Haris: Hi Brad. I’m really glad you agreed to this interview because you have so much to share about freelance copywriting. Let’s start with how you got started in copywriting?
Brad: Sure. That’s a fairly easy one to answer! It all started when I was standing in a book store in Los Angeles, CA. I picked up a copy of ‘The Copywriter’s Handbook’ by Robert Bly.
But let me put things in some perspective… I have been writing steadily for about 30 years now. I majored in film at the University of Maryland, and in my junior year I wrote my first long-form work, a feature-length screenplay. To date, I’ve written 15 screenplays, three novels, about 100 short stories, poetry – etc. So I come from a highly creative background.
I served briefly as a technical writer for a private company that had contracts with the U.S. Army – so I was documenting a huge procurement database. Although technical writers can earn respectible incomes, especially if they’re managing, the content tends to be very dry stuff.
However, growing up, I always thought writers had to starve – especially freelance writers. I don’t know what the stats are now, but a few decades ago only a small percentage of freelance writers made $30K per year (or more). I doubt that stat has changed much, unfortunately!
Anyway, I read Bob Bly’s book – where he lays out a strategy for starting and running a freelance copywriting business. His success story really impressed me: Here was an introvert that majored in chemical engineering, with not much marketing or sales experience – but became one of the top copywriters in the country (if not the world!).
Like Bob, I’m also an introvert. I’m not shy, but I would rather be writing than marketing. And, you really don’t need a single connection to get started. It just takes some time, discipline, and willpower.
Haris: How did you transition to freelance copywriting from your job?
Brad: I was a journeyman staff copywriter in three different industries: education, banking, and telecom. These jobs paid pretty well, but you’re invariably working on the same content year after year. I also quickly got tired of office politics, doing ‘busywork’, commuting, and all the other pitfalls of the 9-5 grind. So I guess I switched to the freelance world out of frustration; it definitely wasn’t a big ‘money issue’. I guess I’m kind of a rebel this way.
To quote Bob Bly, “I want to work when I want to work, on what I want to work, and for whom I want to work”.
Haris: Getting clients is one of the greatest challenges for freelance copywriters. Could you tell us more about how you get clients?
Brad: Yes, it is a huge challenge – especially when copywriters are starting out: They don’t always have a big network or mailing list, samples from A-list clients, etc. And writers tend to be introverted by nature, not born sales people. This is where you have to roll up your sleeves, because no one else is likely to ‘do it for you’.
In order to be successful, you need work and clients. In today’s post-Internet world – there are a myriad of ways to market yourself. It’s overwhelming sometimes, to say the least – because you could wind up throwing your marketing dollars at so many different things. And there’s no guarantee that this money will give a ‘return on investment’.
Like many copywriters though, I’m a disciple of Claude Hopkins – the granddaddy of direct marketing. Nearly a century ago, he wrote a book called ‘Scientific Advertising’. It is still in the Top 10 of required reading for marketers and copywriters. In this book, Hopkins stresses the importance of direct marketing – marketing that is measurable and accountable.
With this in mind, my advice is to choose two favorite methods of marketing – methods you can track with a simple spreadsheet or database. Mine happen to be cold-calling and warm email marketing.
Emails are fairly quick (and cheap!), and you can use templates based on the approach or the prospects. By ‘warm’ we mean a more casual, tailor-made approach – not mass emailing or spamming. Those latter types are quickly intercepted or just plain ignored. Emails are easy to track, and you can build a formidable list as you continue to spread your wings and prosper.
I balance the email marketing with cold-calling. Now I’m not a natural on the phone, but my father was a very successful salesman who wound up managing the sales team of a large corporation — so I guess I picked up his savvy and warmth when I talk to people. Cold calling has changed considerably over the past 20 years – because people don’t pick up like in the past, let voicemail be their secretary, etc.
Haris: How did you learn to write copy? Are there teachers, books or resources you can recommend?
Brad: The first thing I did was read a couple of books on copywriting. However, I’m also a graduate of AWAI’s Accelerated Copywriting Program. They are a company based in Delray Beach, FL that has helped thousands of copywriters educate themselves and launch their businesses.
The course I took included contributions from Bob Bly, Mark Ford, Dan Kennedy, and Nick Usbourne. I ate this course up! I guess it reinvigorated my commitment to being successful – rather than ‘getting by’ or just moonlighting with it. I couldn’t wait to get started with my website, finding clients, etc.
There are many books on copywriting which have blessed us. Apart from Bob Bly and Claude Hopkins, David Ogilvy was another major inspiration. I’ve read the wisdom of so many to date; and I wish I had the time and space to acknowledge them all!
Haris: How do you prepare for a writing session?
Brad: Copywriting is roughly 80-90% research: You must know your audience, and as many details about them as possible. You must also understand what makes them tick emotionally.
Because as most sales and marketing people will tell you — people buy for emotional reasons. They justify their purchase afterward with their rational mind.
For example, if your friend buys a BMW, and you ask him: Well what made you do that? They might say something like, “This is one of the best built cars in the world” (and there is much evidence of that) – but the real reason they bought it was to look good, or present to the world a symbol of their new status. Or to give you a simpler and cheaper example, how about candy? People are consciously aware that it’s not good for them, but they buy it anyway. Why? Because it tastes good and makes them feel better.
Stories and other narrative approaches work all too well, as the history of the medium has shown us. I learned long ago during my drama and acting classes, and also in screenwriting and playwriting – how powerful a well-told story can move people.
I’m kind of a perfectionist also, so nothing leaves my desk without a battery of edits. I’m amazed at how many so-called ‘professionals’ have typos on their websites, or in their copy. I know it’s not a perfect world by any stretch; it’s just a personal ethic of mine. I also always have a ‘copy chief’ I subcontract: It’s important for copywriters to have the humility to constantly seek feedback – so they can improve their craft and become more efficient.
Haris: Who’s your favorite copywriter or piece of copywriting?
Brad: I always loved ‘The Man in the Hathaway Shirt’ (1951), by David Ogilvy. He took an otherwise ordinary product (a men’s dress shirt), and completely changed the campaign simply by buying an eye patch for the model. This simple change created an instant history/story/mystery for the ad, and afterward, Hathaway shirts reportedly sold out in New York City.
Haris: In your opinion, what are the greatest advantages of being a freelance copywriter?
Brad: Oh boy, where do I start?! Maybe with commuting… I currently live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. When I was growing up, the only ‘rush hour’ we had was basically government workers getting off around 4-5 PM. It would end around 6-7. Not anymore! Rush hour seems to start around 2-3 now, and go until 7-8!
I also used to live in Los Angeles. I was a copywriter at the corporate offices of a bank on the Miracle Mile of Wilshire Blvd., which is just west of Downtown L.A. I didn’t live too far from work, but I met people who lived in Orange County to the south, who would spend 2-3 hours every day on the road! So I don’t miss commuting one minute.
I like making my own schedule. I’m a consummate night owl; I love the night because it’s so peaceful. I don’t always do my best writing at night – that’s something that’s kind of out of your control. However, it is a lot more relaxing, that’s for sure! So if I don’t feel like working, or get ‘cabin fever’ – I can just take off whenever I want to. The work always gets done, and I am NEVER late with my deadlines.
Freelance copywriting gives you such freedom – to do what you want to do. You can take vacations when you want, spend more time with the family and friends, etc. You also determine how much money you’ll make: As we all know, money is freedom. Not necessarily happiness, but to quote the boxer Joe Louis, “It tends to soothe the nerves”.
Haris: What types of copywriting do you do?
Brad: For B2C, I specialize in email copywriting. Despite the rise of social media, and the advent of pay-per-click, email is still one of the most effective tools in a digital marketer’s arsenal. Something like 65% of all consumers make purchases from direct mail or email. Also, email results are highly measurable: Once you compose your marketing emails, you can do A/B testing to compare elements like the subject line, testimonials, layout, headlines, images, the call to action, and special premiums/offers.
Emails are challenging to say the least: For example, the subject line is kind of a ‘Lone Ranger’; there’s no lead or body copy supporting them underneath. If you’re lucky enough to get the prospect to open it, you still have to grab and hold their attention. This is where it gets really tricky, because you have to appeal to the prospect’s emotions (depending on the offer or desired action) — and also create value. If you succeed, they should reply or click through to the next stage of the sales journey.
Testing is the only way to know if your copy is working. Marketing still isn’t a science, and it’s always evolving due to a variety of factors. However, it doesn’t have to be rocket science in determining which emails are winners, and which ones you should ditch.
I’ve also written a lot of sales letters and landing pages. The challenge in these comes in creating strong headlines and subheads. As David Ogilvy said, you have to assume that the headlines might be the only copy on the page they read — so they have to pretty much stand on their own.
In terms of B2B, I like helping clients with white papers and case studies. A white paper is essentially a persuasive essay — without hype or fancy rhetoric. When writing one, you have to think like a lawyer and write like a journalist. Even though they’re more of a ‘soft-sell’ document, a well-written one can influence the decisions of powerful prospects with deep pockets. The other great thing about the white paper is that the content can be retasked into other forms, such as marketing videos, blogs, etc.
The key to creating a winning case study is to find a highly satisfied customer. Not only this, but they should be willing to spend some time to help you market the service or product. Dynamic and authentic quotes about their happy experience will go a long way in influencing the prospect to take further action.
Haris: What one daily habit has contributed to your success more than any other?
Brad: I think a lot of it has to do with two things (for me). One is self-belief, with a strong dash of faith: You have to believe you can do it, and have faith that you’ll succeed. Most copywriters start out with very little in terms of contacts and/or capital, and there will be times when the ‘little voice’ inside poses questions like:
Are you crazy? Can you afford to leave your full-time job? There’s too much competition, or not enough work – you get the picture.
That’s when Number Two comes in: Commitment. Because you’re either all in, or you’ll probably fail. You can’t afford to be ‘half-way’ committed, because more than likely your results will reflect this strategy and mindset.
When you’re starting out, and don’t have a ton of results – all kinds of forces will magnify which can cripple this commitment: Life, family, job, illness, psychological demons, etc. But that’s when an entrepreneur’s character and spirit reveal themselves. They just keep going no matter what! They don’t hand success out to everyone. Some people are blessed, and from outside it looks like they just fell into it. But by and large, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears were shed along the way for most freelancers.
Haris: If someone wants to hire you, what is the best way to get in touch?
Haris: That was an amazing interview! I can’t thank you enough for sharing your story and the great advice on copywriting.
Brad: It was my distinct pleasure – Glad I could help!