Dear Business Builder,
I’m sure you’ve heard of Gary Bencivenga.
Only a handful of copywriters in our generation have ever competed at anywhere near Gary’s level over the long haul. And if our little fraternity held an election today, Gary Bencivenga would be unanimously elected King.
The following is Part 5 of my six-part interview with master copywriter, Gary Bencivenga.
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 for a direct mail package — 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 into a rhythm and a groove, 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 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 for this direct mail package 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.
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.
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 direct mail 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 direct mail 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: 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.”
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.
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.