You wake up one morning and you decide, “My, I think I’m going to be a copywriter”. Sounds simple enough. How hard can it be? Stroke your chin a bit, scribble down a few headlines, find some email addresses of hiring managers in advertising agencies, type a cover letter, and press Send.
Voila! You’re in their inboxes. Now, wait by the phone for a call. And wait. And wait. And wait till cobwebs surround you, which generations of spiders have called their home.
You see, becoming a copywriter isn’t as easy as some people think. While stroking your chin is a great first step, and admirable start, copywriting is a career path that takes much dedication, hard work, and late nights and early mornings (but not of the partying kind).
For one thing you’ll need to practice a lot to improve your skills. (And that right there is an article all of its own). Enrolling in online courses is also a great idea because it’s not as expensive as those prestigious ad schools.
Some good bedtime reading on becoming a copywriter
But, first, grab some books, settle down on a settee in front of a window, and read the stories of a few of the world’s best all-time copywriters. You’ll need to visit the library, or a bookshop, to get them, but seeing if you’re inspired by the giants of copywriting that have walked the earth is a great way to see whether you’ve the will, or the aspiration, to pursue a career as a copywriter yourself.
After all, they still influence the trade to this very day, so their backstories are essential to know if you’ve the desire to become one of them. And, one day, end up as a name on the rambling blog of a copywriter like me.
Let’s look at five of the best copywriters who have been so brilliant, talented, driven, and creative over time that the mere mention of their names strikes awe into the hearts of, I kid you not, every copywriter who is worth their salt.
Technology may have changed and advanced over the years, and this motley crew was kicking around long before the internet, but the idea of conceptualising and writing about that big idea that drives great advertising campaigns is as valid today as it’s ever been. And yes. the language we use too has also evolved, but, and here’s the point, our core human understanding and instincts are pretty much the same.
Words still evoke emotional responses, whether through persuasion, security, comfort, or advice. Hell, add any human desire, like sex or dapper dressing, and you can bet your bottom dollar that words exist that can make people want them, crave them, need them – even when they don’t.
If that sounds like your kind of calling, then copywriting could be just the thing.
So, the first step, well, at least one of them, and before you start stroking your chin, is to learn the rules of the trade, and how to elicit audience appeal. Fortunately for you, those giants we mentioned earlier have left a lot of valuable lessons in their wake. Lessons that will set your path, and guide you into becoming a bona-fide copywriter.
Here then are a few of the best copywriters of all time that could help you, and indeed even the writer of this very article, improve your work, and open new ins – and close more outs.
The five best copywriters of all time
1. David Ogilvy
No list would be complete without this man. In fact, no list would be worth anything without this man at the very top. Mr Ogilvy, David to his friends, has often been lauded as being the “The Father of Advertising”. He is also well praised for his compelling advertising copy. In his long and decorated career, he has originated highly successful campaigns with clients from Rolls-Royce to Dove to Shell, with many stops in between.
He also knew a lot of things about other aspects of advertising. Take this quote on research.
“Advertising people (that’s you and me) who ignore research are dangerous generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”
So, put this thought into practice. You cannot write successful copy unless you know exactly what the audience, and in fact the person, reading it needs and wants. Know who you’re writing for and how they think. Do your research and understand your audience as thoroughly as you understand yourself. Well, that’s for the enlightened individuals that have self-actualised. The rest of us mere copywriters should aim for the perfect example of their target audience.
Want to sell nappies to young mums? Rather think you’re selling to just one: Jessica, aged 25, loves her new child, is awe-inspired by the concept of new life, and wants to take the very best care of them.
Make it personal. That’s what David Ogilvy did with every single advert he wrote. He also emphasised the importance of a good headline, one that grabs the audience by its lapels, and shakes them vigorously straight from the very start.
Do that, grab their attention, in an unavoidable way, and chances are they’ll stick around for the rest of your sales pitch. And always loop back to the start with your final sentence. The circular argument is the most attractive. No corners to hide in.
2. Leo Burnett
Leo Burnett, Leonardo to his friends, was another copywriter who was renowned for his compelling ad copy.
Before the 1950s, adverts were all the same: an image with a line underneath it. No idea was needed. Just a picture and line. If only we could be copywriters in those days. But during the 50s and 60s, this began to change, and the “Creative Revolution” started, and Burnett was leading the charge, frothing at the bit, or at the very least, chewing his pencil.
Another quote. (What would an article about the greatest copywriters be unless we heard it straight from the lips of the ones we’re writing about?)
“I have learned from advertising that you cannot have quality advertising without a quality client, that you can’t keep good clients without good advertising, and no client ever will buy a better advert than he understands. End of story”
Burnett was mister personality and panache, and you just have to read copy of the brands he worked to know that. Hell, how can you argue with the man who created the Marlboro Man or Tony the Tiger?
But where’s the copywriting in the Marlboro man ads you may ask? There isn’t any really, well a great line here and there obviously, but what Burnett grasped is that copywriting is about more than just writing copy. It’s about finding the big idea, the essence of the brand, one a cigarette company could hang its hat on.
Or Stetson in the case of the Marlboro Man.
3. Claude Hopkins
Claude Hopkins, no relation to Anthony as far as we know, wrote one of the most influential and widely read copywriting books of all times. “Scientific Advertising” it was called. Yes, a book bereft of emotion, and quite rightly so. Whilst scientific advertising is only half the story, the other half being advertising that pulls at one’s heart strings, you should always consider both. Or start with one and end with the other. Or vice versa. The point is you have to use both sides of your brain, left and right. Logic without creative is a tad dry and creativity without logic is a tad wild. At least they are in the ad world, and that’s what we’re discussing in this article.
His famous quote, at least one of them because was a notoriously talkative copywriter is:
“No orange grower or raisin grower (or any fruit grower really) could try to increase the consumption of these fruits. The cost would be a thousand times his share of the returns.”
You see why they called him the scientific advertising man, yes? Yawn, you may well do. But read it again and find its nugget of truth, because it’ll make you a better writer, and well, it’s at least something to do on a cold and wet Tuesday, assuming you’re reading this on a cold and wet Tuesday.
But let’s give you the layman’s version of the quote:
You can, and should, spend your resources trying to create desire – but the real trick is to tap into the desire that is already there. And as we mentioned earlier, we are all humans, so we can safely assume we have the full range of desires, at least the ones on the homo-sapiens bell curve.
He also said that you should never sell the product, but you should always sell what it can do for people and why it’ll satisfy their needs. Simply put, don’t talk about features. Talk about benefits. Because all your audience is concerned about is “What’s in it for me?”
Another great quote he had was one about headlines.
“The purpose of the headline is to single out people you can interest. What you will have written will only interest certain people and for certain reasons only. You only care for these people. Then create a headline which will talk to those people only.”
That’s a lot of only’s!
4. Drayton Bird
Drayton Bird, or Birdman to his friends, holds quite the honour. He was much admired by the father of advertising himself, David Ogilvy.
Ogilvy gushed: “Drayton Bird, or Birdman as I like to call him, knows more about direct marketing than anyone else in the entire world.” Is that an exaggeration? Probably. Can you prove it? No. Should good advertising embellish the truth? Probably not. But should you make the truth sound amazing? Yes.
He believed in constant study (read: lots of late night studying and no friends), and said it gives you a great advantage in business and that you should never give it up. OK, we’re being too harsh. Every word of his quote is the truth. One should never be satisfied with ones knowledge, for there is always more out there, and one must never give up.
Drayton Bird’s treatise “Common sense Direct and Digital Marketing”, whilst sounding awfully practical, is published in 17 languages, and has been on Britain’s bestselling list for the subject of direct marketing every year since 1982. That’s older than most of us. Quite the longevity.
Drayton worked in fifty-five countries with many blue chip brands. He helped sell products for every brand from American Express and Nestle to Peppa Pig and Audi.
5. Eugene Schwartz
Rounding off our list is Eugene Schwartz, Genie Babes to his friends. He is known as one of the best copywriters in history (that’s a long time). And no exaggeration there.
He notched a number of achievements under, and we suppose ‘on’, his belt that displayed just how powerful his advertising copy was, and is. A television advert he wrote is known for selling a television to one in fourteen US TV owners.
A television ad selling televisions? Isn’t that narcissistic?
He was a champion of cold hard facts over plaudits and shiny trophies you win at advertising festivals.
“The surest way to know that something is failing as copywriting is to have someone come in and say, ‘My god, Genie Babes, that was great copy!’”
Yes, probably not the best guy to inspire you to raise your game as a copywriter. But he believed that the method to measure the success of an ad’s copy was not about winning praise (but let’s face it, everybody wants praise, even Eugene otherwise he wouldn’t be described as one of the best copywriters of all time)
No, quite contraire, the way to measure its success is how it translated into physical sales. The aim of copy, he believed, is to convince people to act, not to distract them from the product and draw attention to the words.
And quite rightly so. We’re not in copywriting to trot out the fancy words (at least not all the time). We’re here to sell products. We’re great supporters of capitalism, and if we’re going to take praise, it should be, “that man wrote copy that broke all my sales records.
These are just a few of the best copywriters of our times, and our parents’. There are many more besides. Do yourself a favour and read up on them. Take inspiration from their philosophy, their work, and their legacy and you’ll improve your own copywriting skills.
A final quote then. Another one from our friend Genie Babes.
“A very good copywriter will fail. If the guy doesn’t fail, he’s rubbish. He’s got to fail. It hurts. But it’s the only way you’ll ever get the home runs when next you’re on the field.”
Remember that. Creativity is not a simple yes and no, there will be bumps in the road, but you have to learn from them and keep going.
Now let’s make this a full circle and go back to the beginning of our ad which was you contemplating becoming a copywriter, and just about ready for a beard stroke.
Need copy that rivals the work of the world’s best? Hire the right copywriter.