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Your Questions Answered on How to Become a Copywriter
The other day, Stephen Davies of The Copywriter’s Institute called to ask me a bunch of questions that beginning copywriters most often ask me. And because they’re the same questions many of you send to our feedback box daily, I figure the answers will be helpful for you too.
Stephen Davies: Clayton, how did you get started writing sales copy? Would you advise others to take the same path you did?
Clayton: Well, it would be kind of hard for someone to take the path I did. I had to drop out of high school when I was 16, and took a job at a printing plant to help support the family. The printing plant did a lot of fundraising direct mail, so I’d sit at a folding machine all night long and read the appeal letters I was folding.
After a while, I decided I could probably do a better job writing this kind of thing than the highly paid consultant who was doing it at the time. So I gave it a try. And when they actually mailed my letter, I beat the company’s $300,000-a-year consultant. That was my first indication I could become a copywriter.
But my first love was film and video production. I moved to LA and I was very active in that for a while. However, in 1974, the freelance film & video industry just about died. There was almost no work there because of the recession.
That’s when I saw an ad for a small direct mail agency that needed a copywriter. I spent several years there, and finally, I think it was 1979, I left and went out on my own.
So I really just kind of stumbled into this. I didn’t really choose to become a copywriter. I was basically trying to feed a wife, two kids, and the world’s dumbest Cocker Spaniel. The opportunity just to work in 1974 was what drove me into copywriting at the time.
Stephen: How long did you write copy before you actually branched out on your own?
Clayton: I went to work at that agency, I believe it was late ’74, and I worked with them until, if I remember correctly, probably late 1978 or early 1979.
I didn’t leave the nest voluntarily. There was a dispute over a bonus the agency’s owner owed me, and when I requested payment, he fired me.
So I suddenly found myself with no job, no prospects. But I did have a newly acquired skill from four or five years of agency work, so I immediately began contacting potential clients in the Los Angeles area.
We had BBD&O and several other Big Eight ad agencies there in LA, plus Smith & Hemmings, which was exclusively a direct response agency.
So I formed a small company called Copy Overload and sent a letter to every advertising agency in the area. The premise of the company was that even agency copywriters go on vacation, and whenever you need more copy then you can produce for whatever reason, we are here for you.
My promotion for that company said, “Only a ski mask and a loaded 45 will get you more money quicker than a Copy Overload promotion.”
I immediately started getting telephone calls from creative directors who needed copy done that they couldn’t get done in house. And that was kind of the beginning of my freelance career.
Stephen: How much experience should a person have in the field before they become a full-time copywriter? In other words, how do you know when you are good enough to go full-time?
Clayton: When you’re creating winners part-time.
See, a lot of people could tell you how to get clients and how to structure your deals, and how to build your copywriting business. But the bottom line is, can you produce winners?
If you have several promotions in your portfolio that have mailed big numbers or generated big numbers in terms of response, average sale and ROI, you can take that portfolio and, in effect, “sell” it.
Put simply, the decision to become a full-time copywriter shouldn’t be denominated in time. It should be denominated in the winners that you have produced.
Ultimately, when someone who has never heard of you is considering hiring you, all they want to know is that you have produced winners for others.
Stephen: Would you define “success” as beating somebody else’s controls?
Clayton: Well you know, “success” is a pretty broad term. Success in life could be just defined as happiness. In this business, success is defined as creating winners for your clients.
You do that by honing your skills, learning to tell the difference between a product that people will want and one that they don’t, and then writing only for products that give you a good shot at success.
Beyond that, greater successes come from learning to avoid situations where you have to try to beat a strong control — in other words, launch products, or products that have very, very weak controls or no controls at all.
When Gary Bencivenga and I were talking some time ago, he told me that one of the first questions he would ask when he was offered an assignment was, “Did Makepeace write the control?”
It was very flattering for him to say that, but the point he was trying to make was, always try to find out who wrote the control and how strong it was before you go up against it. Otherwise, the odds of winning are going to be much diminished.
Stephen: I have a question here from someone who is close to retirement age and she asks if age should be a factor in determining whether to become a copywriter and make a career change? What would you say to that Clayton?
Clayton: Absolutely not. I know a lot of people who have gotten into this field later in life and have done quite well for themselves.
This is an egalitarian business. I have friends who are six-figure copywriters, who are black, who are female. I have people in other countries writing sales copy for me.
It just gets down to the numbers. If you can sell in print, you can make great money in this business. Nothing else matters. You don’t have to be pretty. You don’t have to be skinny. You don’t have to be a particular color, or particular sex, or a particular religion.
Generate the response rate, the average sale, the ROI that make your clients money, and there’s no limit to how far you can go.
Stephen: Excellent. How does an aspiring copywriter decide what niche they should write for or should they even consider staying within a certain niche?
Clayton: When I started freelancing in the late 1970s, my family’s overhead was $3,000.00 a month. I wrote promotions for point-of-use water heaters, for a restaurant and a bakery in Beverly Hills, for an antique store, anything to put food on the table.
That was good experience for me because it forced me to look at each product as a completely new thing. Too often if you are working just in one niche you tend to repeat yourself over and over and over again. So especially starting out, I think it’s good to get your chops on a lot of different kinds of products.
Later on, I approached it one niche at a time. I started in with the financial niche, and then actually helped invent the whole alternative health niche in 1991 by launching the first alternative health newsletter, Health and Healing. Later, in 1999, I wrote my first promotion for a nutritional supplement.
As far as choosing a niche, there are really two things to consider: #1. Where’s the money? Identify the niches that are growing. #2. Which of those niches do you have expertise in or a passion for?
So if you decided to go into a niche, you want to look at where people are spending money and where companies are growing. That’s where the need for copywriters is.
What we provide is the scarce resource. If you are a vitamin company, there is no limit to the number of supplements you can develop. You can have one product for every vitamin, every mineral, every herb, every amino acid known to man, and then you can have an unlimited number of formulated products where you combine them in special ways.
The only limit to a vitamin company’s growth is finding copywriters who can write successful promotions for those products. The nutritional supplement industry is a great niche for younger writers.
In the newsletter markets, it’s kind of the same. It’s very easy to find someone who wants to be an editor of a newsletter. It’s easy to find doctors who want to do newsletters on health. It’s easy to find financial advisors or accountants, or financial planners who want to do newsletters on investment.
Again – if you’re a publisher, there’s no limit to how fast you can grow your product line. The limitation is finding copywriters who can write promotions that will successfully sell those products.
The caveat though in the supplement and health/wealth newsletter niches is that they’re very mature. The markets have become very skeptical, and it is a much tougher sell.
I learned early on that it takes the same amount of effort to write a promotion for a product that people don’t necessarily want, and that has enormous competition, and is in a crowded field, as it does to write a promotion for a product that people desperately want, and where there is very little competition.
So I look for niches where the companies have unlimited growth potential in terms of their product lines, and aren’t as crowded as the financial and health newsletter fields are right now.
Stephen: Clayton, I know there’s a lot of debate on this next question, but I’d like to hear what you have to say on it. Some copywriters say you should get all or most of your money up front when you are writing sales copy for a client, and others will say that you should get money up front, plus get a residual commission thereafter. What’s your take on that?
Clayton: It depends on where you are in your career and what kinds of clients you’re working with.
For me personally, the arrangement I prefer is one in which I cover the basic time spent on the promotion with an advance against future royalties.
This is not the case, but let’s say just for sake of argument my monthly overhead was $25,000.00 a month, and it takes me one month to write a promotion. That means that I would want a $25,000.00 advance to write that promotion. That will cover my monthly net while I am writing it.
Then, I would also want a royalty of some kind if that promotion does well for the client.
I work with two kinds of royalties. If I am doing a promotion for customer acquisition purposes — the promotion is going to be mailed to cold mailing lists for the purpose of acquiring new customers – the promotion would be mailed at break even.
That means that for every dollar they spend to put my promotion in the mail, they want one dollar back. That will produce maximum mailing quantities, and so my royalty is based on the number of pieces my client mails or e-mails to prospects.
Some writers charge as little as $10.00 per thousand pieces mailed. I usually charge $50.00, but in rare cases — if the universe is absolutely huge or if I’m also making money on back-end sales — I’ll go as low as $40.00 or $30.00 per thousand.
On house file promotions, it’s a whole different ballgame because most clients have relatively small house files – maybe 100,000 or 200,000 active customers. So basing your royalty on pieces mailed is kind of silly. In those cases, I ask for 10% percent of revenue.
Stephen: Okay, so how do you approach copywriting fees? In other words, when a copywriter is asked to quote a fee, how do you suggest the conversation be handled?
Clayton: I think the worst thing that you can do is quote an hourly rate as your copywriting fee. So, without letting the client see any of this back office stuff, I would ask myself, “How much do I want to make this year?”
If it’s $100,000.00 a year, I’d begin by realizing that I’m not going to be booked solid, and try to guess the number of hours of work I can sell in the year ahead. I’d then divide the number of work hours into my income goal and come up with what the hourly rate I’d need.
Then, I’d look at the types of promotions I’m going to be writing and think about how long it generally takes me to write each one.
Next, I’d multiply the number of hours for each task by the hourly rate I’ve just come up with and take a long, hard look at my new “rate card.” If it appears to be in the ballpark or fair in terms of the client’s expectations, great. If I think I’m too high or too low, I would adjust from there.
Essentially, the copywriting fee a “whatever the market will bear” kind of business. Some folks publish books listing what copywriters charge and a lot of folks seem to think that that is somehow carved in stone.
But every new project is an opportunity — a negotiating situation. So there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to copywriting fees other than you have to learn how to become a good negotiator, and to sense what the client is willing to pay, and then have some kind of a benchmark where you know what you can afford to do the job for.
Stephen: When you are writing percentage-wise, how much time would you spend doing the actual research for doing copy?
Clayton: I think I am a pretty good copywriter, but there are other people who do research better then I do at a much lower rate than I would have to charge.
See, when I am doing research, I am not making any money, and I am not helping the client make money. So I ask my clients to produce the research I need.
It’s the way I live my life. I figure that I have two modes: Working and relaxing. When I’m working, I want a lot more than I would have to pay someone to research. When I am relaxing, I am resting my mind; getting ready to go back to work.
That’s why I haven’t mowed my own lawn since 1985 and why I almost never do my own research. I figure paying somebody else to do the stuff that distracts me from writing is a screaming deal.
When I’m writing sales copy, I’m making everyone money. When I’m doing research instead of writing, I’m costing everybody money.
Stephen: Do the same direct-response copywriting principles apply to fundraising as to for-profit businesses?
Clayton: People are the same, the things that drive us are the same in both cases. But the one important distinction is that in fundraising you don’t have a product to sell. You don’t have anything that is going to make people’s thighs thinner, or grow hair on their head, or make them richer, or save them time, or save them money.
In fact, if they give you $10.00 as a result of your promotion, all that’s going to happen is that they are going to be $10.00 poorer. So you have to think about what you are doing in a completely different way.
Now, there are some great books on this, and I think Looking Out for #1 by Robert Ringer is one of the best. He talks about “rational selfishness” — why we do things that appear not to be in our own self-interest, like giving $10.00 to a charitable organization.
The key is, the donor IS buying a product when they donate that money. They are getting an emotional reward for doing it. In return for his donation, your prospect may be getting alleviation from guilt or redemption for past sins.
You could also be selling a healthy helping of Rush Limbaugh. Rush doesn’t have a product, but he makes millions and millions of dollars a year because he has a knack for putting his listeners’ most intense emotions into words.
His listeners are willing to pay for his books because they are cathartic: They provide an outlet for anger, frustration, and other strong emotions his listeners have.
In fundraising, you are selling emotional fulfillment. You are either selling the delivery of a positive emotion to the prospect in return for his charitable action, or you are selling the alleviation of a negative emotion that the prospect already has.
Stephen: It seems like there are a ton of copywriters in the marketplace today and their numbers are increasing every day. How many of them do you think are making enough to get by, and also, do you think the marketplace still needs as many writers as a few years ago?
Clayton: I have no way of knowing. A lot of new writers are still in training. Others are just now starting their freelance businesses. I know a guy who still has his engineering job and who writes copy at night. I know other people who have just taken the plunge, quit their job, and decided they are going to do this come hell or high water, and when the money’s not good, they suffer the consequences.
So it is really all over the map. The bottom line is, not everybody who wants to do this is going to make a million a year. Not everyone who wants to do this is going to make six figures. But then, not everyone that goes to Harvard Law School ends up being a good lawyer.
There are going to be those who fall by the wayside for many reasons. Some will give up at the first sign of adversity. Others just don’t have the aptitude for it.
I have some concerns about this. The way that some copywriting courses are promoted, the implication seems to be that any idiot can do this. It’s easy. It’s quick. You’ll get hundreds of thousands of dollars for your first sales letter.
The truth is, building a six-figure or seven-figure copywriting business doesn’t happen overnight. But if you learn the ropes and stick with it, the money can be spectacular.
Quite a few people ask me, “With all of these new copywriters coming on the market, isn’t there going to be a glut?” The answer is an emphatic “NO!”
This is not like computer programming or nursing where we are driven by the demand for product. Our industry creates companies and grows them, which enables them to develop more products, which increases the need for copywriters.
If you have a financial newsletter, and you have a really strong promotion for that newsletter, you need to go rent a bunch of names of people who like financial newsletters and have demonstrated it by buying one before. That means, you want your competitors to have lots and lots and lots of names that you can rent.
But the financial newsletter industry fell on hard times after 9/11, and the number of names available to mail began shrinking. So even publishers who had very strong promotions found themselves with fewer and fewer names to rent.
Now, if there was a whole wave of red hot young copywriters moving into our competitor’s companies and selling boatloads of their products, there would be lots more new consumers who are prospects for my clients.
Let’s say I go into a small, stagnant company and write a hot promotion – and all of a sudden, that company is acquiring new customers like crazy. What’s the next thing they’re going to do? Well, they’re going to create another product and they’re going to say, “Okay Clayton, now we want a promotion for this new product.”
Pretty soon, that company will have, say, four products, all doing well. And when they call to ask me to create a promotion for their fifth product, I am going to say, “Nope, sorry guys. I’m out of time. It’s all I can do to keep these four packages fresh and to replace them when they begin to tire.”
So I’ll give my client a list of great writers and urge him to call one of them.
The point is, what we do creates growth, and that growth creates more demand for more copywriters. So the more the merrier as far as this industry is concerned.
Stephen: It has been a real pleasure and an absolute honor speaking with you today Clayton. I really appreciate this.
Clayton: Well thanks. It’s been a lot of fun. I hope it helps.
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