The following is a reprint of the introduction to my Interview on AWAI’s (American Writers and Artists Institute’s publication Monthly Copywriting Genius (www.monthlycopywritinggenius.com).
Copywriting Genius: Issue #64
The Hidden Secret to Producing Great Copy
Is Mastering the Craft of Communication
Dear Copywriting Genius,
This month we had the pleasure of talking with a 27-year veteran of copywriting. He’s worked with well-known advertising agencies such as Young & Rubicam, and popular companies such as Times Mirror Group.
In this issue, he shares with you how he produces winning controls. Plus, you’ll also find out why he says the deep secret to copywriting is mastering the craft of communication.
I’ll tell you more in a minute, but for now, let me introduce you to this month’s copywriting genius, Leon Altman.
From English Teacher to Copywriter Extraordinary
Before Leon became a copywriter, he was an adjunct lecturer in English at Queens College of the City University of New York. Basically, that means he was teaching freshman composition and supervising the College’s writing workshop, which assisted students after classes.
But Leon knew it was temporary. You see, his real goal was to become a copywriter. Leon explains, “I did a systematic review of my talents and abilities and what jobs suited me. Copywriting seemed to be it, so I took a look at what was available.”
Since his teaching job was only a few days a week, Leon had time to try his hand at copywriting. A friend of his was acquainted with the promotion director of Times Mirror Book Club. So Leon put together a few samples and sent it off to the director.
Those samples wound up landing him several assignments writing direct mail for their book clubs, including Nature Book Club, Outdoor Life, History and a few others.
But Leon also did something quite clever that ultimately was responsible for him getting a job with Wunderman Ricotta Klin, the largest direct market agency at the time (and also part of Young and Rubicam).
Leon wrote a long article that was featured in the Sunday New York Times. The article, along with his assignments for Times Mirror, got him his first official copywriting position.
A Crazy Creative Idea That Actually Worked
One of Leon’s more successful campaigns – and one he remembers well – was a project he did for the San Francisco Federal Savings Bank. The package was for a bank membership, which included an increase in savings rates and other bonus features. It was meant to convey a sense of belonging to an exclusive club.
Leon proposed the mailing come from a well-known newspaper columnist. Leon explains, “The idea was to infuse a boring bank membership with newspaper columnist panache and excitement. I proposed we have a long column in the same style the columnist used. His style was known as 3-dot journalism. He would offer a tidbit of gossip, followed by three dots, then another tidbit, and so on. So for the promotion, I tried to think up juicy things that people could do with the club membership and the money they got from the rate increase. Each item was separated by the three dots.”
Leon also tells us that, while he really liked the idea, he thought it was a long shot the company would approve it. But he was wrong. The company liked it. Not only that, newspaper columnist liked it too. And to top it all off, the campaign produced gangbuster results.
Of course, over his 27 year, Leon has had a few campaigns that didn’t produce stellar results. For example, Leon recalls a piece he thought would do really well. But it only did slightly better than average. Leon re-did the package and used a more forceful, controversial approach that did much better.
Leon says, “The results showed me that it takes more than a good idea to get the best response. You have to find the idea that hits the audience in a more emotional, visceral way.”
A Methodology That Works
So how does Leon produce these winning packages? What is his methodology? He shared his method with us.
First, he spends time researching the subject matter. Leon says, “I do a lot of research on the web – competitors, articles, reports, and forums, Amazon.com. I want to know characteristics of the list. If I’m promoting a newsletter I want to see as many previous newsletters as I can. I ask to speak to company executives and others who might be helpful, whether it is an editor or a marketing director.”
Once he is familiar with the topic, he starts thinking of ideas and concepts for the promotion. He does this before he even looks at prior controls. Why? Leon says, “I’m not influenced by what people did before me.”
After he’s developed his first round of ideas, then he analyzes past controls and assesses why the control worked and why others did not.
Leon gets himself familiar with the target audience by trying to isolate what their main problems and pains are… and how the product solves that.
Leon says, “It’s important to understand what their main problem is, what they really want. Not only the rational problem and benefits they are seeking, but also the underlying emotions. Is it fear, or anxiety, do they feel they are missing out on something? Are they confused about an issue? Are they seeking simplicity? Get all the rational and emotional benefits. I try to refine the emotion at the heart of the matter.”
Once Leon has a grasp on the target audience’s underlying emotions, then he moves on to developing the theme or idea for the promotion. Leon makes sure the theme is based on the target market and the unique selling proposition of the product.
Leon says, “Working on themes and ideas is one of my favorite parts of the work, so I really get into it. I try many different angles, each aimed at illustrating the unique selling proposition.”
About His Current ControlLeon’s current control for Growth Stock Wire did 89% better then the last control and 444% better than the original control… Good numbers for sure.
Leon shared with us the reasons he thinks the package worked so well.
Leon says, “Highlighting the incredible growth rate of one of the companies in the headline not just drew people in, but set up the possibility of a big investment opportunity.
“Creating a framework of organic urgency. What I mean by that is, I stated that much of the furious growth in China is being stimulated by the rush to prepare for the Olympics.
“It was all part of a central underlying image I tried to convey: China feverishly building and growing.”
But there’s another important element in this package that Leon believes helped produced such strong results.
Leon explains, “I haven’t seen enough talk about tone and voice in copywriting articles and books. And I think it is critical. I’ll tell you something interesting on the topic of tone and voice. A number of years ago, I was also writing a bunch of annual reports. It was well-paying work that kept coming my way. But I noticed that as I was adopting the kind of corporate tone and language that fit that venue, I was losing, or feared that I might lose, the conversational tone I liked for my marketing projects. So at a certain point, I turned down all annual report work and stuck to marketing. ”
Leon shares so many more insights with us on how to produce winning controls. That’s why I encourage you to read the interview in detail. And then of course, make sure you read through his control for Growth Report.
Until another time,
Editor, Copywriting Genius
P.S. Here’s one more highlight of what Leon shared with us about perfecting your copywriting skills:
Leon says, “This is a trade, a craft. And I think you learn best by working with someone who knows the craft. This could be working at an agency, or apprenticing to a successful copywriter, or a hands-on writing course, where you’re getting specific assignments, which are critiqued by professionals. Writing, getting critiqued, then rewriting. This is how your skill grows. Studying and really analyzing controls in different industries is also extremely helpful.”