Five Enduring Lessons From The Greatest Copywriter Of All Time (Slideshow)

In our industry, we obsess over the ever changing – the latest channel, the latest technology, the latest trend.

Instead we should obsess over the ever constant – the principles that define success year after year. From one generation to the next.

73 years ago the greatest ever copywriter launched his agency in New York, with $6000 in his account. Within a decade he would take over the advertising world, reaching a level of fame never before (nor since) achieved by someone in our industry.

These were some of the principles that defined that career. They remain every bit as relevant and impactful today as they were then.


“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

There’s this weird thing in marketing where most marketers aren’t that interested in selling stuff. Clearly the phenomenon is not a recent one, with Ogilvy famous for giving brand experts a torrid time and arguing everyone should begin their career in direct response.

“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

The average marketer is more invested in the brilliance of their idea than they are in the success of the business. Testing is therefore anathema as the reality of data can rarely live up to the promise of powerpoint.

Great marketers embrace this inevitable disappointment. They push their content into the wilderness knowing it will come up short, and welcome the results with enthusiasm as it sharpens their next attempt.

Embrace the data. Fail with gusto. Iterate relentlessly.

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

There is no magic formula.

Short headlines work well, as do long ones. Curiosity is powerful, as is specificity.

The only unifying theme is volume – great copywriters force themselves to write an excruciating number of headline options. That way they can cleanse their system of cliches and platitudes before their brain finally kicks into gear (headline #20 on a good day).

“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible”

Humour is the ultimate sector agnostic weapon. It extends your reach, breaks down barriers and builds rapport. It also makes customers so much more forgiving when you drop the ball (which you will, sooner or later).

Hire someone who can tell jokes and they will transform every tweet, email, blog post, sales page and video script.

They will half the buyer journey and decimate the cost per acquisition.

The more boring your product, the more valuable this person becomes.

“Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.”

Big ideas give us long term direction and ensure we are building an asset rather than a series of disjointed tactics.

They help us cut through the noise in markets that are already packed with an abundance of good content, and in 2022 that’s pretty much all of them.

Big ideas help us to sell the vision to decision makers and influencers, while injecting excitement into those involved in the execution.

Big ideas make other channel activities like PR, outreach and community engagement a thousand times easier, because remarkable ambitions are worthy of remark.

And if you think you don’t have the budget for a big idea, think again. Nothing is more expensive than trying to make a noise with mediocrity.

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