Former copywriter and Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman, is our guest for the 132nd episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. If you know anything about Bob and his special brand of commentary, you already know that you’re in for a treat. He’s been an outspoken critic of what’s wrong in the advertising world and he had a lot to say about privacy, ageism, and social media. Here’s what we talked about:
• Bob’s path from bad school teacher to contrarian copywriter
• the most important personal quality if you want to be a copywriter
• how to write in a way that attracts interest from your audience
• why he started his own ad agency—more than once!
• the dark side of running an agency and the difference when working alone
• the things about advertising that drive Bob crazy
• why privacy should be your #1 concern as a marketer and consumer
• what it will take to fix the privacy problem
• what ad agencies are doing well right now (spoiler: it’s not much)
• Bob’s complex love-hate relationship with social media
• the limits of brand building with social media
• the ultimate goal of the work that you do
• Bob’s process for selling better ideas to his clients
• the problem of ageism in advertising today—and why it matters
We also asked Bob about what he’s focused on today, his book recommendations, and what’s next for him—no surprise, it’s another book—and his reluctance to tell us his predictions for the future. To hear this one, click the play button below or download it to your favorite podcast app. Or you can scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:Hoffman Lewis
Bad Men by Bob Hoffman
10 Influencers Under 10
The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton
Where Did It All Go Wrong? by Eaon Pritchard
Eat Your Greens by Weimer Snijders
Laughing at Advertising by Bob Hoffman
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 132 as we chat with author, Ad Contrarian and chief aggravation officer, Bob Hoffman, about what’s wrong and what’s right in advertising today, what it’s like to found two successful ad agencies, what copywriters need to know about marketing and copy right now and what it means to be a true contrarian in an industry where group think is rampant.
Kira: Welcome, Bob.
Rob: Hey, Bob.
Bob: Thank you, thank you. It’s great to be here.
Kira: Bob, how did you end up as a contrarian copywriter?
Bob: I started as a contrarian person and then it led to me being a contrarian copywriter. Well, I started as a copywriter, I didn’t really start as a copywriter. I started as a science teacher, believe it or not.
Kira: Oh, wow!
Bob: I was a science teacher for a couple of years in middle school and then I ran into a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen since college, this was about three or four years after college and I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘I’m a copywriter,’ and I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘I write ads,’ and he said, ‘And you would be really good at it.’ He said that to me because we had written some stuff together in college. He said, ‘You’d be really good at that,’ and at that time, I was fed up. I was a terrible teacher, and I always wanted to do writing, although I wasn’t trained in it. I said, ‘How do I do that?’ First, I need to say that he said to me, ‘You know those things, the TV commercials you see on TV.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I write those.’
It had never occurred to me that civilized people actually sat down and wrote commercial. I thought somehow, they just appeared on television magically and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I was, ‘Okay, yeah. That sounds like something I’d like to do.’ He gave me some information on what to do and I put together a sample portfolio and I took it to see a headhunter. I was living in New York at that time and she told me I would never get a job in advertising and that’s when I knew I had to get a job in advertising because I’m a contrarian. I did get a job and I worked in New York for a couple of years and then I moved out to San Francisco and got my first agency job in San Francisco.
In New York, I was working in house at Panasonic. They had a large advertising department about 40 people or so. I got my first agency job in San Francisco, and yeah, that’s how I started.
Rob: Obviously, there are differences from maybe when you got your first job to writers today, but what are the things that you did in order to land that first job? What was that made you stand out so that an agency would be willing to hire you?
Bob: I begged. I pleaded. I bribed. No, what I did … How did I get there? Well, my first job I got in New York, the in-house job was they had interviewed about 50 people or so and somehow I convinced them that I was good. I really didn’t know anything. I had never written copy, but I got lucky and they hired me. When I got to San Francisco, I had a pretty good book which I had. My book of work from New York was pretty good and the first agency I went to in San Francisco which happened to be the first one in the Yellow Pages hired me, so I got lucky there, but I think that the most important thing for a copywriter to get a job, and as we talk today, I think this will become a theme in what I have to say is to be interesting.
If you’re going to be a writer, you have to write interesting stuff. I don’t care if you’re writing copy, if you’re writing poetry, if you’re writing movie scripts. The key is to be interesting, and if you’re not interesting, if you’re writing like everyone else, if your point of view is like everyone else, you’re not going to be very successful. We already have enough people who can follow the script. You need to be someone who can write his own script and do it in a way that makes people want to read it. To me, that’s the essence.
Kira: Can you talk more about being interesting? It seems like it could be something you either are interesting or you’re not or is there a way to deconstruct it so that every copywriter could be interesting if they do these certain things?
Bob: No, I don’t think every copywriter can be interesting. I don’t believe that we’re all equally talented. I think there are some people who are more talented than other people and some people who are more interesting than other people. I don’t know if you can teach how to be interesting, but you can teach interesting people how to write in a more interesting way. The way to write in a more interesting way is to not worry about being correct all the time. Nobody is correct all the time. Nobody bats a thousand in this league. Sometimes, you’re wrong, but as long as you’re wrong and interesting, people will read you.
As long as you’re wrong and interesting, people will get something from what you’re writing. If you’re wrong and uninteresting or even if you’re right … I’d rather be wrong and interesting than right and uninteresting. Okay, did I make any sense?
Rob: Total sense, yeah. In fact, you can totally see this playing out in politics today. The most interesting people seem to be the most wrong on both sides of the issues.
Bob: That’s a good point. It’s a sad fact of life, but in the communication business, being interesting is critical or no one pays attention.
Rob: Yeah, let me follow the train of your career then. After writing as a copywriter, at some point you also founded your own agency. Tell us about that experience and why you chose to do that.
Bob: Well, what happened was I was a copywriter at an agency in San Francisco and it was a very small, not very good agency. I came in there and brought a different vibe to it. I brought kind of a New York wise guy vibe to what was a very kind of conservative small California agency, and as a result of that, I got to be Creative Director of the agency at a fairly young age and I became a partner in the agency. Ultimately, I became the CEO of the agency and then we were bought by one of these international bozo agency groups and I worked for them for a couple of years and I hated that. As you can probably tell, I’m a good team player as long as I’m the captain. I didn’t like working for other people particularly in like a publicly traded company. That just wasn’t my vibe at all.
I worked for them for a couple of years and then I went out of my own and did freelance creative work. I did that for about three years and that was great. It was very lucrative for me and I did stuff that I liked lot and I was on my own. Having been CEO of any agency and been responsible for a whole lot of people was a real pain in the ass for me, but being on my own doing it my own way was a lot of fun. I did that for three years or so. Then I just got lonely. Working on your own all the time when you’re used to agency environment, it can be lonely and I always say, ‘The agencies are terrible places to work but great places to hang out,’ and I missed the hanging out part of the agency business, so I got together …
I had my own little creative services company and I got together with a guy who had a small agency and put it together and we started a new thing called Hoffman/Lewis and it grew very, very nicely. That’s how I started an agency. I’m not sure the same opportunities exist now that existed when I did that. I did that in 1991, I think and the agency business has changed. The structure of the agency business has changed so much. It’s so much more consolidated now. There are four or five agencies that control 70% or 75% of all the advertising in the US now. It wasn’t like that in those days.
In those days, there were hundreds of agencies and there were very good regional agencies and very good independent national agencies that had substantial accounts. It’s simply not the same industry today that it was then. The path that I took is not quite as open these days, I don’t think, as it was back then.
Kira: What are some of those lessons you learned from your time as a CEO of that first agency that you brought into your freelance creative work? What lessons can you share with us?
Bob: Oh, boy. Okay, the first lesson that I can share and the one that comes to mind most frequently, I’m not sure it’s one of that your listeners will be interested in, but one of the things that was very daunting to me as CEO of an agency was my responsibility to my staff. I always worried at night. ‘Am I going to say something to a client that is going to cost us an account that is going to cost 15 people their jobs?’ I always worried about it, and as a result of that, I had to be very circumspect about what I said. I couldn’t really tell clients the truth all the time. I had to be sensitive to the fact that if I lose this account, 15 people are going to lose their jobs and it’s not going to be me. I’m not going to fire myself. I’m going to have to let 15 other people go who have houses and children and cars and spouses and stuff like that.
It didn’t make me very circumspect, but it made me more circumspect than I normally would be. Once I got out of the agency environment and was working on my own, I didn’t really care if I’d lost a client or not. It wasn’t that important to me and I was going to be the only one to suffer. I became a lot more honest in what I could say and I see that now in the agency. I do a lot of speaking. I do speaking all over the world. After I do a talk, wherever I’ve done it, people come up to me in the bar and say, ‘God, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ There are so many people who are in agencies now who can’t really tell the truth. They have to toe the line. That’s a sad state of affairs, I think.
Rob: Yeah, I totally agree. Following that line of thought, what are some of the things, I guess anybody who’s followed you, who’s in your email list, reading your books, they’re going to know some of the themes that you’ve talked about over the last decade and a half as you’ve really gotten honest about it, but what are some of the things about advertising that are just driving you nuts right now?
Bob: Right, the biggest issue for me is tracking and I think it’s the biggest issue for me because it doesn’t just affect the advertising industry. It affects the world. It affects our democracy. There is so much abuse of our privacy by people collecting data about us, primarily online without consent, without our knowledge, selling it to other people who we don’t know, using it in ways that are not transparent to us. It’s a very dangerous situation, I believe. I wrote a book about this about a year and a half ago called Bad Men. I wrote it before the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal broke and the very first thing I wrote about in the book was Cambridge Analytica and this was six or seven months before the scandal.
I am not patting myself. Yes, I am patting myself, but the point that there is so much going on that is dangerous and we know the dangers or totalitarian governments. We know what happens when totalitarian governments know too much about their citizens, when they know who they’re talking to, when they know what they’re saying, when they know everywhere they go and they have secret files on people. What’s happening now is it’s not just governments we have to worry about, the marketing industry is now the ones who follow us everywhere, know everyone we’re talking to, read our emails, read our text messages, have secret files on us that they sell to other people and we don’t know where this leads.
There’s no precedent for this before in history where marketers have had this much information about people and I don’t know where it leads, but I know it doesn’t lead anywhere good and I think we’re seeing the first wave of this in the scandals about the 2016 election, about how people were manipulated. Sadly here in the States, we’re doing nothing about it, absolutely nothing. In Europe, they’re trying. They have the GDPR and they’re trying to protect individuals from the abuse of data. Here, we’re doing absolutely nothing and it’s a scandal.
Rob: I’m guessing when you talk about this kind of thing, you probably hear two things coming back. First would be people don’t really care about their privacy. They’re giving it up willing. The second one is probably this is a good thing for marketers because they can actually sell more products. How do you answer those kinds of criticisms?
Bob: Very easily, number one, the privacy rights of individuals are far more important in democratic societies than the convenience of marketers. The fact that this may help marketers in some way convinces to a zero degree that it’s a good thing and our rights are far more important than marketers’ convenience. I think it’s starting to turn. I think people are starting to realize how dangerous all this stuff is and are starting to understand that it is not healthy. Now, as you say, there are still way too many people who don’t get it, don’t understand this and that needs to change. That’s one of the things I hope I’m doing or at least I’m trying to do and that is to get at least some people to understand that this is dangerous, and we need to think hard and fast about what’s going on.
Kira: Yeah, it seems like as marketers, it’s our responsibility to speak up the way that you have to speak about these issues that aren’t getting enough attention or maybe don’t have enough awareness out there. Do you feel like other marketers, other copywriters especially should use their voice to speak about these issues? Is that our responsibility?
Bob: I’m not sure it’s our responsibility, but it’s something we should be doing. A copywriter’s responsibility is to write copy, not to be a politician, but I think it’s a healthy thing for us particularly within the environment in which we work to bring up these issues. If you work in an agency, it’s really important I think for you to talk to other people in the agency and say, ‘Let’s take a step back for a second. Is what we’re doing here really a good thing? Is this really what we should be doing? Is it really a good thing for us to be spying on every …’ We do online advertising and advertising used to be about imparting information, but today, it’s just as much about collecting information and the public doesn’t realize this.
Inside of agencies, I hope there’s a discussion going on about whether this is a good thing for us to be doing or not and whether it’s healthy for our society or not. It’s a very important issue, and if copywriters inside their agencies could bring … Copywriters are generally the smartest people than the agency. That’s been my experience, and if copywriters can get their peers and even their bosses to have a hard look at this, I think it’s a good thing.
Rob: I think we’re very much in agreement, the protection of privacy and limiting tracking, those kinds of things are important. What are the solutions to that? Because government doesn’t seem to be doing anything, the industry doesn’t seem to be regulating itself, certainly groups like Facebook and Google and Amazon are going to because it hurts their sale, so what are some of the solutions?
Bob: The only solution that I see and I’m not a big advocate of government regulation and all that kind of stuff, but in this case, the advertising and marketing industry has proven to be completely incompetent to regulate this in any way, to restrain itself in any way. The marketing industry will go to any extreme to get an advantage and that is not healthy for our society. The ideal answer is that we, the people, turn the tables on marketers and say, ‘You need permission. You need my agreement to market to me and here’s what I expect to allow you to market to me. Here’s what I want.’
It should be a web user’s bill of rights where we dictate the terms instead of the marketers dictating the terms, but that’s not going to happen sadly. I don’t see it … There are very smart people who are advocating for this and are trying to get it to happen, but in the real world, I don’t see it happening. Consequently, the correct answer at this point at least I think is that the government has to do some kind of regulation to protect our rights.
Kira: Flipping the conversation a bit, what are agencies currently doing really well that copywriters like me who have never worked in an agency should pay attention to and learn from?
Bob: What are agencies doing very well? Very little.
Kira: Give me something.
Bob: Yeah, let me try to throw you a bone on this. What are they doing right? Well, I think there’s kind of a rebound happening. I’m hoping there is toward creativity in the agency business. I think that there is a certain group within the agency world who have realized that our obsession with data only takes us so far and that pretty much everyone is getting the same data. There’s very little unique data anymore because everyone is into it. Everyone is collecting it. They’re buying it from the same brokers and they’re collecting it from the same individuals, so the leverage isn’t just with data that the leverage comes with creativity.
What do you do with that data? How do you use it? That’s where creativity comes in and I think there is at least the stirring of a movement to get the agency industry back focused on creativity rather than just numbers. Because for 10 years, we have devalued creativity to a terrible extent and only paid attention to numbers and metrics and that has been unhealthy. I think there is a common agreement among those inside and outside the industry that the level of creativity in advertising has suffered substantially in the past decade or so and I think that there is a healthy move to get us back into creativity mode.
Rob: It seems to me Bob that part of that problem is that the industry gets hung up on the wrong metrics. You’ve written a lot about that especially when it comes to things like social media, those kinds of things. Would you just give us a sense of … I don’t get the sense that you absolutely despise social media, but you don’t like it because of the promises that are made about it. Is that true or do you actually hate all social media?
Bob: No, I happen to be a social media success story. I mean I don’t discount the value of social media. The reason you’re talking to me today is because of social media, because of my blog and my newsletter and the things I’ve done successfully on social media, so I’m not a social media denier. What I am is a social media bullshit barometer, I hope, because it has overpromised to such a ridiculous extent that people can’t even see how off based the promises of social media were. Now, if you go back to 2007, 2009, social media was supposed to replace advertising. Go back and read the literature. You were not going to have to spend money on advertising anymore.
You would go to Facebook. You’d have a Facebook page. People would share what you’ve put on Facebook. They would like it. Their friends would see what they liked and they would follow suit and they would all become viral and wonderful. It has all turned out to be complete bullshit. Facebook is now the largest purveyor of what it was supposed to replace. It’s the largest purveyor of traditional paid advertising the world has ever seen. Facebook was a total bait and switch, but people for some reason still in the back of their mind, they think that social media is what Facebook is. It’s not. Facebook is traditional paid advertising skating on a social media platform, but it is not social media as we came to believe social media would be.
That’s true of all of the social media platforms. Look at Twitter. Look at Instagram. What are they? They are a carnival of traditional paid advertising. That’s how they make their money.
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 the craft that we all do, marketing and getting in front of the right customers that you can charge more and earn more, and also mindset so 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 like 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 talent 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, so 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.
Is it possible to build a brand with social media or exclusively on social media or is it just sort of another tool in a marketer’s toolbox?
Bob: I haven’t seen since what was it, Zappos, on Twitter, right? Remember that, the shoe company that was built on Twitter? That was done through social media. Dollar Shave. There have been brands that were built on social media. The problem was they were all pretty much web-native brands. They weren’t physical brands in the real world and web-native brands are, I don’t know what percent, maybe 5% of all the brands in the world, but if you go to the supermarket and you walk through there where there are 40,000 different skews, try to find a brand of peanut butter or soap or toothpaste or anything, cheese, that was built by social media. Soda, beer, where are they?
Where are the fast food brands that were built by social media? Where are the car brands? They just aren’t there. It’s like online advertising in social media to me are short-term promotional media. They’re activation. They haven’t proven yet to me to be long-term brand-building media and that’s my gripe with them. If we really believe that the job of copywriters and the job of advertising is to build successful brands, which I believe it is, I think most of us in this business believe that that’s our number one objective, then we have to take a step back and look, where are the major consumer-facing brands that have been built by online advertising? Did you know, like I said there are web-native brands that have been built by online advertising, but where are the physical brands in the physical world that have been built by online advertising? I can’t find them.
Kira: All right, saying I’m a new copywriter today and I’m interesting enough and I want to build my business, how should I market my self today? What advice would you give me?
Bob: I don’t know. How you should market yourself?
Kira: What would you do?
Bob: What I would do is find the one good client. I would break my ass to find one good client who would let me do good work. Along the way, you have to do stuff that is mediocre because there are a lot of mediocre clients who want mediocre stuff, but the hardest thing to do and the most valuable thing you can have is a great campaign. If you can find a client that would let you do a great campaign, then you have a credential that you can take anywhere with you. One of the hard things in being a copywriter is it’s easy to please yourself. It’s easy to please a client. It’s very hard to please both, yourself and your client. It’s very hard to do work that you’re proud of that a client will also see, get, understand and get behind because the clients, they’re looking for safety.
They’re not looking for what we think of as great new ideas. For the most part, they want advertising that sounds like advertising, sounds like something they’ve seen before. If it’s something they’ve never seen before, it’s frightens them. ‘What is this? This isn’t an ad. An ad is supposed to ABC. This is doing XYZ.’ Trying to please both the client, and yourself is a very hard job, but it’s one that everyone should strive for. Do something that’s you’re proud of and that you can show to people and say, ‘Look, I did this,’ and be proud, but that you can also convince a client is good for them and actually does do them some good.
Rob: Yeah, I saw that in my career when I was in agency. You always went into a presentation with the ideas that you wanted to do and then there was always the one that you held back that would make the client happy. It was kind of the fallback.
Bob: That’s right. What we used to do … I’ll tell you what we used to do, we use to do … We had very specific strategy about this.
Rob: This is good. This is what I’m going to ask is, how do you sell those ideas?
Bob: Yes, if we were showing the client three alternatives, we would always start with the safest alternative. The very first thing you show the client is something that you know he or she is capable of buying, so they’re comfortable. They’re not sitting there nervous. If the first thing you show them is something that’s not in their comfort zone, the rest of the meeting, they’re nervous because they nervous of, ‘What the fuck is this? Are they crazy?’ But if you start them off with something you know they can buy, something that’s right in the wheelhouse of the brief, then they’re comfortable, ‘Okay, I got something. I know they got three things to show me. The first thing, I could buy that right now. It’s right in my wheel,’ then you can take them down the path of, ‘But here’s more interesting, more exciting advertising.’
You don’t necessarily say that, but you kind of lead them in that. That was our strategy and it kind of worked for us most of the time.
Kira: I love to hear even more about that because some many of the copywriters in our club really struggle with client engagement, client management and how to really manage their clients and you’ve done so much of that. Do you have any other advice or just approaches to really managing the client, so that the client doesn’t manage you?
Bob: The most important thing that the client has to believe is that you have their best interest at heart, that you’re not doing this whatever you’re doing for them, you’re not doing this because it’s your hobby horse, you want this kind of ad or because your friends are going to think this is cool. You’re doing it because it’s good for them and if you ever lose that confidence, that your number one interest is what’s best for them, then they’re not going to trust you. I always preach this to the people in my agency and I believed it and that is we are here to do what’s best for the client. Our job is to help them to do what’s best for them, not to do what’s best for us.
Often, what’s best for them is what’s best for us. They may not see it that way. They may see things that are too risky for their comfort zone that would really be better for them and would be good for the agency and would be good for the copywriter. Somehow you have to convince, if a client trust you, you can do anything. If a client doesn’t trust, you can’t do anything. It’s a very simple matter of trust and confidence and you have to earn the trust by doing work that’s successful for the client. If you do work that’s successful for the client, they will trust you and believe you. I saw that over and over again in my career, and if you ever screw the client, if you ever do something that is wrong because you thought it was cool, forget it. Sooner or later, you’re going to lose that client.
Rob: Bob, would you mind talking a little bit about ageism and the popularity of youth and chasing young consumers in the advertising world?
Bob: I would be delighted to talk about it.
Rob: This is I’m sure a new subject for you. You’ve never covered this-
Bob: Yeah, I hardly ever get on this one. The advertising and marketing industries are living in a fantasy land. It’s narcissism disguised as strategy, all this youth stuff. Forty-seven percent of the adult population in the United States is over 50. Six percent of the population in advertising agencies are over 50. You can see right away there is a perception problem. People over 50 in the US are what drives our economy. People over 50 represent over half of all consumer spending. They buy about 60% of all automobiles. They outspend the average consumer in virtually every consumer product category, food, household furnishing, entertainment, personal care, automotive.
They account for 55% of all consumer package good sales and they dominate 94% of CPG categories. They outspent other adults online two to one on a per capita basis. They have a net worth about three times that of other generations. They control about 70% of the wealth in the United States. If people over 50 in the US were their own country, they would be third largest economy in the world, bigger than the entire economies of Japan, Germany or India. In the future between now and 2030, the population of adults over 50 will grow at about three times the rate of adults under 50, and yet, they are target for between 5% and 10% of all marketing activity in the US depending on whose numbers you want to believe.
Rob: They’re all pharmaceuticals?
Bob: You’re right. It’s all pharma, absolutely right. It’s completely absurd and ridiculous, but it’s marketing by self-respect. The marketing industry and the advertising industry are marketing to themselves, not to the public. The obsession with Millennials, the obsession with young people, it’s reached the point of not just stupidity but creepiness. There is an article in Ad Age today 10 influencers under 10.
Bob: Check it out. Check Ad Age today, 10-
Rob: We’re going to link to that in the show notes for sure.
Bob: Ten influencers under 10 years of age.
Kira: That’s scary.
Bob: It is. It is creepy and scary and absurd, but that’s the marketing world we’re living in today. Have we beaten that horse to death?
Kira: Maybe this is the wrong question to ask, so what do we do about it? What do we do about that?
Bob: It’s funny because we have all these data, right?
Bob: We’re supposed to be data-driven and we have all this data and the data don’t mean shit because we have preconceived notions and the only data we pay attention to is the data that supports our preconceived notion. The data that challenges our prejudices, we ignore. Otherwise, how can you possibly explain how the marketing industry ignores people over 50? There’s no other explanation for it other than that.
Rob: This seems like it should be an opportunity for an enterprising copywriter or an agency where they could say, ‘Hey, I’m going to focus in on older markets.’ Is that a correct assumption or would you just be chasing more stupidity because nobody’s focused there and nobody’s actually going to buy it?
Bob: It’s unrealistic and I’ll tell you why. Not in theory but in practice, I was going to do that. When I retired from the agency business, from my agency, my first thought was to create a new agency focused on the over 50 market and I went around and I talked to people. I talked to very good advertising people who had actually tried it and failed. I talked to people in the television industry. I talked to people in the radio industry and what I learned was that the facts don’t matter, the facts don’t matter. The prejudices are so strong that the facts don’t matter. Because think about it, in the television and radio industry, their audiences are older than a lot of other media and TV viewers and radio listeners tend to be older.
They said, ‘We go out and we show marketers the facts. We show them how big the opportunity is if they would just take advantage of it,’ and they sit in the meetings and they looked at the facts and they nodded, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re right. This is unbelievable. I never realized that.’ Then they do nothing. They do nothing because if you say, ‘We want to target people over 50,’ people look at you like you got three heads. You’re crazy. ‘What? We got to go after young people. Why? Because everyone else is doing it, so we have to do it too.’ It’s a nonstarter. Nobody wants to hear it and it’s ridiculous.
I mean it’s just an example of how delusional we are that we think we’re customer-focused and we think we’re data-centric and we think all this stuff and we’re not. We’re just a subject to our own prejudices as everyone else is. We think of ourselves as realist, as something special. We’re not.
Kira: Wow! Okay, we’re not special. Oh, my god! You’re killing!
Bob: I’ll take it back. Kira, you are special.
Rob: There’s no doubt.
Kira: Where do you spend most of your time today? What are you focused on?
Bob: Writing. I have a few places in my house where I do writing. I move from place to place because I get bored. I go from, I have a little library area, I do some writing there and then I have a little TV room, I do some writing there and then I lie on the sofa and do some writing there. I have kind of an office in San Francisco. I live in Oakland, California and I have kind of an office in San Francisco. It’s not really an office. It’s more of a bar.
Kira: Sounds like my type of office.
Bob: Call it an office because it sounds better. I used to go there a lot. I used to go there two or three times a week to do my writing, but now, I do a lot of it at home because I’m too lazy to commute into San Francisco. The commute has become so unpleasant. I spend my time writing and I spend my time reading. That’s pretty much what I do now. I also try to have fun. I do some swimming. I play some golf. I do a lot of traveling, but as far as work goes, I’m focused on writing now.
Rob: You might have just answered this question, but we started the interview with the idea that we have to be interesting in order to stand out, get noticed and you’ve curated this voice for yourself. I’m sure it’s a very natural thing for you to be The Ad Contrarian, tell us a little bit about how you make sure that what you say in every email or blog post or book that you write stays interesting and that people will pay attention to it.
Bob: The funny thing is that you just said it’s natural to me and in a way it is and in a way it isn’t. I started writing my blog and it really took me two years to find my voice. It was strange. I knew what … The Ad Contrarian is kind of a character I’ve invented, right? It is me, it is what I think, but it’s also in a way a character and the brand voice of The Ad Contrarian really took a couple of years for me to develop. I wrote a blog every day for two years before I actually wrote a blog piece and I can remember when I did it. I was in Hawaii on vacation and I was sitting there and I wrote the pieces, ‘Okay, this is what I want to be. This is what I want The Ad Contrarian blog to be and this is the character and this is the voice of the character.’
The way I have kept it true to the brand if you will is by not writing quite as much as I used to. I used to feel obligated to post something on the blog every day. Now, I don’t anymore. I only write a post for the blog when I feel something, when it’s something that I’m not forcing myself to write and consequently going off brand by writing about things that I’m not really passionate or interested in. Now, my blog writing has become actually secondary, actually tertiary. My first point of access is my books. Those are the things I mostly focused on, is writing the books. Second is my newsletter which I publish every Sunday morning and then third is blog and the blog I only post to when I have something that I think is interesting to post rather than posting for the sake of posting. I think that’s how I try to keep it more interesting.
Kira: What is a book that you’ve read recently or maybe an old favorite that you’d recommend to us?
Bob: Richard Shotton, S-H-O-T-T-O-N, and it’s called The Choice Factory and Richard is a strategy guy and he is kind of a behavioral scientist and he applies behavioral economic principles to advertising. Anything by Dave Trott, T-R-O-T-T, is great for copywriters to read because Dave is a truly creative individual and writes very interesting stuff. Book by Eaon Pritchard called How It All Went Wrong is interesting. What am I missing? Oh, yeah, there’s a book that I participated. I was a partial author called Eat Your Greens and what they did was they took 35 really smart advertising and marketing people and one dumb block bozo and asked them to write essays about the marketing industry and so this book has a lot of very good smart people that you can learn from I think. Those are the ones that come immediately to mind.
Kira: That will keep us busy, thank you.
Rob: For sure.
Bob: Of course, there are my books. Let’s not forget. My most recent book is called Laughing at Advertising and it’s a very silly book and I hope it’s a very funny book. When I checked Amazon this morning, it was the number one selling advertising book at Amazon.
Kira: Wow! That’s awesome!
Bob: That was very nice. My next most recent book which is completely opposite from Laughing at Advertising, it’s called Bad Men: How Advertising Went From A Minor Annoyance To A Major Menace and that I wrote about I don’t know 18 months or so ago, a year and a half, a little more maybe and that is about the dangers of tracking and surveillance and ad tech and that one is still doing well. That’s still in the Top 10 at Amazon. All you copywriters out there, buy the books, god dammit.
Rob: Yeah, before we started recording, I told you that I have a copy of your very first book. I think the thing about all of you books and most of your writing is that as you read as copywriters any way and being exposed to the ad agency world, we tend to just kind of nod our heads along because so much of what you say isn’t what’s being said, but it just feels right, feels different. It’s really interesting reading. Even if we disagree with you, it’s fun to read what you had to say.
Bob: Thank you, Rob. I appreciate that I was on another podcast. They were on other podcast. Anyway, I was on another podcast … Yes, it’s true. It’s true. I was on another podcast a couple of weeks ago and the guys said, ‘You know, I was reading your book and I was laughing out loud because so much of it is true, but I was also cringing because I saw myself in some of those … You know, I say some of those things that you make fun of.’ That made me feel good that I’m not just writing silly stuff, that there’s some learning going on maybe.
Rob: What are you working on today? What’s the next thing for you?
Bob: The next thing is another book that I am planning to release within, I don’t know, I hope five or six months. I have it all outlined and now I need to do the easy part, the writing. No, that was a joke. Now, I have to do the writing. The outline is done, so yeah, I hope that that will be a good book. I’m trying to write a book that is a little less focused on advertising and marketing audience and more focused on a general business audience because I think there’s a need for that. The thing about writing books is you don’t make any money. It’s terrible. Unless you’re Michelle Obama and you write New York Times number one best seller, you’re really not going to make much money in writing particularly business books, but I do it because, a. it’s fun for me and, b. I feel a compulsion to shoot my mouth off. It’s fun.
Kira: All right, last question before we jump. We like to ask some of the guests, what do you think the future of copywriting looks like?
Bob: I have absolutely no idea. I know nothing about the future. I never speak about the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen 10 minutes from now. I think people who pontificate about the future are all full of shit. I don’t think they know a thing, but the future is a great place to be because no one can fact check the future.
Say anything you want about the future, people nodding, ‘Hey, yeah. That’s interesting,’ and then when it doesn’t happen, so what, nobody cares. They all forgot. I don’t know. If I were to guess what the future of copywriting is going to be, I would say more of the same, only worse. We’ll have the same issues. We’ll have even more uptight clients and more data-driven baloney to deal with and it’s going to take a healthy amount of forbearance to be a copywriter and to try to do good work in the face of so many obstacles that are often thrown at us and make it so hard for us to write the things that we really want to be writing.
Rob: it sounds to me like the future is the place where an Ad Contrarian is going to find plenty of material for more work.
Bob: That’s the great thing about writing about advertising is there’s a never-ending supply of stupidity that come and gone. You can’t run out of material. There’s so much nonsense that it’s a wonderful thing to be writing about.
Kira: All right, Bob, where can our listeners find you if they want to order your books or just get on your mail list? Where can they go?
Bob: Yes, the best place to go is to my website which is called bobhoffmanswebsite.com. You go there or you can go to typeagroup.com which is the official name of my company and I’ll take you to the same place and there you will find links to my books and to my weekly newsletter and to my blog and you can reach me through there if you want to send an email and like that.
Rob: Awesome, Bob! Thank you so much. Lots to think about and maybe even a few things that some of us can work to change if things work out in the future.
Bob: Well, thank you for having me on. I really appreciate it.
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 your review. For show notes, the full transcript and links to our free Facebook community, visit thecopywriterclub.com. We’ll see you next episode.