Interview With a Pro:
Our Conversation With Master Copywriter Dick Sanders, Part 2

In this issue of The Golden Thread Online, our interview with Dick Sanders (the man who created the first magalog) continues. Today, he shares with us his specific advice for getting started as a copywriter, along with many of the other secrets he's discovered that helped him become one of the top copywriters in the country.

TGT: We've been talking to our memberss regularly about how to get started in the copywriting business. What advice do you have for them?

DS: Be willing to work cheap in the beginning. When I got that appointment with Sid Avery, I told him I was willing to do anything, even sweep the floor for $1.50 an hour. He said, "Follow me." We walked into the studio and he picked up a broom. Then, he handed it to me and said, "Start sweeping." The very next day, we went to MGM Studios and shot the Schwinn Bicycle catalog in large format, complete with models and fancy sets. We worked from sunup to sundown, and I loved every minute of it.

TGT: How did you build up your client base?

DS: A lot of jobs go to the man or woman who is standing there. So there's a lot to be said for "showing up." Many years ago, I joined the Direct Marketing Club of Southern California and went to monthly dinner meetings. I got work from that. At least once a year, I go to an ISI Money Show, at which I see my financial newsletter clients. I always get work from those events. Just twice, I attended a national DM convention: once I got a job from it and once I didn't.

TGT: When someone approaches you with an assignment, how do you tackle it?

DS: Research comes first. I ask what the product is. For whom it is intended. Why it is better or unique. You look for the benefits. And then you find a way to build your sales presentation – your way of making the sale. Sometimes your client will want to tell you how to do it. You have to be careful. Be objective and diplomatic, but hold true to what you think is right for "your way of making the sale." Effective sales letters have an underlying sales strategy. Compromise that strategy and the response will suffer.

There is no subject matter I feel I can't tackle – all the better if it's something new. I've learned many interesting things researching DM packages.

I never write a package in a few days as I hear some copywriters do. I always take 5 to 6 weeks to do a job. (Of course, these are typically 20-page magalogs.) I spend a week or two on research and then start writing. I literally write the sales letter 20 to 25 times. I always chuckle when a client tells me my "first draft" is due on such and such date. The first draft I give them is at least my 20th!

TGT: When you're doing your research, how do you go about getting experts to talk to you?

DS: I rely on my client to set up interviews. I rarely interview an expert that I contact first. The important thing about interviewing experts is to be prepared. Do your homework. Usually they are happy to talk to you if you're a good student. Two of the most embarrassing business experiences of my life were times when I wasn't prepared. (You'd think I would've learned the first time.)

TGT: What's been the most challenging and/or rewarding –or even strangest – project you've worked on?

DS: The magalog I did for the Gilder Technology Report. I launched into the research material and didn't know what I was reading. I couldn't get a grip on it. George Gilder is a really smart guy and writes beautifully, but he doesn't talk down to you. I reread the material and still didn't know what he was talking about. I got scared and thought, "Am I going to fail big time here?" But then I realized that the audience to whom I was writing – investment newsletter subscribers – was the same audience I'd been writing to for years. And if I didn't understand Gilder, they wouldn't either. I began to see that it was my job to simplify Gilder. I read the material a third time and finally began to get a small foothold.

When the package was done and mailed, it made over $10 million for them. My wife and I moved to a fancy new home at a country club after that. We even bought modern furniture imported from France – and our cat scratches it just as well as he did the old furniture!

TGT: If you could give one piece of advice or one secret that you think has helped you most in your career, what would it be?

DS: Two things have helped me enormously, and they are closely related. First, I took two years of typing in school and became a good typist. This is important, because when you're writing, your fingers must keep up with your thoughts. The other thing is that an English teacher once told me "good writing is rewriting." No wiser words ever spoken!

TGT: Any other tips that you might pass on to our members?

DS: I can think of at least four.

First, curb your procrastination. After you do your research, you need to start writing. And yet, starting is the toughest part of writing; it can be really frustrating. The reason for getting started sooner rather than later is that what you write in the beginning won't be very good – and may even be awful. The only way to get past the bad stuff and on to the good stuff is to write and rewrite. There's no getting around that.

Second, while I think it's extremely helpful to get lessons in direct-response writing, it's important to be creative in your own individual way. Once you get some basic principles, tips, and rules down – and even emulate other copywriters – endeavor to find your own voice and style. And then don't be afraid to bend the rules. Direct marketing is constantly evolving, and you've got to evolve with it. When I created the "magalog," the conventional wisdom was that "self-mailers don't work." I paid no attention to that and went ahead with my vision. And my magalog creation had a huge impact on the industry.

Third, remember that the best direct marketers do a lot of testing. They understand that many of their panels won't give them the results they want. A lot in direct mail is counter-intuitive. Even the most experienced direct marketers are frequently surprised at the results. So, don't get discouraged if you write a few packages that underperform the control. You're not going to win every time out. And don't think the client will never use you again if you write a loser for them. They expect to lose on some test packages. That's just business.

Finally, always be professional and courteous. Respect the deadlines. Respect the jobs that others on the marketing team are doing. Don't be temperamental and difficult to work with. Don't throw a tantrum. I'm not saying I haven't gotten frustrated and done these things, because I have – but I also apologized for them. Always try to make it easier for your clients, not harder.

My father gave me this advice when I was young: "Do a good job and be kind." It seems almost too simple, but it is a formula for success.

Recommended Reading from Dick Sanders

"The most important book I've read lately is 'The Edinburgh and Dore Lectures on Mental Science,' by Thomas Troward. It's advanced metaphysics. The reason I think it's important is that we use a very tiny portion of our mind's potential – and yet all of our creative ideas come from the mind. Metaphysics is about expanding the use of your mind.

"The best 'read' I've enjoyed lately is 'Dino,' by Nick Tosches – an unauthorized biography of Dean Martin that I stumbled upon only because my mother is a fan of his. We bought this book for her when she stayed with us a while back. But she didn't like it, because it's wild and vulgar with a hip, sophisticated writing style. I picked it up one day and couldn't put it down. Nick Tosches is one of the best writers working today.

"The most helpful books on copywriting that I've ever read are: 'Positioning; The Battle for Your Mind,' by Al Ries and Jack Trout; 'Direct Mail Copy that Sells,' by Hershchell Gordon Lewis; and 'Winning Direct Response Advertising,' by Joan ThrockMorten . All great books!"

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Published: March 11, 2002

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