For the 375th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast, we brought back Seth Godin. But maybe not quite the way you think. We talked to Seth more than five years ago about creating art, freelancing, and the story you create for yourself. It’s such a great discussion, but because it happened so long ago, not very many listeners find it. So for our very first throwback episode, we’ve pulled this great interview out of the vault and are sharing it again… with a few new thoughts at the end. Even if you heard this interview the first time we ran it, it’s worth another listen.
Click the play button below, or scroll down for a full transcript.
Stuff to check out:This is Marketing by Seth Godin
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Rob Marsh: A little over 5 years ago, as we were approaching our 100th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast, Kira and I were trying to think of who would be an amazing guest for the 100th episode of the show. There are some amazing—even famous—copywriters who came to mind. It’s too bad David Ogilvy wasn’t alive. He definitely would have made the cut.
But this show is about more than copywriting. It’s about marketing and showing up and making a difference in the world. And when we added those considerations to the list, one obvious choice stood out.
You know Seth. He’s been a vocal advocate for making art or as Steve Jobs once said, making a dent in the universe. Much of Seth’s career, certainly for the last decade, has been about encouraging people to make their art.
So I reached out to Seth and asked him if he would be our 100th guest. And I think it was about 20 minutes later, I got a reply back. I still have it, in fact, let me just read what he said… he wrote… I can happily do this, but my publisher asked me to not have any new podcast interviews until November. Can we record it soon, but have it come out then?
That timing meant that Seth wouldn’t be our 100th guest, but we weren’t about to say no. And in fact, I think the timing actually worked in our favor. As you can imagine, Seth appeared on many podcasts around the same time ours went live—all to promote his new book. But because we recorded 5 months earlier, we didn’t have the book, so our interview was very different from all the others that went live at the same time.
It’s been 5 years since we recorded this interview with Seth, but I have to tell you I go back and listen to it more than any other episode. Seth’s advice on making art, owning the work we do, doing the difficult emotional work, building spec projects, and what happens when we don’t do those things is even more important today than if was when we recorded this interview more than 5 years ago.
Now… this is where I would usually mention the copywriter underground. I’m not going to do that today because we wanted to give you something as a thank you for being a regular listener to the show. Just after the new year, we launch the copywriter accelerator. It’s not a course. It’s an 8 part business building program designed to help you build a six-figure business that works for you. I’m not going to tell you all the things it includes here. You can find that out at thecopywriteraccelerator.com. But I will share an exclusive code only available to you as a podcast listener. This is the only place we’re sharing it. If you go to the copywriter accelerator.com and enter the code: POD200, you’ll save $200 off the price of the program. That’s POD200 at the copywriter accelerator .com. And you can find far more details about what the program includes there. Check it out. And if it’s a fit, join with the code: POD200.
Okay, now we hope you enjoy this incredible interview with Seth Godin.
Kira Hug: Seth, welcome.
Rob Marsh: Hey, Seth.
Seth Godin: Thanks. Great to talk to you guys.
Kira Hug: We’re very excited and honored that you’re a part of our show. Before we start recording, we just shared with you that you’ve been such a big influence in our careers and also in creating The Copywriter Club. So my palms are sweaty and I am thrilled that you’re here.
Seth Godin: All right. Well, I’ll do my best. That’s a pretty high expectation, but we’ll see what happens.
Rob Marsh: You’re going to deliver. We feel good about this, so.
Kira Hug: So, to kick this off, you talk about becoming a category of one on your own podcast, and you mentioned doing quirky work. That really stood out to me. What does that mean and how can freelancers do that?
Seth Godin: Well, there’s two kinds of freelancers. There are freelancers who seek to have a job without a boss, that’s most freelancers. And then there’s freelancers who actually make a living, make an impact, bend the curve. It’s fun to talk about being the second kind, but there’s a cost to it. I think distinguishing between the two is really important. More than ever because there are laptops, because there’s an internet. More than ever people feel like they can make a living on their own in the world. That plenty of people who are professional copywriters used to be on the client side and then they go, ‘Whoa, I just paid that person a thousand dollars if I only did that 60 times a year, I could make a living.’ And so off they go.
Their motto is ‘You can hire anyone and I’m anyone.’ The problem with that motto is it’s based on a mindset of scarcity. A scarcity of information, a scarcity of choice, the scarcity that comes from geography. And in my little town, there’s only one florist. So yeah, if you want flowers you have to buy it from the florist, but it’s not true for copywriters. There’s no scarcity. The alternative is to do the scary work of intentionally not being in the middle, intentionally not saying to the client, ‘What would you like? I’m happy to do it for you.’ Because if that’s your approach, then they’ll just find someone cheaper than you. Whereas the alternative is, ‘No, this is my work. This is how I do my work. I’m the one and only at this work and if you want this work, that’s what you get from me.’ That’s different. It’s a whole different way of being in the marketplace.
Rob Marsh: Can we talk a little bit about that other kind of freelancer too? Because I think it’s really important to realize that when we’re that kind of freelancer that doesn’t want a boss, a lot of times we actually end up creating a job with the worst boss of all, and that is ourselves.
Seth Godin: Exactly. That most freelancers have an enemy inside and this is the person who not only relentlessly criticizes them, their work ethic, their approach, their quality of their work, but then when it’s time to do the difficult emotional labor of building a career, it says, ‘Nah, we worked really hard today. Let’s just go out for drinks.’ So on one hand, the boss is pushing you too hard and bringing shame along, and on the other hand, the boss isn’t pushing you hard enough and making it easy to hide.
Rob Marsh: So, how do we make ourselves then that second kind of freelancer? What are the things that we need to do, really step into that role?
Seth Godin: Well, I think it begins by acknowledging that you’re not very good at what you do right now. You’re at the 80% level. That there are plenty of people who do what you do, and many of them are faster and cheaper and more experienced than you. That’s just sheer math. It’s gotta be true. So, when I started out as book packager, I had a Mac. I knew sort of how to set type. I had an MBA from some fancy business school. I said, ‘I’m ready to go.’ But I wasn’t good at it for seven more years. But if you are self-satisfied, and say, ‘Well, why are they getting the gigs and I’m not? Life isn’t fair.’ Then you’re not going to be able to sharpen your knife and hone your skills to admit that, in fact, you could be a lot better at this. That’s the first thing.
But the second thing is, you have to say no a lot. You will become the sum of your clients. You can define a freelancer’s life by who their clients are. When you have great clients, they push you to do better work, which gets you even better clients and they pay a lot because they’re happy to, because it’s worth it. When you have lousy clients, they’re in a hurry. They don’t push you at all except on price, and the kind of work they want you to do, doesn’t get you more clients because it’s mediocre. So you have to be able to say to lousy clients, ‘Sorry, I’d love your money, but I don’t want to work for you because you’re a lousy client.’ And then you have to use your downtime to work on spec to earn the attention of great clients.
Kira Hug: Can you talk a little bit more about that, the downtime working on spec to get the better clients because I feel like that’s where a lot of copywriters in our club get stuck?
Seth Godin: Well, in the old days, in order to be a copywriter, you needed a bag of gold because you needed to buy a list and buy stamps, so it would be really hard. For example, to effectively prove to L.L. Bean that you could write catalog copy and form letters that would make L.L. Bean’s sales go up because it would’ve cost you tens of thousands of dollars to run that test on your own. But today, you could build a website and have that website attract people and connect people and earn people’s attention until you had 5,000 people in the fly fishing club. Once you earned the attention of 5,000 people in the fly fishing club, you’re not going to have any trouble at all getting great clients in the fly fishing industry because all by yourself for free, you earned the attention of 5,000 high value individuals. That’s the kind of spec work I’m talking about.
Or if you don’t want to view it as an online club, find a charity you believe in, show up, and raise them $10 million dollars. After you’ve raised them $10 million for free, now you have a part of your portfolio that lets you walk to the next charity and say, ‘I’m so good at this. I raised $10 million for these guys and if I can’t raise $10 million dollars for you, don’t pay me.’ By the time you’ve done that five times in a row, then you really are the best at this. Not at anything, but at this, at this specific thing, and that’s how you can carve out a career.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, I think you’ve just kind of answered this question I was thinking. On your podcast you talk a lot about being a category of one and a lot of times you’ll talk about artists who are doing a daily painting or doing something that’s very specific. I think sometime copywriters will hear that and say, ‘Well, yeah, but I’m not just art, I’m also commerce, and so the kind of clients that I’m working with don’t allow me to do that kind of daily art or standout in that kind of unique way.’ Are there ways that we can approach our clients in the commerce world that really do help us stand out from a 100,000 other copywriters out there?
Seth Godin: Well, you’re channeling several whines beautifully and so let me-
Rob Marsh: I’m good at that. My wife will tell you I’m good at that.
Seth Godin: Well, you’re not whining, you’re channeling it. But let me try to decode a couple things here. First of all, I don’t use the word art to mean painting. I use art to mean something that might not work, something generous, something distinctive. So, William Shakespeare was certainly an artist. Marcel Duchamps was an artist. But I would argue that on a really good day when he’s doing a breakthrough, Jay Abraham could be an artist as well. Most of the time, most of us don’t get a chance to do art because we’re too busy doing what we think of as our job, but art is available to anybody, whatever work that we do.
But the essence of what I heard you say is, my clients won’t let me and therefore I will be as mediocre as they are, which is where I was at five minutes ago. Get better clients. And if that feel like a catch-22, then go do the work on spec and if it feels like you can’t do the work on spec, then you finally should admit you’re not that good at it. There’s lots of copy editors in the world and you’re just one of them. I think it’s possible to be better than that.
The other thing I would say is, it’s naïve and incorrect to assert that businesses always hire the single most effective freelancer for every job. What they usually hire are the freelancers who, in addition to doing the work, are easy to work with, help them through their fear, who are fun. So you could be the best at what you do, your category of one, without necessarily being the person who adds six spaces points to their beating their control cold letter. It might just be that you’re the easiest one to work with on this industry. It might just be that you’re the one that’s the easiest to tell their boss about. Because when someone’s hiring you, they’re not spending their own money, they’re spending the boss’ money. So what they’re buying from you is not what you do, what they’re buying from you is a story and it’s the story to tell their boss because they don’t want to get into trouble. In fact, they want to get a smile. So, when someone says, ‘Hey, great news. I hired Rob. You know Rob. He’s blah, blah, blah, blah.’ And the boss says, ‘Good work.’ Well, then you’ve earned your paycheck right there.
Kira Hug: I want to ask about emotional skills because when I heard about this, it seems so obvious. Yet, I don’t think of it day to day in my work with clients. I don’t think about the emotional skills that I’m developing or how that gets me paid. How important is that today for freelancers?
Seth Godin: Oh, I think it’s the most important part. Here’s why. A great client doesn’t give you the trust and resources you need unless they believe you. And believing you is not a matter of proof, believing you is a matter of belief, and that’s based on emotions. So everybody in the direct marketing world is afraid. They’re afraid that their next campaign won’t work. They’re afraid that GDRP will land them in some Turkish prison. They’re afraid that they’re a fraud. That fear is why everyone’s copying everyone else. That fear is why everyone seems so selfish. Why there’s always a squeeze page, why no one will play the long game. They won’t play the long game because they’re afraid they’ll be dead before the long game arrives. So, if you are the person who can assuage that fear through your approach, through your demeanor, through your professionalism, through your back and forth, through your reputation, then you’re worth hiring.
A simple example which is slightly outside this area is the world of professional speaking, which I’ve been lucky enough to be in for 30 years. I’m pretty good at it, but there are people who’ve you never heard of who are better at it than me. So why do I get paid more than them and why do I have to turn down so many gigs? It’s not because I’m the best at public speaking, it’s because the person hiring me gets the satisfaction of knowing they can tell everyone they hired me. And so my reputation causes me to have a waiting list and my waiting list causes me to have a reputation.
The same thing is true for the magic, mysterious world of high end copywriting. Because everyone has a keyboard, everyone knows the alphabet, everyone could write a note. Your note might be a little bit better, but what’s mostly better is your reputation and your ability to work with emotional labor will get the client to change the offer in the first place, will get the client to stop acting like a selfish jerk, will get the client to have the patience and the generosity to do great work. If you’re the one who is in the room when the client made the right decision, you get part of the credit.
Rob Marsh: So, yeah, when you talk about fear, there’s almost two sides to this. The client has their fear of hiring the wrong person. A lot of our audience is just starting out or are struggling through the first year or two of really trying to establish themselves and there’s the resistance, the fear of getting started, or the fear of not knowing that you’re good enough, all that stuff. We’re basically dealing with fear on both sides of the equation.
Seth Godin: Exactly, and they play off each other, which is why they’re also people who are listening to this who’ve been struggling for 12 years, and they justify their mediocre work by saying that have to pay the bills. The problem is, no one promised you that this was going to work. So my suggestion is, get another job doing something brain dead that pays the bills and then use your spare time to do great work for great clients who deserve it. You can’t compromise yourself to greatness. You can’t be mediocre on the way to being really, really great. You have to begin with a very clear vision. Who’s it for? What’s it for? What do you do? What don’t you do? What are you known for? How far out on an edge are you willing to go?
So when I think about our mutual friend, Margo. Anyone could have started her list who knows how to type and write, anyone, right? She’s not gifted from Thor and Loki and Jupiter. She just decided to do this work. Well, she doesn’t get paid for it or didn’t get paid for it for a really long time. That’s why almost no one does it because they’re saying, ‘Well, yeah, but I need to be busy today. Who’s going to pay me to write for them today?’ So you end up working for some second-rate health insurance company, writing second-rate work. Well then, why are you surprised that you don’t have anybody calling you to work for them again?
Kira Hug: So it sounds like it’s a decision you make and then it’s also … Something you mentioned reminded me of just niching down too. That if you want to be great you need to niche down, which is what a lot of copywriters fight against. They want to write for everybody to get those jobs-
Seth Godin: Right.
Kira Hug: … How important is niching down?
Seth Godin: That’s a great expression that I’ve never heard before. I don’t use that expression. In my new book, the core idea of This Is Marketing is the smallest viable market, so you’ve all heard it, you know? In the lean entrepreneur world, it’s the minimum viable product. Well, I think that for most of us, we succeed when we obsess about the smallest viable audience, because if you eliminate off the bat 99.9% of all the things you could do, if you eliminate 99% of all the people you could hire, you say not allowed, just these people, you’re going to treat them differently. You’re going to learn different skills. You’re going to stand differently. You’re not going to walk away when it gets tough, because you’ve got nowhere to go, and that idea that you’re on a desert island, not on a giant planet, changes the way you deal with your resources. By obsessing about the smallest viable audience, what ends up happening is you succeed. Not succeed on the world scale, you’re not going to be as big as Amazon. Of course you won’t. You’re a soloist, but you will succeed and that will give you the posture of a success, it will give you the reputation of a success and then slowly you can make your audience bigger. Back to the first thing I said at the beginning, if you say you can hire anyone and we’re anyone, you’re sort of doomed.
Rob Marsh: I really like that idea too, because we see this of the people that we talk to on an almost daily basis. When you talk about that minimal viable audience, and I love that term, you’re also turning your back on this massively huge market of people and it’s so scary to look at that market and say, ‘I’m not going to work with you,’ and what could literally be hundreds of millions of dollars, billions of dollars, and I’m going to work with my small focused market and get enough for me.
Seth Godin: More than enough and this is the … Try the other method first. Okay, it didn’t work. I’m guaranteeing you it didn’t work. Now what are you going to do? Well, why don’t you just do copywriting for plastic surgeons in New Jersey? Because once you are known as the expert and the successful one for plastic surgeons in New Jersey, don’t you think you can have 100 clients a year? I think you could. That’s enough. It’s more than enough. You’re done.
Rob Marsh: Again, it’s great. So Seth, I’d love to jump all the way back almost 20 years to when you launched Permission Marketing. It was actually the first book of yours that I ever read. A really smart boss gave it to me when I was working in an ad agency and said, ‘You’ve got to read this.’ In the last 20 years so much has changed online with the amount of information that gets shared, with the things that we’ve seen that are happening in Google and Facebook, and I’m really curious to jump into how has permission and getting permission changed over the last 20 years? What would you do differently if you had to rewrite that book today?
Seth Godin: Well, I’ve intentionally not rewritten the book because if I did, I’d have to rewrite it every week, but the fundamental concept has not changed one bit. The amount of lying and tricking, and regulation and nonsense around people who don’t get the idea, continues a pace. But, the guys at Google took the idea and turned it into the multi, multi-billion dollar ad words business, and the guys at Groupon built it on permission marketing, and go down the list. One company after another is built on a very simple principle, that anticipated personal and relevant messages always do better than spam. Anticipated still matters, personal still matters, and relevant still matters, and spam is still the enemy. What’s shifted is there’s more spam than ever before, that we thought the world was busy in 1999. We had no idea. There were no smartphones then. You watch someone walking down the street, they’re going to absorb 100 messages before the light even turns green.
You’ve got all this clutter and the way almost all selfish marketers have decided to cut through clutter is by making more clutter, by increasing their frequency, by skirting the rules, spamming more people. The alternative is to make a promise and to keep it. The alternative is to be missed if you were gone. If you didn’t send that email, how many people would write in and say, ‘Where is it?’ I would like to believe on my blog, it’s a pretty big number. If I didn’t blog tomorrow, I would probably hear from a bunch of people. The question for you and your clients is, if you didn’t send out the … I hate this word … Blast. If you didn’t send out that blast tomorrow, how many people would say, ‘Where was it?’ If the answer is no one, you don’t have permission, you’re a spammer.
Kira Hug: I want to ask about feeling really uncomfortable and I get the concept with myself and stepping out of my own comfort zone, but recently you mentioned making your clients feel uncomfortable too, which really stood out to me. To do great work, to do remarkable work, is it not just about making yourself feel uncomfortable, but it’s about bringing people along with you and pushing them outside of their comfort zone too?
Seth Godin: Great question, Kira. I make people uncomfortable all the time, because I’m very passionate about the change that I’m trying to make. If you’re not trying to make a change happen, then you’re doing nothing. Change, maybe it could be something as trivial as change a non-customer into a customer, but ideally it’s something bigger and better than that. Change a struggling parent into a successful parent, an uninspired student into an inspired student.
If you’re going to make change happen, it will always be accompanied by tension and the tension is, it might not work. The tension is, I might get in trouble. The tension is, how much more do I need to know before we say yes? The tension is what will I tell my boss? The tension is, can we do it tomorrow instead of today? If you can’t bring tension to the table, then all you are is a waiter, right? Then all you are is bringing something from the kitchen to the table, and if you get a really good waiting job in a really good restaurant, you’re tips will be okay, but you’re not changing anybody. I think if you’re going to do this work carefully enough that you’re even listening to a podcast like this, you want more than that, and what you want is to change a lousy, selfish, short term thinking in an organization into the opposite.
What you want is not just to work on a movie, but to work on a movie that’s a classic 50 years later. What you want is to do something that matters, and in order to do that, you have to be willing to bring tension into the room.
Kira Hug: How do we bring that tension into the room? I’m just not quite even sure where I would start and know how to do that.
Seth Godin: Yeah, so many examples, but the most important is you do it on purpose. You know what change you’re trying to make.
Kira Hug: Right.
Seth Godin: There was an ad agency in the UK, I believe it was called St Luke’s. This was years ago. It won all the awards, a 30 person firm. What happens in the ad agency business is, after you win all the awards, you get more clients, which means you hire more people, but the people you hire, you’re in a hurry, so you’ve got to hire B people because all the A people are taken, and that gets you more clients. Then your work starts getting more average, because bigger means average. Then Saatchi and Saatchi acquires you and you have to do a four year buy out, and then you’re done. That’s the arc.
Well these folks saw this happening, and they said, ‘We don’t want to do that. We just want to do what we do, but we can’t do that if we’re going to get bigger, so here’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to hire any more people. If we’re not going to hire anymore people, we’re not going to take any new clients. The only way we’ll take a client is if an old client leaves.’ Once they took this decision, everything changed for them, because you’re sitting in the meeting pitching your client on this bold new idea, and the client says, ‘Oh, I don’t know. It’s so bold. I don’t know if my boss will go for it,’ and so the partner folds his arms and says, ‘Well, I don’t know if you guys know this, but we have a policy. We don’t take a new client unless we get rid of an old client and we have a waiting list. Do you want to be one of our clients or not?’
All sorts of status roles start getting played in this moment, because does the account exec want to go back to the boss and say, ‘Uh oh, we don’t get to work with the best ad agency in the United Kingdom anymore, because they fired us.’ ‘Really? Why did they fire us?’ ‘They fired us because I didn’t have the guts to run an ad.’ They can’t afford that. That’s too risky, so the safer thing to do is let the greatest ad agency in the United Kingdom decide this ad is worth running. That is how you build a great ad agency.
Back when Jay Chiat and Lee Clow we’re running Chiat/Day, Steve Jobs sort of lost his nerve about the 1984 commercial. Didn’t test that well, the board didn’t think it was that great, and Jay and Lee said, ‘Fine, we’ll run it out of our own pocket.’ They didn’t even have to run it out of their own pocket. Just the act of them saying that called Steve’s bluff and brought tension to the table. They were basically saying, ‘Aren’t you big enough to own this? Don’t you want to do something great?’ That’s how you do it on purpose and that comes with saying no. It comes from being willing to walk away in a principled way based on the promises that you make. I am a copywriter, I’m not going to put my name on this. You can do it without me, but if you want my name on this work, it’s got to be better than that.
Rob Marsh: It feels to me like all of this stuff has to start with us, which is really the message of you know, Linchpin and so much of your writing is that you almost have to ignore everything that’s out there and become the change first, and then the change almost starts to happen with the clients that you get, or with the work that you’re doing.
Seth Godin: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. That’s exactly right, and that’s why I’m not super popular, which is fine with me, because I’m not trying to average my way to popularity, I’m trying to be specific. You’re exactly right. You know? The book I wrote before This Is Marketing is called What To Do When It’s Your Turn, and it’s always your turn, and people don’t want to hear that it’s always their turn, but it is.
Rob Marsh: Once I’ve made that change then or once we’re on that pathway, because it’s probably not buying area. It probably takes a long time and it’s consistent and constant. How do we know when we’ve got something to the point where it’s ready to ship, you know? Where we’re not holding onto something too long or we’re not going too early. I’m almost asking for a checklist even though I know there’s no checklist, but how do we know when the time is right?
Seth Godin: There are very few people who go too early, so if you’re asking yourself this question, it’s probable that you’re holding onto it too long. The other thing to remember is you learned something about copywriting, and what you learned about is dry tests in segmentation. You’re not going to launch anything to everyone. Launch it to a few people, see what happens, test and measure, put it in the world, see what happens. The part of the magic of a daily blog is I’ve done 7,000 tests about what works and what doesn’t. Half my blog posts are below average and I wouldn’t have known which ones they were until after I published them. That’s how you learn, by shipping the work. If you view your work half the time as a teacher, because your customers are students, and the rest of the time as a student, because the people you’re writing for are your teachers, you will continue this cycle of getting better.
Kira Hug: Is it okay to be in a stage where you might not know what your change is yet? I mean, I love this idea of if we all knew what our change was, the world would be a better place, but is it okay to have five years where you’re trying to figure it out or is that just an excuse?
Seth Godin: Well, I think ‘should’ gets us into a lot of trouble, but no. I think if you’re a professional, you know what your change is, you should shift it over time, but if you say to a plumber, ‘What change are you here to make?’ The plumber will say, ‘I’m here to change your faucet from a leaking faucet to a non-leaking faucet.’ Right?
Kira Hug: Right.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, yeah.
Seth Godin: If you say to a copywriter, ‘What change are you trying to make?’ And they say, ‘I’m just trying to pay the bills,’ then they’re not a professional. They’re a hack, and there’s plenty of room to make a living as a hack, but you’ll make $30 an hour and you won’t make a lot of change happen, because it’s all going to be an accident.
Rob Marsh: I think a lot of what we do, and maybe why people have a hard time wrapping our heads around this is something that I think you’ve written about this a little bit, and that is that brilliance comes in small bursts and a lot of the stuff that we’re doing to be great is still mundane tasks in order to free ourselves to do what the brilliant thing is, you know? It’s the learning, it’s the prep work, it’s paying the dues in order to be able to launch the awesome thing for the client, or for ourselves.
Seth Godin: Yeah, I’ll go with that for a little bit. I think that it’s unlikely that most of the people listening to this have failed as much as you have or as Kira has, or as I have. Once they’ve failed that many times, then they can say that they’ve earned it, but failing more is what learning looks like.
Kira Hug: All right. Well, I want to talk about being a genius, because this always resonates with me. Again, a lot of copywriters have an imposter complex and don’t think they’re good enough and compare themselves to more experienced copywriters. So, what would you say to them when they feel like, ‘Hey, I’m not a genius. I will never be a genius,’ and that’s just their cop-out? Can we all be a genius?
Seth Godin: Well, if we carefully define the word, sure. Albert Einstein really messed us up. I talked about it in my Akimbo podcast, I think number 12 or 14. Albert Einstein said, ‘Well, what you’ve got to do, apparently, is have crazy hair, not know which house is yours. You have to paint the front door a funny color. You have to win a Nobel Prize, et cetera.’ That’s certainly the Einstein, Tesla version of genius.
I would argue that when a five year old kid sees one his parents really wrestling with tension and walks up and gives them a hug, that’s an act of genius as well, because he has solved a problem that he has never seen before and he has solved it with humanity. That isn’t a giant act of genius like E = MC2, but it’s an act of genius. For me, any time you’re not a cog in the system, any time you dig deep to bring something real to cause a connection to happen and make it change without a manual, you’ve performed an act of genius.
Well, my word for someone who performs an act of genius is a genius. So, I think everyone has done that at least once in their lifetime. At least once in their lifetime they’ve shown up in the right place at the right time with the right words to make a positive change happen. If that’s true, then our job, the thing we’re actually getting paid for is to do it again. The only way you do that is by doing it wrong first, wrong, and wrong, and wrong, and wrong, and wrong. If you’re not willing to be wrong, it’s unlikely you’re going to be right.
Rob Marsh: Then once that happens, we have to be able to recognize that something’s going right. We have to recognize your genius so that we can replicate that or you can replicate the process to create more genius.
Seth Godin: Exactly. When we think about someone like Miles Davis, he recorded Kind of Blue, which is generally considered the most successful Jazz record of all time, in two and a half day. If I compare that to Leonard Cohen who took seven years to write the song Hallelujah, one song, well, who’s more productive? I’m sure that Hallelujah was an act of genius after six months, the rest of the seven years was hiding. What Miles understood was more editing and more retakes wasn’t going to make Kind of Blue a better record. It was going to make it a worse record.
So, if we can develop a style, and an approach, and a reputation where being ourselves, finding our true voice gets easier and easier, then your acts of genius become more common.
Rob Marsh: I see that you’ve done this … We referred to the 7,000 plus straight blog posts, those kinds of things, that it’s really the showing up, it’s the even if an idea is not all the way there, it’s being there. I’m curious, Seth, are there things that you wish, looking at the kinds of things that you have done, things that you wish you had done significantly differently at all in your career?
Seth Godin: Well, I feel like I’ve done a lousy job of being as brave or as generous as I should be with the privilege and the opportunity that I have, because I get stuck in my own way. It’s hard to be as connected to as many people as you would like to connect to. I try to protect the flicker of forward energy that I’ve been able to keep going for all these years, because I’m worried that if I get too overwhelmed, it’ll go away because it’s hard to show up with a new thing when you haven’t finished the whole thing yet. At the same time, I realize that I won the birthday lottery, and I truly am in a position of privilege and I waste it every day.
Kira Hug: I want to know what frustrates you the most. You have your change and, say, your mission. When you look at freelancers today, and if you want to go specifically with copywriters, what are we doing that just drives you mad?
Seth Godin: Oh, it’s the self-talk. It’s not just copywriters, it’s just everywhere we look. We say, ‘Here’s a key, there’s the door, go ahead and unlock it.’ They say, ‘Well, can I have a money back guarantee?’ You say, ‘Well, yeah. Not only that, the key is free.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll unlock it tomorrow.’ I get that it used to be you didn’t have proximity, you didn’t have access to the building, you didn’t know the right people. I get that when I was starting out, there were only three business magazines, so the chances that you were going to have a column in one of them was close to zero, but now it’s free. Just write a medium post. Who’s stopping you?
Well, we know who’s stopping you, and it’s frustrating for me as a teacher to find people who don’t want to enroll. Then it’s doubly frustrating to find the cynics who think that they should find a reason why people like me don’t have your best interest at heart, that we must have some scam going on, and there must be some trick to it. At least for me, there isn’t. I’m a teacher, and this is my chosen area in which to teach. The altMBA has had 2,500 grads, The Marketing Seminar’s had 6,000 because they work, but it should be ten times that. The reason it’s not ten times that is because people are afraid. The reason they’re afraid is they’ve been brainwashed into believing that the status quo is safe, when in fact the status quo is the riskiest thing you can do.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, and when you talk about being a teacher, I think about Professor Christensen at Harvard and the ways that education is changing. I think you’ve done a lot of changing how marketing is taught. I want to ask from the other side, how do we show up as better students to be able to learn the things that teachers like you, like Jay Abraham, or others, how do we actually prepare ourselves better so that we can learn and then execute?
Seth Godin: There’s no test. There’s no test. The best teachers are not accredited. If there’s no test, asking, ‘Will this be on the test?’ is a foolish question. If there’s no test, asking, ‘What is the minimum amount I can do to get through this and get certified?’ that’s a silly question. It’s more like saying, ‘This an all-you-can-eat high-end sushi buffet. You’ve already paid, and starting tomorrow you’re going on a long walk where there’s going to be not enough food. Then the question is, ‘How much can I put on my plate?’ That’s the way to think about it, not, ‘How little can I get away with?’, but, ‘How much can I engage with?’ That got boiled out of us in third grade, in seventh and in college, because there we were overwhelmed and we focused on the minimum. The minimum isn’t interesting to me, and our reflex needs to shift to, ‘I can’t believe I get to learn all this stuff.’
One thing that got me in a lot of trouble when I wrote about it, one of my most popular posts, which is still true to this day, my opinion on this, is that libraries are dying. They’re sort of a warehouse where books go to die, and that the number one use of most American suburban libraries is to check out DVDs for free for people who used to belong Blockbuster. It’s such a shame, because we’re talking about a million lifetimes worth of material, and knowledge, and insight just sitting there combined with the fact that your internet thing is hooked up to another billion lives worth of knowledge. All we can do I watch cat videos, because we’ve persuaded ourselves that we’re too tired to learn anything. That’s crazy.
Kira Hug: Yeah. No more cat videos for me. We talked a lot about freelancers. I’m wondering about the evolution from freelancer to entrepreneur, because I feel like I wouldn’t consider myself an entrepreneur but I would like to move in that direction. I guess the question really is, what is the biggest difference between the entrepreneur and the freelancer?
Seth Godin: Yeah, this is a favorite topic of mine, so here we go. I’ve been both, so I’m speaking from personal experience. Successful freelancers say to themselves, ‘Wow, if I could just hire somebody to do the work I do and I could get six of those people, then I could keep a little bit of all of their income. I could make more money, have more impact, and not work as hard.’
What we end up doing is hiring people who aren’t quite as good as us, because if they were as good as us, they wouldn’t work for us. Then we give our clients work that’s not quite as good as they expected. Then to make it worse, every time we get busy or every time we start running out of money, we hire the cheapest, best available person who’s us to do the work. So, we end up completely overwhelmed, disappointing everybody, and backed into a corner, because they don’t cohabitate well. Freelancers get paid when we work. So, if I give a speech, or I write a blog post, or I write a book, I wrote it, every word of it. I have no staff.
Whereas, entrepreneurs get paid when they sleep. They build something bigger than themselves. Their job is to think of anything that needs to be done and hire someone else to do it. That’s their job. So, Larry Ellison doesn’t code at Oracle. Tim Cook doesn’t design at Apple, not his job. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, be an entrepreneur and approach with rigor and say, ‘All right, what would a corporation that does direct marketing look like?’
That’s what Wunderman did, he built the biggest direct marketing firm in the world. Lester, who I have known for many, many years, is a good copywriter, but he doesn’t copyright anymore, not his job. His job is to build a firm. Any day he picks up a pencil, he is derelict in his duty. Should not be using a pencil. So, I don’t think you can gradually go from freelancer to entrepreneur. I know this because I tried it, and it almost killed me. I was an entrepreneur for a long time. I built a company, I sold it for a bunch. Then I built another company, and I realized I didn’t like being an entrepreneur. So, now I’m back to being a freelancer. That’s a different life, and you act differently when you’re in that life.
Rob Marsh: I mean, so much to think about as we’ve talked about fear, and change, all of that. Seth, we’ve basically got this platform of copywriters who listen to us. Is there one message that you would say … Let’s say we’re all totally open to listening and learning, you can get one thing into our heads right now, what would that be?
Seth Godin: Well, I think I would say there isn’t one thing. If you’re looking for one thing, I fear that might be a symptom of why you’re stressed in that this is a profession. It is not a job, nor is it a task, that the task of, ‘I need to send a letter to all these people,’ or, ‘I need to write a sales pitch,’ there are more and more fast, and cheap, and easy ways to do that. Very soon, it’s going to be done by a computer. Computers can already read x-rays better than humans can. It’s not hard to imagine that they’re going to be able to take the 10,000 words, of which we mostly use 400, and figure out how to write decent testable pages.
So, that’s not your job to do tasks. Your job is to weave together so many disparate things, people, and places, and emotions, and insight, and innovation, and history, and knowledge, and most of all persuading the people you work for to act like humans. That’s your job. If you’re looking for the one key, I’m afraid there isn’t one and that’s why you’re distracted. What we’re talking about is doing the very difficult emotional labor, as Kira said, of being present, and creating tension, and causing change to happen in such a way that there’s an insatiable demand for what you do because it’s so rare. It’s based on abundance, and connection, and generosity, and trust, and coordination. If you are that person, that dervish that makes all the magic come together, it’s hard for me to imagine that you will ever have to look for work again.
Kira Hug: All right, Seth, well we want to thank you for your time and for sharing everything with us. If our listeners want to find you, where should they find your podcast, and your blog, and your hub?
Rob Marsh: And your book as well?
Seth Godin: Thank you. The new blog just launched, and it’s at seths.blog. The new book comes out in November, it’s called This is Marketing. It’s available at all finer and also bookstores of ill repute. The podcast is called Akimbo, A-K-I-M-B-O. It’s about bending the culture. You can find all my blog posts just by typing Seth into your favorite search engine.
Rob Marsh: I just want to add, as far as the podcast goes, as a copywriter listening to that, every single episode, at least so far, there’s something that is completely applicable to creating sales messages, or interacting with clients, with customers. It really is a tremendous resource. Everybody who’s listening will note your name and likely has read a book or two of yours, but with so much of the stuff that you put out in the world, Seth, it’s worth consuming. More than that, it’s worth actually using to get better. So, thank you for that.
Seth Godin: You guys are really kind. I want to thank you on behalf of the people who are listening. I know personally how hard it is to keep showing up and doing this work, and I’m grateful that you guys are putting the time and the care into it. Thank you.
Rob Marsh: Thank you so much.
Kira Hug: Thank you Seth.
Rob Marsh: That’s our interview with Seth Godin. Each time I listen, it’s a reminder of why we built the copywriter club in the first place and why our mission of helping copywriters grow their businesses and improve their skills is so important.
It takes a pretty healthy helping of chutzpa to think that I have insights to add to that interview and Seth’s advice… and yet, I’m going to give it a go.
First of all, something Seth said near the end of our discussion stuck out to me differently than it has before. He said… the status quo is the riskiest thing you do…
Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve worked with so many struggling copywriters this year or the thinking process I’ve been going through recently as I’ve been trying to figure out what I should do differently and bigger to make a bigger impact… whatever, this idea that doing what we’ve been doing, even if its working, is the riskiest path forward. We all need to be thinking about what’s next. What’s next that will work better. What’s next that will help me make a bigger impact? What’s next that will get me in front of the right people?
And let me just mention that this is exactly what the copywriter accelerator program I mentioned at the top of the show is all about. If Seth has got you thinking about what you need to do next to get out of the rut or change up the status quo so you can start creating your own art, go to thecopywriteraccelerator.com to learn more. And don’t forget your code: POD200 to save $200 if you decide this is the right move for you.
One other thing I will mention… Seth also talked about story.
He mentioned St. Luke’s the cooperative London ad agency, named for the patron saint of ARTS, that came out of nowhere to become the UK Ad agency of the year as they made some amazing ads in the 90s for clients like British Telecom, Sky TV, IKEA and Body Shop. They were different in a lot of ways including the fact that everyone they employed was an owner. Each person got the same number of shares at the end of each year. Management structure was incredibly flat and everyone was invited to comment and critique everyone else’s work. Everyone wasn’t paid the same, but they all knew how much each other made. They experimented with hot desking which meant everyone sat in different spots each day—no one had an office—and they gave staff time to pursue interests like film making and music as part of their jobs. In the 90s this was very unique. No one else had done this stuff. In fact, it was so unique at the time, they made a documentary about it.
Doing all those things differently led to some amazing creative work and lots of awards. And it also created an environment that almost killed the agency when a couple of clients left, and income dropped significantly. Two founders were forced out. And that goes back to what Seth had to say about failure and failing enough to know whether what you’re doing is making a difference. The same forces that make St. Luke’s great, also brought it to its knees. That’s the risk when you do things differently. If you’re not failing, you may not be trying hard enough to do something truly unique.
The agency is still around… in fact it would be fun to interview one of the writers on staff at St. Luke’s… and they still do things differently. In fact, over the past couple of years, they’ve recaptured some of the positive PR that followed the agency in the 90s.
So that’s St Luke’s story… but what’s your story? The idea that you do work so good there’s a line of people waiting to work with you and you only take on one or two projects a month is a story that helps keep clients engaged and coming back is one kind of story, but not the only kind. Why should clients choose you? What’s the thing that makes you stand out? What’s your story? Going back to what Seth said… that’s a big part of the reason we should be doing spec work… the projects or art that attracts the right people to us. It may not be paid at first, but it is great. Different and superior.
Before we wrap, let me just add this final reminder of your exclusive podcast listener discount of $200 when you go to thecopywriterclub.com/accelerator. But do it now as this discount expires next week.
That’s the end of this episode of The Copywriter Club podcast
The intro music was composed by copywriter and songwriter Addison Rice.
The outro was composed by copywriter and songwriter David Muntner.
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Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next week.