I want my marketers dead: five things you can learn from the old masters

I want my marketers dead

“I want my rock stars dead,” demanded the late, great comedian Bill Hicks.

It’s close to how I feel about my marketers.

OK. Maybe we don’t need to go quite that far...

But I would at least like them to have proven experience in a market that measures success in sales, not statuettes.

As you know deep down — a lot of modern marketing is piffle.


Well, I believe it’s because we have failed to learn from the old masters of direct-response marketing.

I’m talking about people like Claude Hopkins, the great pioneer of direct-response marketing.

People like Eugene Schwartz, author of the celebrated direct-response staple: Breakthrough Advertising.

And people like Kay Murphy, the first woman to chair the British Direct Mail Advertising Association.

Problem is: these days we’re too eager to emulate the exciting ‘thought leader’ who’s just struck a ‘dope deal’ with will.i.am.

I propose we begin to change that today by taking a leaf out the old school masters of direct-response marketing.

If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t work

The old masters were not concerned with industry awards or baubles.

Their focus was the end result:

You make the sale.

Or you don’t.

Having worked in the pre-internet age, the old masters were forced to fail faster and learn quicker than we are today. Their insights into the art of persuasion are stark, focused and grounded in statistics.

Before it was possible to fire an email shot to the world and split test a hundred variables, they lived and died in the moment of the sale.

As Schwartz wrote in his 1966 masterpiece Breakthrough Advertising:

“[A piece of direct marketing] must accomplish its sale from a single ad, without relying on the cumulative force of the campaign, and without help from product display or salespeople.”

The format encouraged discipline. It promoted deeper study of the prospect before publishing. And the direct-response (or non-response) of the customer left no room for interpretation: either the advertising worked, or it didn’t.

As Hopkins states in Scientific Advertising:

“The only purpose of advertising is to make sales. It is profitable or unprofitable according to its actual sales.”

It was true when Hopkins wrote it in 1923.

It is still true today.

Three books by old masters you should seek out and read today

As I point out in my own book, The Art of the Click: How to Harness the Power of Direct-Response Copywriting and Make More Sales, even the late, great David Ogilvy is reported to have said he would not employ any writer at his agency who did not have at least two years experience working in direct-response.

If you’re not one already, I’m not suggesting you quit your current position to find a job as a direct-response copywriter. Sure, it might help develop your understanding of how to sell, but it’s not particularly practical.

What is much more practical is to actively seek out the knowledge of the old masters of direct-response and learn from them.

By digging into advertising’s past, you can uncover effective tools for its present.

Indeed, there is a whole wealth of literature out there, but I would recommend you begin by reading three of the best:

  • Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz
  • Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins
  • Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves

Study these books. Learn from them. Apply their insights in your own marketing. By doing so, you will give yourself an edge that few people truly understand in today’s market.

Five things you can learn from the old masters today

To give you a head start, let me share five quick things you can learn from the old masters today.

1. You need to do more research – Claude Hopkins wrote: “An ad-writer, to have a chance at success, must gain full information on his subject.” This is key. The edge good research will give you in marketing is invaluable. You must become equal with the experts on a subject and then find the detail not even the experts know.

2. Show, don’t tell – “Good advertising does not just circulate information,” said Leo Burnett. It’s obvious to most. But observed by few. You must find a way to go beyond a simple retelling of your research. Create narrative, use simile and metaphor, identify what’s at stake and where the drama lies. Understand the emotions you’re aiming for and make sure they’re not contradictory.

3. Put your prospect in the picture – The direct marketers of old looked often to the art of salesmanship and how a salesman on the doorstep would demonstrate products. In writing, you should do the same. Says Eugene Schwartz: “…put your reader right smack in the middle of this product-in-action story, and give him a verbal demonstration of what will happen to him the first day he owns that product.”

4. Offer a specific benefit – Another idea often acknowledged but rarely practiced in modern marketing. As Rosser Reeves points out: “Each advertisement must say to each reader: ‘Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.’” Look at most criticism of modern marketing and the problem will be in that it’s very clever, but doesn’t actually highlight a specific benefit.

5. Your headline doesn’t need to sell – Contrary to what many may think, the job of a headline is not to sell. As Schwartz points out, a headline has only one job: “to stop your prospect and compel him to read the second sentence of your ad.” Your focus here should be disruption. Your aim is to create intrigue and a burning desire to read on. Don’t bog yourself down in trying to foreshadow the sale.

And there you have it. Five quick things you can learn from the old masters of direct-response. Don’t get me wrong…these are simple ideas to understand. Having the discipline to apply them is a different matter.

There is, of course, much more we can learn from the old masters of direct-response…

If you’d like to discover more, I explore the subject in more depth in my book The Art of the Click: How to Harness the Power of Direct-Response and Make More Sales. It’s published by Harriman House and is available to order on Amazon now. Click here to order your copy.

Written by Glenn Fisher, Founder of All Good Copy.

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