Thursday, July 06, 2006

The "Experience" Myth

How many times have you heard it?... "Well, yes, I can see you do excellent work... but you have no experience writing white papers (or blogs, or selling clothing racks... or smoked fish... or jewelry.... or whatever category you haven't written for yet).

Back in the early 80's I had a few interviews at one of the major direct marketing agencies. Finally they hired another writer who already had experience writing about gold coins. It seemed the criterion was not skill or marketing savvy... just experience writing about the same product.

At the last interview the agency VP shrugged his shoulders and said, "I'm sorry, but you know how it is in this business.... They once hired somebody to write cigarette commercials ... then they fired him when they found out he didn't have menthol experience!"

It was textbook case of CYA.... The first (and sometimes the last) commandment of corporate culture is: Don't get blamed! Better to make a safe decision than take a risk on a good decision.

The truth is, some of the best copywriters had NO experience! They are entrepreneurs who had no experience writing copy, but a wealth of life experience and understanding of their market. Mail order legend Joe Sugarman almost flunked high school English!... But he went on to change the landscape of copywriting and of direct marketing.

You don't need "experience" to write great advertising. All you need is to do your homework to understand your market. A good place to start is a checklist of information to get from the client. . . everything from old ads and internal memos to websites and emails.

After that, crank up Google... or get out of your chair and take a walk to the library. Then do some good old-fashioned research. (Not the focus group kind. The thesis kind.) Read everything you can on the product and--more important--the market. You never know what idea or phrase may become the crux of your copy platform.

I know a man whose only expertise in medicine is that he's a hypochondriac. But, to promote his organization, he once delivered a lecture on oncology to a convention of doctors! All it took was homework.

I once wrote an ad for a diet camp for teenagers. The first draft was lousy. I simply didn't get the hang of writing to teenagers. So I went around the corner to Barnes & Noble and picked up copies of Seventeen magazine, and Dr. Lendon Smith's Diet Plan for Teenagers. Within a day I had an ad that kept pulling with every insertion.

Before working on designing a new catalog, my friends, Joe Goldbrenner and Gene Markowitz, of The Goldmark Group, often go down to the factory of a new client. They study the entire operation from manufacturing to order taking. This kind of homework pays off. I once worked on a catalog with them for a supplier of store displays. The new catalog increased sales by over 17%! The client told DM News: "you quickly got a good understanding of my products and the marketplace. And that shows in my sales."

It's all in the homework.

So next time they tell you "I'd love to work with you, but you don't know about my product."--Just tell the story of the guy at the doctor's office who said:
"Yes, I know you're a big specialist... but you don't know my cold!"

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