“A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” – Alexander Pope
One of the unanticipated pleasures of being in Paris this year was the evening K and I spent with John Forde.
John Forde, in case you don’t know him, is the editor of Copywriter’s Roundtable (a great e-zine), a top-rated speaker at AWAI’s copywriting conferences, and the author of AWAI’s Secrets of Writing for the Internet program.
Among his many accomplishments as a very successful copywriter, I credit him with … not inventing, but more or less perfecting the classic “predictions” format for investment newsletter promotions. Many of his packages helped build one of Agora Publishing’s best-known brands – Taipan – as well as countless other investment products.
John is currently writing exclusively for another Agora group, Agora Financial Publishing, and has played a key role in that business’s meteoric growth in the past several years.
Walking home along the Boulevard Saint Germain with John, K and I had a chance to find out a little bit about his life here in Paris.
He said he and his wife “love” living in this city. (They spend half the year here and the other half in the U.S.) “My job being what it is, I work alone most of the time, hunched over a desk,” said John. “It’s not good for my posture, but it does allow me to travel or even to live part-time overseas. Plus, it’s great for my son, who’ll grow up fluent in two languages. And, you have to admit,” he said as we passed the legendary Deux Maggots and Cafe Flore, “life is pretty good here.”
In many ways, John has the perfect working life. He does exactly what he wants, from where he wants, for whom he wants, when he wants … and he makes a ton of money.
“Living where we do and traveling as much as we have, I’d have to say I yearn sometimes for the ‘typical,'” said John. “But as much as possible, I prefer to wake up and get right to work. This is a trick I learned from my good friend Don Mahoney, by the way. He once told me that he keeps his laptop next to the bed, reaches for it as soon as he’s awake, then works until breakfast.
“I do something similar. We have a two-year-old who’s up by around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. I wake up earlier – no alarm clock – stretch a little, and then get right to the biggest writing project I have for the day. (I never start by answering e-mail.)
“When our son wakes up, I help get him dressed and fed. Then I head for my office across town, and pick up where I left off. I take a late lunch around 2:00. And if I’ve had a productive morning, I’ll take a stroll. I’m overseas, so if I have phone meetings based in the U.S., they’re usually scheduled after that. And I wrap up the day with a few smaller projects.”
That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
John’s career is a testament to how much you can accomplish in a relatively short time. He is highly regarded in his field. He earns a very comfortable six-figure income. And he lives six months a year in one of the world’s most exciting cities.
How did he do it?
The Value of a Good Mentor
Interestingly, John had no intention of becoming a copywriter. He’d considered advertising when he was an undergrad, but gave up the idea, not wanting to work in a cutthroat agency. His interest wasn’t rekindled until, after graduating from college, he went to work for a small publishing company in Baltimore.
John worked as an editorial intern, and then was hired full-time to write articles for one of the company’s newsletters. Every once in a while, the company’s president would ask John to do a little research project.
“One day, a woman was passing through the office asking people if they needed new business cards,” John told me. “Since I was in the same room with him, she must have thought I was an executive. She took my name and asked me what title I wanted for my card. I probably should have said ‘chief grunt’ or ‘assistant lackey,’ but I had just learned that the research I was working on was going to be used for something called copywriting … so I told her ‘copywriter.’
“When the cards came back a few weeks later, the big boss saw mine and got a kick out of it. ‘So you want to be a copywriter,’ he said. I shrugged my shoulders. I thought I might be in trouble. ‘That’s a good thing,’ he said. ‘We always need good copywriters.’
“And that was pretty much how it started. He started teaching me what he knew about copywriting – which was, even back then, much more than I could absorb. But it was great. By being a little audacious, my career suddenly had an upward trajectory.”
About six months after John began learning his new skill, yours truly joined the organization. One of the first things I did was contribute to a little training program for John and about half a dozen other copywriting hopefuls, including my boyhood friend Don Mahoney.
For about a year, John and his fellow trainees were browbeaten with theories about “indirection” and “the categorical imperative” and techniques like “the false close” and “transubstantiation.”
From the beginning, John had a natural proclivity for what we came to call Big Idea copy – an approach that favors a single, overarching and compelling idea as a lead-in to the sales letter (as opposed to, say, a “big promise” or an offer-driven lead).
But John had plenty of other input as well. As a member of that early team of trainees, he was required to study (nay, to memorize) the words of legendary marketers like David Ogilvy, Gene Schwartz, and John Caples. And he was subject to my tutelage, such as it was, from time to time.
Mastery Leads to Big Profits
In retrospect, I think John’s greatest skill as a student of copywriting – besides his natural intelligence – was his humility. Unlike some of his peers, he didn’t have much interest in where he stood relative to other people. And he paid little attention to the hours he was asked to work or his compensation. He felt that he was fortunate to be learning from copywriters who had proven themselves in the marketplace.
John made steady progress as a copywriter, but he never talked about his accomplishments as they came. He was more interested in learning more. That made him an excellent student and an easy person for marketing directors to work with.
One by one, John studied – and mastered – different copywriting styles. By staying humble and asking questions, he managed to learn something from every good copywriter he came in contact with. This gave him a breadth of knowledge and technique that enabled him to write effective copy for a wide variety of clients.
“When you are working as a copywriter, it’s great to have homeruns,” says Katie Yeakle, AWAI’s Executive Director. “But if you want to maximize your desirability in the marketplace, the trick is to have a high batting average. In other words, a high percentage of singles, doubles, and triples.”
John has had his share of homeruns, but – more important – he has seldom written a clunker.
Today’s Action Plan: John’s success has everything to do with his hard work. He hooked up with several mentors who helped him learn the ins and outs of copywriting, but he also worked long hours to master his skills. I asked him if he would share some of what he’s learned about success with my ETR readers, and he promised to write something for tomorrow’s issue.
Meanwhile, to hone your copywriting skills and start on your own path to a six-figure income, you need to get your hands on AWAI’s copywriting program.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]