A-list Copywriter and best-selling author, Richard Armstrong, is our guest for the 146th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. Richard has been writing winning direct response copy for more than 30 years. And he just released his latest book, The Don Con. Kira and Rob invited Richard into the studio to talk about the book and a whole lot more. Stuff like…
• how Richard went from office boy to agency creative director
• the lessons he learned early on working on “junk” mail
• what’s changed in the world of direct response in 30 years—and what hasn’t
• his award-winning letter for Sea Turtle Rescue
• the go-to books he refers to again and again
• his favorite clients and the work he’s most proud of
• why he took long 3 martini lunches in his “Mad Men” days
• the one good copywriting habit he has
• the #1 thing that makes copywriters good at what they do
• what Richard learned while writing about con men
• the important difference between copywriters and confidence men
• his experience at Comic Con and FanCon
• what happened when he met Captain Kirk and The Fonz
Don’t miss your opportunity to get the free copywriting samples and download that Richard mentioned during the interview. And check out a few of the many resources he mentioned. This is a good one. To hear it all, click the play button below, or download this episode to your favorite podcast app. And if you prefer reading, you can scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:FreeSampleBook.com
The Sea Turtle Letter
The Responsive Chord by Tony Schwartz
The Solid Gold Mailbox by Walter Wentz
Being Direct by Lester Wunderman
Carline Anglade Cole
The Don Con
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
The Copywriter Underground
Intro: Content (for now)
Rob: This podcast is sponsored by The Copywriter Underground.
Kira: It’s our new membership designed for you to help you attract more clients and hit 10K a month consistently.
Rob: For more information or to sign up, go to thecopywriterunderground.com.
Kira: What if you could hang out with seriously talented copywriters and other experts, ask them about their successes and failures, their work processes and their habits, then steal an idea or two to inspire your own work? That’s what Rob and I do every week at The Copywriter Club Podcast.
Rob: You’re invited to join the club for episode 146, as we chat with author and direct response copywriter Richard Armstrong about the persuasion techniques used by con artists that copywriters use as well, what he’s learned from 40 years of writing junk mail and what he writes today, his new book The Don Con, and a very useful free bonus he’s sharing with copywriters. Richard, welcome.
Richard: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. I am a big fan of the emails you guys send everyday. A lot of tremendous personality and voice in those emails and I read them avidly.
Kira: Thank you.
Rob: That’s nice of you to say. I think all of the personality is Kira. I’m kind of the boring side, so she deserves the credit for that.
Kira: That is not true, but thank you for saying that. That’s very nice and I was just saying before we started recording, Richard and I are officially neighbors because I just moved to Washington, D.C. So we’re going to hang out all the time, right Richard?
Richard: Absolutely. The only problem with being a citizen of Washington is that the rest of the country hates you. So when you go anywhere else on vacation, tell them you’re from Brooklyn, you’ll get a much better response.
Kira: Okay, these are things I need to know that you need to teach me, so we’ll sit down and go through all the rules of what I need to know about living here. Let’s kick this off, Richard, with your story. How did you end up as a copywriter?
Richard: Well, it was totally by accident. I’m always kind of amused nowadays when I see these people, very young people, including one successful copywriter that I know that actually got interested while she was still in college. That didn’t happen in my day 45 years ago. I mean, I think just about all of us kind of fell into this business and that was certainly my story.
I got a job as a copy, not a copy but an office boy with a direct mail agency. Now what an office boy is, is kind of like beneath a secretary. It’s somebody who just hangs around the office and if the important people need to have coffee or sandwiches sent in, you go get them and you lick envelopes and you stand at the photocopier machine and make copies, and things like that. And I was doing that for a while.
In our agency, which was a small direct mail fundraising agency, the structure that they had is that they did not have a creative department. All the account executives did their own copywriting and none of them were very good at it. And a few of them actually hated it. And one day I was sitting with one of them and he was just tearing his hair out about trying to write a fundraising letter and I said, ‘Well, give me a whirl at it.’
I had always been told from high school and through college that I was a good writer. In fact, it kind of got me through college because I didn’t really work very hard. And I had professors tell me this, they’d tell me this on blue books and things like that, they’d say, ‘Well, you obviously didn’t attend most of the classes and you didn’t read most of the books, but you’re a very good writer so I’m going to have to give you a B+.’ So it’s kind of how I got through college.
I thought rather highly of my own writing ability and I said, ‘I’ll take a shot at it.’ And I did, and the account exec liked it and he showed it to his boss and his boss liked it. They decided to show it to the client, the client liked it. They mailed it and it was a success and the next thing you know, the boss came to me and said, ‘You’re the new creative director of this agency.’
And I’ve got to tell you a funny story, not long after that moment when he told me I was the new creative director. We had this big meeting of the entire staff in the conference room and the boss was up front with a blackboard and he was kind of planning out the next few months of what needed to be done in the agency. And he kept, every few minutes it seemed like he’d say, ‘Okay, Richard, we’re going to need copy for this and we’re going to need copy for that and we’re going to need copy for this over here.’
And when the meeting broke up, I turned to one of the guys in the room and I said, ‘My God, I’m going to be standing at that photocopier machine for the rest of my life. Do we need that many photocopies?’ The guy said, ‘No, you idiot, copy is what we call fundraising.’ So here I was a creative director and a copywriter and I didn’t even know what it was.
I stayed at that agency for about two or three years, which until they fired me for mostly unrelated reasons. And then kind of a common scenario there a couple of weeks later, they called me back in and they said, ‘Richard, we fired you because we didn’t like the long lunches that you took, especially coming back drunk half the time. We didn’t like the fact that you rolled in at 10:00 in the morning and left at 4:00. There are a lot of your habits we didn’t like, but we liked your copy, we loved your copies. So what we’d like to do is just pay you on a per piece basis.’ And I went, ‘What? Sounds pretty good to me.’ And so that was how my career as a freelancer began and that was way back in 1979. So I’ve been a freelancer for about 40 years.
Rob: Wow. And so the first thing, when I first met you, Richard, was at a Titans event and you were sharing a bunch of the experiences that you’ve had from early on in your career. You had actually even put together a booklet, I think for the people who were in the meeting and shared a bunch of the stories that you had gone through. And I loved reading them because I also started my career writing direct response mail, the actual mail that shows up in the mailbox, not the inbox.
And so as I was going through, I’m like, oh, these are … you were talking about the envelopes that you are using and the teasers that you’re using and the lessons that you learned from so much of that stuff. And I just found it endlessly fascinating. And at the time, I said, ‘Hey, Richard needs to be on our list for podcast guests eventually.’ So I wonder if you could tell us some of those lessons that you learned early on as you were working with direct response mail and how it applies to some of the things that we do today.
Richard: Well, the booklet is still available by the way, it’s at freesamplebook.com, which is my website. But when I decided to do that, I mean most copywriters have some version of their samples on their website. And I thought, well, what if I created a booklet of samples and choosing interesting ones. And what I think I did that was somewhat different from many copywriters is that I didn’t just choose the huge successes. I also chose ones that were failures, some of them spectacular failures. And quite often things were … And I’ve been in this situation a lot where I’ve written something that’s really great and the client thinks it’s great and we’re all excited about it, and then the marketplace hates it.
And I’d sort of, I’d take each one of these things and I’d analyze what made it a success or what made it a failure and what I learned from it. And it’s really a process of learning that’s gone over the course of 40 years. I’m not sure if I can think of any particular lessons that I’ve learned, although you will notice things getting longer and longer over that time. In that first job that I told you about, my boss actually told me, he said, ‘Richard, if you ever, ever go over to the backside of a single page for a fundraising letter, I will fire you on the spot. Only write one-page letters. It’s 1976 for God’s sake, people do not have time to read long letters.’
And it’s funny, you go back into the advertising trade press, you go back to … there was a trade magazine way back in the 20s called Printers’ Ink, and they were still having the very same argument. And you’d see people write in to Printers’ Ink saying, ‘This is 1926 for God’s sake, people don’t have time to read long copy.’ We’re still having that argument. But anyway, at some point somebody did go over to the backside of the letter and that’s when we learned that two pages usually works better than one. And then we tried three pages and we learned that three usually works better than two and four works better than three and five works better than four, to the point where nowadays when I do a project, it comes out of my printer at something like 60 or 70 or 80 pages long and there’s no end in sight.
And probably the biggest changes that have occurred in my whole career have been format changes, with that being the first one, when we first discovered that long letters work or long copy works better than short copy. Then the invention of the magalog by Ed Elliot and Jim Rutz, what’s happened in the early 90s was a huge change in the business. We were suddenly all writing magalogs. Then the internet came along and we started writing landing pages and websites and emails. And then most recently that I would say it’s happened about in the past, I guess it’s been five, six, seven years now, we’ve gone to video sales letters. All of these have been just sea changes in the business and they’re all basically format changes.
But the principles of writing direct mail do not change at all, not at all. And that’s why it’s still so valuable to read these books that are 60, 70, 80 years old, like Claude Hopkins and David Ogilvy and Eugene Schwartz and everything. Nearly everything they had to say back then still applies today, it’s only the formats that have changed. It’s interesting that some copywriters just haven’t kept up with it. I mean, I had dinner the other night with, well, I might as well give you his name, Don Holman. He was one of the top copywriters of the day back in the 1970s and 80s.
And when email came in, he said, ‘Richard, I just don’t want to deal with this.’ So he retired, he retired very early. And I’ve known other copywriters, very, very good copywriters who are still writing inserted direct mail packages, with an envelope and a letter and a brochure and stuff. They never made the transition to magalogs. They’ve managed to get by, but it really hurts your career when everything, when the things that are working now are video sales letters and other things like that. You got to keep up with this stuff and it’s not that hard really.
Rob: Yeah. Before we stop talking about the sample book that you shared with us. I just want to talk maybe about one letter that … I absolutely love this because I think it’s one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of a direct response piece where the copy and the design work together. And that’s The Sea Turtle Letter that you wrote for a rescue fund, I think back in the 80s. And if people get a copy of this, they can see that the copy on the page is referring to turtles moving up the page and things that are at the bottom of the page. And it’s just such a brilliant piece. And if I’m not mistaken, it won you a bunch of awards as well.
Richard: Yes, it was probably one of the most decorated direct mail packages in history, that won all sorts of awards. It really made my career in a lot of ways. Not only did I win these big awards, but they did a profile of me in Advertising Age. And back then this was the late 80s, it was still a somewhat insular community direct marketing and New York was the capital of it. I was living in New York at the time. So all of a sudden everybody in the direct mail business and in New York in particular knew who I was and it was all because of this one letter.
I don’t normally steal credit from artists and the artists if she’s still around will probably kill me if she ever hears this. But that was really my idea, to put the turtles on the page there and to show the meandering path of the turtle as it wandered through the letter. Because this has become very well known now, but back in the day not many people knew about the fact that beach front lighting can distract hatchling turtles from going to the ocean. They’ve been trained over years of evolution to go towards the light, which a million years ago meant go towards the ocean.
But if you’ve got condos and apartment buildings and gas stations and what have you by the beach, they get distracted by that light. They start heading in the wrong direction and of course they die. A lot of people know that nowadays, at the time I wrote this, it wasn’t all that well known.
If you read the letter, you can see the path of this one little turtle who gets distracted and he kind of meanders all the way through the letter. And what’s great about the letter is that both from a copy and a visual standpoint, it’s almost more like watching a movie than it is reading a letter. I think that’s what made it so enormously successful, not only in terms of how it did in the mail, but also winning all those awards and everything.
Kira: And where can we find that specific campaign? Is that part of your lead magnet? Where can I find that?
Richard: Well, that’s a part of which … that’s my sample book basically and it’s called My First 40 Years in Junk Mail and it’s available at www.freesamplebook.com. And we’ve had probably 10,000 people download that over the years. And I’m still rather proud of it. It’s just really quite different from I think anybody else, any other copywriters, self-promotion.
Kira: Yeah, I want to see that turtle. So can you share a couple other go-to books that you keep on your desk today, that you find yourself going back to often?
Richard: Well, I don’t want to repeat the ones that people already know. Obviously Eugene Schwartz’s book is very important and everything. But there are a couple of books that I think are overlooked. One is a book called The Responsive Chord by Tony Schwartz, no relation. But it’s a book and it’s not specifically a book about copywriting, it is about communication. And this was a man who made most of his living in the area of advertising, production and writing.
He was responsible for the famous Daisy commercial that ran against, yeah, that was ran for Lyndon Johnson back in 1964. But he is a real genius of communication and it’s called The Responsive Chord. And it’s a whole book about the concept that was really the basic underlying concept of Eugene Schwartz’s book. So I really think they go kind of together. There are no relation to each other interestingly enough, I knew them both a little bit. But I think that’s a very overlooked book.
Another one is The Solid Gold Mailbox by Walter Wentz, who was the genius behind the enormous site success of Reader’s Digest. There was a time in the 60s and before when Reader’s Digest was not only the most popular magazine in the world, but you could literally go into just about any home in America and find a copy of Reader’s Digest somewhere in there. I mean it was just enormously successful, millions and millions in circulation. And Walter Wentz was the man who probably more than any other was responsible for that. He invented the involvement device, which in his case in particular was a penny. He would send a penny or actually send two pennies with the mailing and one would be returned with the reply card and the customer would keep the other. And this was brand new thing then and they did so much mailing that the US mint had to put on special printing run or press runs just for Reader’s Digest and send trainloads of pennies from Denver to upstate New York where Reader’s Digest was located, to run these mailings.
I mean, it’s hard now to imagine the scale of this kind of direct mail success. So I mean, this is one of the real great pioneering geniuses of the direct mail business. And it always bothers me a little bit that his book never gets mentioned. So I would say those two and also Lester Wunderman, another really pioneering person, especially in the area of continuity marketing, which is something that is becoming more and more important nowadays. Lester Wunderman, who created the Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline, a direct mail agency. Really, he didn’t invent continuity marketing, but he sort of perfected it. And his book is also brilliant.
I think those are three books that you almost never hear mentioned when copywriters talk about great books to read. So I like to give them a plug. I think they are, all three of them are brilliant.
Rob: You’ve given me two to add to my list. I’ve actually, I own Wunderman’s book and I agree, I think it’s fantastic. It’s full of awesome stories just about the early days of direct response.
Richard: Absolutely amazing, yeah. And Wunderman worked kind of on the account side and sort of the mathematical side of this business, which is so important. We copywriters all think we’re the most important ones, but we’re really not. I mean, the classic equation for how mailing is going to succeed is that it’s 40% due to the list and 40% due to the offer and 20% due to the copywriter. The reason copy gets so much attention is because it’s the one that you can manipulate the most often.
I mean, you can always hire different copywriters and come up with different approaches and everything like that. It’s the one that kind of gets focused and the most attention, but it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is the mathematics of it. How do you make a success? How do you know, for example, what level of initial response is going to give you a lifetime value of a customer that will make it profitable? All the arithmetic of direct marketing is just enormously important. And Lester Wunderman was a genius at that. And his brother who was in partnership with him, whose name escapes me at the moment, his first name escapes me, he was the creative guy. It was a terrific partnership and probably the world’s most successful direct mail agency.
Rob: Richard, before we stop talking about what you did with direct mail, do you have a favorite piece or a favorite client you worked with, that you did some amazing things with or that just really stands out as part of your career?
Richard: Well, favorite piece and favorite client are probably two different things.
Rob: Fair enough.
Richard: I would have to say that the turtle one you mentioned is a favorite piece. Also in the booklet that I told you about that anybody can download is one that I wrote for The American Spectator magazine that is a personal favorite of mine. And that one every time they mailed it, it would not only bring in subscriptions, but it would get tons of fan letters. People would write in and say, ‘This is the best letter I’ve ever read.’ And you should give this guy a promotion and so on and so forth. And the client would always send me those letters and I’d keep them. I was very tickled by that, it was like being a movie star.
Favorite client, I’d have to say, well, there’ve been … Rodale was a very important client for me and I had made a lot of great friends there. There was another newsletter publisher called Belvoir Communications. The creative director and president there was named Donn Smith. And Donn Smith was not only a great client and a great friend, but he was really an important mentor for me because he was a better copywriter than I was even though he worked only for that company. But he was just a wonderful copywriter and I learned so much working for him.
And then I would have to say the third one is kind of my principal client right now, which is Boardroom. All the people at Boardroom are just so nice and so easy to work with. And they have such respect for copywriters there and they enjoy copywriters and they treat them like gods really. And it’s just a wonderful client to have. Of course they’ve had some changes recently, Brian Kurtz is no longer there and Marty died a few years ago. And some other people in the creative department have left and there have been some changes. But they are still a very good client to work with. And if I ever had to just choose a client, it would probably be Boardroom.
Kira: All right, I have a question about your long lunches that you mentioned at your agency time, I cannot skip over that.
Richard: You’ve really done your homework on me Kira.
Kira: What were you doing during these long lunches? Can you just create the picture for all of us of your life back at this agency?
Richard: Oh those, I thought you are talking about the long lunches I take now, because I never did get over that habit.
Kira: I had a feeling. Well, the other question is fast forward to today, what does your schedule and what are your lunches look like today? Let’s talk about back then and then today what your schedule looks like.
Richard: Okay. Well, back in the old days, I mean it was sort of the Mad Men culture working for an agency although I was not on Madison Avenue. And I never did get into the sort of having sex with your secretaries’ aspects of it and that sort of thing, that they had on Mad Men. But I really did master the two, three, four Martini lunch. I was really good at that. And the odd thing is that I would come back really pretty ripped and write some more. And I had a boss tell me once that … Because we were so busy back then and of course the letters were a lot shorter too, plus they were fundraising letters that required a little less research than consumer type mailings do. And we were literally or I was literally writing one in the morning and one in the afternoon with the three Martini lunch in between.
And I remember my boss once said to me, ‘Richard, the afternoon letters are not quite as good as the morning letters.’ That was one of the first signs that I should see that my tenure there was probably not going to last very long. Nowadays I’m a bit better about that, although Friday afternoons will often find me somewhere enjoying a very good lunch and not going back to the office.
In terms of my work habits, I have to say that I probably have some of the worst work habits in the world. And I read all these things on the Internet among other copywriters about how they master these various routines and discipline themselves to work. And I do almost none of those things. I mean, I get up late and I diddle around on the Internet for about a half an hour or an hour. I have really literally, I have just about every bad habit you could have. I’m lazy, I don’t spend all that much time each day working.
There’s only one good habit that I have and it’s really probably been the thing that has saved me over the years and that is that I do not procrastinate. At least I don’t procrastinate about copy. I procrastinate about a lot of other things in my life and there are a million things, whether it’s going to the doctor or what have you. I am a terrible procrastinator, but I have never ever procrastinated when it comes to copy.
Tomorrow I’m going to start a new project for Boardroom and hopefully if they’re on time I’m going to get a big box in the mail and I’m going to get a manuscript because it’s a book project and I will start working on it tomorrow. And there are some copywriters who will take that big box and they’ll put it in the corner and it’s like they’re afraid to open it even though they’re on deadline. They’ll keep it in the corner and I don’t want to look at it today. And I’ve never been like that, I will go in immediately and start on it. I may not do much, I may just kind of look through it. I may just kind of peruse it a little bit, think about it a little bit, but I won’t put it off and that’s probably the one good work habit I have. And if you have to pick one, if you can only have one good work habit, not procrastinating is probably the best one to have.
Rob: Yeah, no doubt. That’s a good one. Richard, what would you say are the things that a copywriter needs to know in order to be really great at what we do?
Richard: Well, the one thing that I’ve learned over the years slowly unfortunately is the importance of research. Because in those old agency days, just like today you get a stack of information from the client. And my usual modus operandi back then was that I would start working, reading that stack and I’d get two or three items in, and I’d get my first good idea. And as soon as I got my first good idea, I put the stack aside and I’d go to the typewriter and I try to write the copy based on that one good idea.
It took me a long time to realize that the good idea may not be in the first few pages of the research. It may be at the bottom of the stack or sometimes you get all the way through the stack and you still don’t have a really good idea. You’ve got to go elsewhere, you got to go to the library or whatever. Nowadays we have Google of course, which helps a lot. Or you may have to go to the client, you may have to pick up the phone and talk to people who have bought the product in the past or people who are suffering from the ailment that your product is supposed to relieve or what have you. You got to push and push and push on the research. And I just did not realize this at the beginning of my career and it’s been a long struggle for me, not a struggle, but it’s been a slow learning curve for me to realize how important that is.
And I’m still not as good at it as I should be. And when I look at the copywriters, my so-called peers who are much more successful than I am and make a lot more money than I am, it’s not often because I think they are better writers than I am. It’s because they’ve pushed harder on that research than I do and they continue to do that.
I mean, Parris Lampropoulos for example, know so much about alternative health that he might as well be a doctor. I mean, you could call Parris and say, ‘I’ve got this strange rash on my elbow here. What should I do about it?’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, you should take this supplement and that supplement and the other supplement.’ He just knows this stuff backwards and forwards, and it’s because he puts so much effort into the research. He also puts, both David and Parris and Clayton too, I think they also put a lot of effort in not being satisfied with their first drafts or their first efforts. And that’s another thing that I struggle with. I do a lot of outlining and my goal is that when I finish the copy, I don’t want to do 75 drafts of it. I’d like it to be mostly finished when I do the first draft.
I tend to put some effort into the outlining aspect of it. But these guys, and Bencivenga was like this too. They’ll write a headline and they’ll put it there as a place keeper. And then they’ll think when they go back, they’ll write a hundred more headlines and decide which of those hundred is the best. And I’ve never done that, I write the original headline and if it’s pretty good, I say, ‘Well, that’s pretty good, it’ll do.’ It’s really work habits I think and also just being relentless, relentless about your research and relentless about your editing. Relentless of about not being satisfied with good enough and trying to get all the way to excellence. And I just can’t sit here with you guys and be dishonest and pretend that I’ve been great about that in my career because I have not. But I am smart enough to know that those are probably the most important things, that will separate the average copywriter from the really brilliant copywriter.
Kira: Hey, we’re just jumping into the show today to tell you a little bit more about The Copywriter Underground. Rob, what do you like best about this membership?
Rob: This membership community is full of copywriters that are investing in their businesses and taking what they do seriously. Everything is focused around three ideas, copywriting and getting better at the craft that we all do, marketing and getting in front of the right customers so that you can charge more and earn more, and also mindset so that you can get out of your head and focus on the things that will help you be successful at what we do.
There’s a private Facebook group for the members of the community and we also send out a monthly newsletter that’s full of advice, again, on those three areas, copywriting, marketing and mindset. Things that you can mark up and tear out, put them in your file, save them for whatever and it’s not going to get lost in your email inbox. Kira, what do you like about The Copywriter Underground?
Kira: I love the monthly hot seat calls where our members have a chance to sit in a hot seat and ask a big question or get ideas or talk through a challenge in their business. Because we all learn from those situations. And then I also feel like the templates we include in the membership are valuable because who wants to reinvent the wheel? And Rob and I end up sharing a lot of the templates and resources we use in our own businesses. I would definitely want to grab those.
Rob: If you are interested in joining a community of copywriters that are investing in their business and in themselves and trying to do more, get more clients, earn more money consistently, go to thecopywriterunderground.com to learn more. Now, back to the program.
Kira: If you were to start your copywriting career over today, you’ve just become a freelancer for the first time, what would you do initially based on the experience that you have to get a jumpstart?
Richard: Well, that’s a very easy question to answer. I would get better instruction and guidance and mentorship than I did. Now in my defense, it wasn’t really available at that time. Again, I worked for an agency where the bosses at the agency really didn’t know a lot about copywriting. They knew something about the direct mail business and they knew politics because we were a political fundraising agency. They had good client relations, they had a lot of strengths, but they were not creative copywriters. They were not people who really were particularly good at that. I learned almost nothing at that direct mail agency.
If I had been smart, after I had left that agency, I would have tried to get a job with some agency that did have good copy like Richard Viguerie’s agency, which was in pretty much the same business or even better to go to Tom Phillips’ company, Phillips Publishing, where there were great copywriters. There were people who knew copy. Nowadays of course we have Agora that is responsible for training so many young copywriters and doing it so well. These young people nowadays are getting tremendous education. They’re getting education from their agencies and then they’re going and seeking it out from copy coaches like David Garfinkel and others who are in the copy coaching business.
And there’s just so much information out there that’s available. I mean, you guys, Kira and Rob, you provide a lot of information. AWAI provides a lot of information. When I was starting, almost none of this existed. We had the same books that you do, the same older books, the Cables books, the Schwartz books, the Hopkins books and so forth. But we didn’t have all this kind of direct personal guidance that you can get nowadays and it’s just so valuable. Now, again, some copywriters got around this, Parris Lampropoulos, for example, went to Clayton Makepeace and so did Carline Anglade-Cole. They both went to Clayton and basically begged him to let him be a mentor to them.
And I think David went to Jim Rutz and said, ‘Look, I’ll work for you for free.’ Again, tremendous initiative that they’re showing there, and I didn’t do that. I just kind of struggled along and tried to learn the things that I could learn by trial and error and success and failure. So, I would say that if I had my career to do all over again, that is probably the biggest thing that I would do differently, is try to get better advice, guidance, mentorship, treating, education. I mean, at the very beginning of my career it would just mean so much. I mean, even just spending two years at Agora I think would probably give you such a tremendous head start and it would be equivalent to roughly my first 20 years of just kind of using the trial and error method.
Rob: I want to ask about your book, but before we do that, I want to ask about the things that you learned while you were writing this book. So, a lot about, the book is about a confidence man, and we’ll talk about that in a second. But I think as you wrote the book, you learn there’s a lot of things that con men do that copywriters do. Can we talk about that a little bit?
Richard: Yeah, I was fascinated by that. The turning point of the book is when the lead character wants to get revenge on a mafia don, who has screwed him for other reasons. We can get into the plot points later if you like, but basically he decides that he wants to play an elaborate con game against this mafia don, which is a very hazardous thing to do needless to say. When I got to that point in the book or at least in the outline of the book I realized, well, I don’t really know a lot about how con games are played. I don’t know the various steps that a con artist goes through in what they call a long con.
A long con is kind of this thing where it takes place over the course of several weeks. And they put together a very elaborate con game. The short cons are things like three card monte games and pickpocketing and so on and so forth. But the long con is a very complex thing. And I realized I had to stop and read some books and magazine articles and other information about con artists to see how they work. And as I was doing that, I realized that my God, these con artists use very much the same techniques that we use in copywriting. It was kind of a surprising and somewhat shocking thing to learn. But it occurred to me that, well, we can learn a lot from what con artists do and con artists can probably learn a lot from what we do.
Also the difference between a copywriter and a con artist of course is something that the law recognizes as criminal intent. In other words, we are not trying to steal from our clients, quite the opposite, we’re trying to give them a product that is worth as much or maybe even more than what they paid for it. And we’re also in direct marketing, we’re trying to establish a relationship with a client, so, or customer, so that they will buy from us in the future because the economics of our business is such that the first sale usually doesn’t resolve in a profit, but the second, third, fourth and fifth sales eventually will. And that’s where we get the concept of a lifetime value of a customer, which is all the profit in the direct marketing businesses is in that.
The con artist on the other hand is basically a thief, he’s a criminal. He wants to steal your money and to get out of town before you realize it. The only thing is that he uses the same persuasive techniques that we use in copywriting. I just decided to create this booklet called How to Talk Anybody into Anything: Persuasion Secrets of The World’s Greatest Con Artists. And it just goes through the various things that con artists do, that have some application for what we as copywriters do. And also for all the other situations where we are in life where we need to persuade people. Because obviously persuading people is one of the most valuable skills you can have in business, but also in your personal life.
I mean we’re in situations often where we have to persuade our children to do something. We have to persuade our spouse to do something. We have to persuade our friends or there comes a time when you have to persuade your parents that it may be time for them to go into a senior residence. And persuasion comes up over and over and over again. And con artists are just like the world’s greatest experts on this. So I wrote that booklet to try to take some of their techniques and apply them to what we do.
Kira: I read somewhere that you attended Comic-Con and other fan conventions and also met Captain Kirk and the cons, two separate occasions. But can you just talk a little bit more about what attracted you to Comic-Con and these fan conventions and what you learned from those conventions about people that’s helped you.
Richard: Well, that kind of goes to how I got the idea for this particular novel. I have an old friend, are either of you two into Star Trek at all?
Rob: I used to watch it a little bit, I wouldn’t call myself a trekker for sure.
Kira: I’m not, not into it. I’d love to be a Trekkie, I just haven’t stepped into that world yet, maybe in the future.
Richard: I got a friend who was part of the cast in Star Trek and not the original Star Trek but the second one, it was called the Star Trek Next generation. The commander of the ship was Patrick Stewart and my friend was the second in command of the ship, commander Riker. And his real name is Jonathan Frakes. And I’ve known him for many, many, many years. We did a play together way back in 1972. And Glenn Close was actually in that play too, believe it or not. So two rather famous people came out of that one play.
I have not stayed in touch with Glennie over the years, we seem to have gone in different directions. But I have remained a friend with Jonathan, he’s just a wonderful person. And obviously we’re not really close, we’re in different parts of the country and we do different kinds of things, but we do kind of touch base with each other every now and then. And one night I was in Maine with my wife on vacation and we knew that Jonathan and his wife, who’s also a big star by the way, her name is Genie Francis, she’s a big soap opera star. We knew that they had a little, they had a vacation home nearby in Belfast, Maine, and they had a gift store there.
And I said to my wife, ‘Why don’t we go over to Jonathan and Genie’s gift store and maybe they’ll be there and we’ll say hi.’ Well, we did and of course they weren’t there, but on the way out I took a picture of my wife in front of the store and I sent it via email to Jonathan and I said, ‘Guess where we are today?’ And about two minutes later I got an email back saying, ‘I’m going to be in Maine tonight. Let’s go to dinner tomorrow.’
So we had dinner with him and it was the first time I’d seen him in quite a while. So I was kind of curious about what he was up to. I knew he wasn’t acting much anymore because I hadn’t seen him on television at anything. So I said, ‘What are you doing these days?’ And he said, ‘Well, I do a lot of directing of television, a lot of network shows.’ Television directors tend to be freelancers and they kind of hop from one show to another. But he said, ‘One of the main things I do to make money nowadays is I go to fan conventions.’ And I went, ‘What’s a fan convention?’ I had no idea. I had never heard of Comic-Con or anything like that, it was completely new to me.
And he said, ‘The first time I went to them was years and years ago and I’d never heard of them either.’ But I went to this, it was a Star Trek convention and he said there was so much money. See what they do these actors, they sign their autographs for cash, but it’s not just the autographs, like the autograph costs $35, but if you don’t have anything for the person to sign, they’ll sell you their photograph, their headshot, they’ll sign that for another $15. And a lot of people want to have their picture taken with them, it’s a selfie, so that’s another $25 and it’s all cash by the way.
And these people even though they’re on television 30 years ago, are still so popular that there were hundreds of people in line to get these autographs. And Jonathan told me when he first came home from his first one, he wasn’t prepared for all the cash he had. He didn’t even have a knapsack with him, so he had all this cash stuffed in his pockets and in his underwear and in the shoes and everything. And I was thinking about that conversation a couple of weeks later and I thought, well, wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody stole all that cash? And so that was really the basic idea behind the novel.
And then when it came to fan conventions, Kira, to get more to your question, after I’d written the novel and when it was getting ready to be published, it was last fall. And I realized, this novel is really a lot about fan conventions but everything I wrote, I wrote just for research and I’ve never been to one. And I thought, well, I might be doing a podcast with Kira and Rob someday or I might be on a radio show or whatever and the reporter might ask me, well, what are fan conventions like? And I had never been to one. So I figured I better go to one.
So I picked one in a smaller city, Louisville, and I got a ticket for it. And when I got that ticket online, one of the stars who was going to be appearing there was Brent Spiner who was a member of the cast of my friend’s show. But my friend was not going to be there, so that was okay, but when I was ready to leave that morning to go to Louisville for that fan convention, I saw all of a sudden Brent Spiner was out and my friend Jonathan was in. So again, I emailed him, I said, ‘You’re going to be in Louisville tonight?’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s have dinner.’ And so he said, ‘Let’s have dinner tomorrow night.’ So he called me from his hotel room the next morning and he said, ‘Look, tonight I’m going to be having dinner with Shatner and some of the other stars at the convention.’ And he told me, he said, ‘Shatner is, he’s an okay guy but he’s kind of a little grumpy. He can be a little rude, so maybe you and I would have more fun going off by ourselves.’
And I said, ‘Well, Jonathan, I’d really kind of like to meet him.’ He said, ‘Okay, you’re welcome to come to the dinner.’ So I walked into that dinner that night and I was the last person to arrive. And Jonathan had saved me a seat right next to him. And when I walked in, it was like walking into Madame Tussauds wax museum. I mean, Jonathan was seated next to me, directly across from me was William Shatner. Henry Winkler was seated next to him. LeVar Burton came down later and joined us. And it was just an amazing evening, meeting all these iconic television stars who for the most part even though they’re all busy with various projects nowadays, are people who kind of had their stardom years ago and now go to these fan conventions just to make cash, which is sort of what the … or it’s largely what the novel was about. So it was just a fantastic evening.
And the story I always tell about it was, I was just kind of listening, I didn’t have a lot to say to these guys. They’re all talking show business and television and acting and whatnot. And I didn’t have all that much to contribute, but it was fascinating to listen to. And I was just kind of sitting there eating my carpaccio appetizer and all of a sudden this fork came out of nowhere and grabbed a huge chunk of the carpaccio and took it away. And I looked up ready to say, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ When I realized that was Shatner who had done that and I thought, my God, this man saved the known universe like a half a dozen times, I can’t chew out Captain Kirk for stealing my carpaccio. It was an incredible evening and it really sort of dovetails so much with the book. It was like life imitating art.
Kira: Is he grumpy? Is he as grumpy as you were told?
Richard: He was charming. Now, like a lot of actors, they don’t take a great interest in you. They’re mostly interested in telling their own stories and giving their own theories and their own ideas about whatever, politics and talking about their life and so on. But he was perfectly charming, very funny, very intelligent, very eloquent. I really enjoyed meeting him. Winkler on the other hand, who I also liked, he was very nice guy, but he was very shy and quiet and soft spoken and so very, very different from the Fonzie character. And then LeVar Burton was just a bundle of energy, just one of these people who is just so filled with energy and charisma that it kind of radiates off him. So all three of them were different, but all very interesting people to meet.
Rob: Well, next time you go to a fan con, we’re going to have to go with you Richard, because it sounds like a blast.
Richard: I know all the right people down there.
Rob: Exactly, right. I want to say, I’ve read The Don Con and it’s a fun book. It actually reminded me a lot of some of the older Pulp Fiction writers like Lawrence Sanders or John MacDonald. It’s kind of the same kind of pacing and the same kind of story. And so it’s a fun book and I think-
Richard: Thank you, I’ll take that as a huge compliment.
Rob: I think our listeners should pick it up. But really there’s just a ton of value in that free giveaway that you’ve put together, the how to sell anyone anything. Because you do walk through all of these persuasion techniques. And so I just want to make sure that we mentioned that as well as we come to the end of the show, because there’s just so much learning for copywriters and for anyone who needs to put together a selling message, whether it’s an email or a sales page or like you were saying, in just daily interactions that we do. It really boils down to all of those tactics that can help us convince people to do the things that are hopefully in their best interest. And oftentimes that’s to purchase something that we’re selling. So, I just wanted to say thanks for writing it and thanks for sharing that with everyone.
Richard: Oh, it’s my pleasure and it’s available for free, obviously. You go to thedoncon.com and press the button there and all you have to do is give me your email address. I would warn you that the process of getting the link can sometimes take a few minutes and sometimes even longer than that, so be patient, but it will eventually arrive. But it’s a free download. And also the other booklet that we talked about on freesamplebook.com, it’s called, My First 40 Years in Junk Mail, also available for free, you just give me your email address. And I should also advise you, I don’t abuse your email address too much. With The Don Con, I have sent a couple of follow-up emails trying to urge you to buy the novel itself. But trust me, I won’t be filling your mailbox with spam every day.
Rob: Yeah. And if you end up getting that, the free sample, The American Spectator letter that you mentioned, it’s another fun example, sort of breaking the fourth wall. I mean, you’re talking about how you’re actually a junk mail writer and talking directly to the subject. So definitely lots of ideas worth checking out and reading and just learning from. I appreciate your willingness to share them with us and with our audience. So thank you for that Richard.
Richard: Oh, I’m absolutely thrilled to be here. Thank you. It was a terrific opportunity for me to talk with you.
You’ve been listening to The Copywriter Club Podcast with Kira Hug and Rob Marsh. Music for the show is a clip from Gravity by Whitest Boy Alive available in iTunes. If you like what you’ve heard, you can help us spread the word by subscribing in iTunes and by leaving a review. For show notes, a full transcript and links to our free Facebook community, visit thecopywriterclub.com, we’ll see you next episode.