knew you had within you to make that happen.

This is the goal that you’re telling your subconscious mind that will be enjoyed and experienced in a month or two, six months, or whatever your time schedule is for completing the job and having it tested. This is what’s going to happen. Most writers don’t go through any preliminary stage like this. There are lots of ways to do it, but whatever methodology or ritual you have for doing this, the key is envisioning the success even before it unfolds. That very process helps the steps unfold and you want to make it very vivid to your senses because that will make it real to your subconscious mind.

You want to feel the emotion especially. You just want to close your eyes and feel how great it’s going to feel that you’ve chalked up another big winner and that the word is getting around in the industry that “Wow, this guy is almost unbeatable. Almost everything we’ve given him, he hits a homerun for us. He’s unbelievable.” You just fantasize about all of these things. You combine that with your knowledge of the craft that you’ve accumulated throughout the years and you combine that with the specialized knowledge of the marketplace. If you combine those three things, I can guarantee you’ll almost be invincible.

How can anybody else beat you when you have all that going for you? We’re not like athletes where, mentally, they reach the peak of their knowledge just at the very time when their physical skills are going into decline. The quarterback at age 35 knows so much more than the young rookie about how to read a defense and how to craftily send a receiver downfield for a touchdown pass. His mind is so much further ahead and educated than a rookie quarterback just out of college. Unfortunately for people who earn livings from physical skills, their physical skills deteriorate at the very time when their mental powers are at their peak.

In copywriting that doesn’t happen. We need to always build on our knowledge base. Over time you must build these three key areas of knowledge.

First the knowledge of what works in direct marketing, your knowledge of the craft.

Second, your knowledge of a given marketplace — whether it’s health or finance or chiropractic, or whatever interests you or wherever you’re getting your current work from.

And third, the knowledge of how to unleash the competitive and great instincts that you have within you that you don’t even know about. It’s the 90% of your mind that you don’t normally use. Once you unlock that 90%, if you add that to the mix of knowing your craft and market, you will be virtually invincible in whatever you chose to do.

Clayton: That’s wonderful.

Gary:

I’m sure, Clayton, that I’m not telling you anything you don’t know because when I look at words that you write for your clients, there’s no way I want to tangle with that stuff. I’m sure there are a lot of other copywriters who feel the same way.

Clayton: That’s very kind. Psycho-Cybernetics is one of my favorite reads.

Gary:

You’ve never told me that, but in a way I knew it. I knew it because you couldn’t produce at such a high level without the tailwind from your subconscious mind. You’re at an emotional level when you write. And that can only be achieved through your subconscious mind, which is, in effect, channeling the desires, hopes and dreams of a lot of other subconscious minds. It’s only when your subconscious mind is engaged that way that you can produce work of the compelling power that I see you produce. Not having ever known that about you, I knew that you must have been somehow harnessing your subconscious mind in a way that most copywriters don’t.

Clayton: I have my entire life. I think part of the process for me too is envisioning early in the process the client being completely blown away by the first draft. Understanding the purpose of the first draft is to have a second draft and a third. The purpose of the final draft is to accomplish all of the other things — career growth and the out-of-the park homerun and all of that.

I also spend time thinking about under-promising and over-delivering to the clients as well as the longer effects. I’ve also found that one of the little ideas in Psycho-Cybernetics that’s extremely valuable in terms of allowing your subconscious to work, is getting away from the work in one way or another. Napping, for example.

Gary:

That’s very true. That’s when your subconscious gets the chance to connect with the conscious as Gene Schwartz put it. He used to talk about that all the time in his methodology where he would put himself in front of his typewriter or computer and not put any pressure on himself to do anything. He used a little time clock and he would punch in 33 minutes, 33 seconds on it, just so he wouldn’t have to punch in more than one button on his timer. And every 33 minutes and 33 seconds he would get up and go for a stretch and when he came back for his next 33 minutes and 33 seconds, somehow the answers were ready for him. To relieve the stress and pressure of having to write great copy, Schwartz had only one requirement. He had to stay in his chair for the entire 33 minutes. He didn’t have to work on the copy if he didn’t want to, but he didn’t allow himself to work on anything else or to answer the phone or to read the mail.

That’s the same process. You have to get away from it so the subconscious can give you the answer it’s just dying to give you but can’t because your conscious mind is so rigidly trying to force the issue. So when you open those channels by napping or getting away from it, the subconscious at that point can whisper the answer in your ear and it just bubbles right up to the conscious mind.

Clayton: I wrote the Health & Healing launch package in one day by a swimming pool in Huntington Beach and I did it just that way. I wrote for an hour and I swam for an hour. I wrote for an hour and I swam for an hour. By the end of the day I had a complete first draft.

Gary:

Isn’t that amazing? Oh, Gene Schwartz, in recommending that very methodology, said that’s how Mozart used to compose his concertos and symphonies. It’s obvious, of course, that Mozart was a genius, but people were amazed at the process he used. He would play billiards — I think billiards is what they called it then. And Gene Schwartz said that Mozart would hit the billiard ball with his pool cue and then write some notes. It was an activity that got his conscious mind off of what he was working on and then by the time he went back to the music notation, the next phrases were all right there, he didn’t consciously have to think about it.

Clayton:

How many hours a day would you write? Is there a hard and fast rule?

Gary:

It’s hard and fast. I always believed that if I can get three hours of quiet time, I can achieve anything in the morning. And that three hours includes researching. In the research phase — once I’ve agreed to take something on — I’ll devote about 40% of my time on the project to research, maybe 40% to writing the first draft, and then 20% for polishing and rewriting after that.

I love to write. I guess I’ve had an aptitude from an early age. And once you get successful at something, you really feel like you have the aptitude to do it. I really do like the writing process. Winston Churchill said that he hates writing but loves having written. A lot of people are that way; they hate the process of writing. But I enjoy it.

Once you get into a rhythm and a groove, as I’m sure you have over the years for approaching your assignments, it’s not that hard. If you do enough research, the writing comes fairly easily.

To answer your question, I would usually like to do three hours in the morning, and I still try to do that. I still get a little antsy if I don’t. I wake up and get three hours in on something, like a major project that I want to work on.

Those early morning hours are, to me, the most productive time, especially if you can harness in the subconscious before you go to bed. You just go to bed reading something over and posing a question you’d like to have solved by the morning. Your subconscious mind tends to millions of cellular and biological transactions every night. You’re breathing and swallowing and goodness knows what else, literally millions of other activities. It’s nothing to give you a headline by the morning if you just say, “I’d like a good headline on this in the morning. I’ve just read it over and I have no idea, so you come up with it. You’re the power behind whatever my conscious mind does, so give me a good headline or ten or twenty in the morning and I’ll just be ready with my notepad.” And that’s pretty much what happens.

I know Dan Kennedy has said that’s how he is so productive. He’ll tell his mind what he wants to have written when he wakes up in the morning and it all flows out like a computer dump. It’s not like you’re sleeping fitfully — it’s totally subconscious. If you let too much time go by, however, if you don’t get to your writing until the afternoon, you might have lost it. That’s why I like to do my writing first thing in the morning because my mental computer’s been running all night with whatever I wanted to write about and it just pours out almost word for word.

Clayton:

Absolutely. It’s amazing because I do the same thing.

Gary:

Do you really? Wow.

Clayton: Years ago I got into the habit of going to bed very early around eight o’clock and getting up at four in the morning when there would be no sounds in the house, no distractions, no phones ringing and be able to just totally engage the work without interruption for several hours.

Gary:

Yeah that’s what I like. I still wake up naturally, no alarm clock. I wake up with the morning light and sometimes I wake up 4:30 or 5:00. We’re on the east coast out in the Hamptons — the sun comes over the ocean really early.

I used to stay up late. I used to do very well being a night owl but Pauline wakes up really early. She bolts out of bed at 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning. When she does, I find it hard getting back to sleep so I had to get in sync with her rhythm. And once I did, I found it much more productive for me to wake up at that time anyway, using the night as a time when I just sleep soundly and let my mind review whatever it’s reviewing to give me my answers in the morning.

Early in the morning too, as you say, there’s no phone ringing. But you’ve got to train yourself not to get into your emails and see what’s happening. There are so many things that tug at your attention. Try to get into the discipline of — and I’m saying this obviously for your listeners or readers who don’t do this, because I know you must already do it — training yourself to focus on one major task at that precious, most productive time of the day.

That’s really the 10% of the day that’ll give you 80% of your results. So you should really save it for that most important assignment that you’re working on at that moment. Then the rest of the day will be phone calls and emails and meetings and things that come up or people coming to the door. You know a million things that distract you, but at least you will feel very productive for that day because you’ve logged your two to three hours first thing in the morning, and you’ve got something to show for that day. And if you could do that pretty much every day, it’s amazing how much you’ll write, how much you’ll produce.

Clayton: I also find that the work we do on each package is easily divided into two camps: 1) the creative work; and 2) the detail-oriented work. And quite often they require two very different aptitudes. I’ll tend to focus on creative issues very early in the morning. Then, when I feel my creative energy flagging, I move to more detail-oriented tasks such as research and other things like that.

Gary: I couldn’t agree with you more, Clayton. In my mind the tasks break down the same way. I like to reserve the really tough problems for that high energy period in the morning. And I find they usually get worked out right away. But you have to have that focus, that clarity — almost like a still lake — to follow the thread of a new creative line of thought. And then there’ll be many parts of a package that are just much more mundane things, but are just as important in the long run because you need the foundation for the brilliant, creative idea that leads off the package.

I call that “grinding out the yardage.” Instead of a beautiful Hail Mary pass that covers 70 yards at once — which I toss in the morning — this is just three feet and a cloud of dust … three feet and another cloud of dust. For the rest of the day it’s a series of small gains. It’s just grinding out the yardage, reading the stuff that’s got to be read, capturing a little bullet from this paragraph and the next one and the next one after that. It’s rote mechanical work and it’s time consuming, but it’s got to be done. But if you put those two halves together, that’s where the power is.

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 writers 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, 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 people’s 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

Looking for past issues of The Total Package? Click here for our archives.

Want to share or reprint this article? Feel free. Just give us full attribution and a link to our Home Page when you do.

Attribution Statement: This article was first published in The Total Package. To sign-up to receive your own FREE subscription to The Total Package and claim four FREE money making e-books go to www.makepeacetotalpackage.com.

This entry was posted in Archives. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Conversation With
the Legendary Copywriter
GARY BENCIVENGA
Part ll

  1. Thanks for everything at The Total Package. I´d love to know where the 1st part of this interview is?

    Thaks again and thanks in advance.

    Daniel Cajiga

  2. Pingback: Tap Into The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. | Hans Klein | Direct-Response Web Copywriter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>