I have been in the marketing business for more than 30 years. And in all that time, I’ve read only a handful of books on advertising.
I love books and read plenty of them. But I didn’t think I’d find anything in a book about marketing that I didn’t already know.
I’m embarrassed to admit that. Since I write books on marketing – and expect people to buy and read them – it’s downright hypocritical of me not to read other books. Don’t you think?
About a year ago, we published an essay in ETR by Clayton Makepeace. He excoriated marketers who haven’t read any of the great books on advertising.
That hit home. How could I assume I knew it all? How unbelievably arrogant!
So I promised myself I would read all of the world’s greatest advertising books. I asked friends for recommendations and consulted published lists (including Clayton’s). I ended up identifying about 25 books that seemed to be widely considered “musts” in the industry.
Some were the old classics:
- Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins
- Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy
- Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
- Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples
- Billion Dollar Marketing by Maxwell Sackheim
- My First 65 Years in Advertising by Maxwell Sackheim
- Ziglar on Selling by Zig Ziglar
- Breakthrough Advertising by Gene Schwartz
And some were modern classics:
- Power Packed Direct Mail by Bob Bly
- How to Sell Anything to Anybody by Joe Girard
- The Ultimate Sales Letter by Dan Kennedy
- Your Marketing Genius at Work by Jay Abraham
I asked Giovanna, my personal assistant, to find them for me. Several were out of print and available only in first editions that were very costly. Determined to have a complete library, I told Giovanna to go ahead and order them all.
They began arriving a week later. Two books one day. Three books the next. I cleared two bookshelves in my office and started lining them up.
They looked great. I was excited to read them. But for months, they just sat there.
Then, last month, I had a series of meetings with the marketing managers of one of my clients. These were people who were making key decisions on tens of millions of dollars’ worth of advertising campaigns. They were professionals. And they were confident they knew what they were doing.
But they didn’t. Not really. For the most part, they were making decisions based on advice their bosses had given them. For example, one young executive told me he was doing an advanced early renewal program for a newsletter. I asked him what he hoped to accomplish by that since the subscribers were already signed up for automatic renewal. He said, “We’ll get the money in faster.”
I said, “But you have plenty of cash. You’ll be using a valuable advertising slot to bring cash forward when you don’t need it.”
He didn’t look like he understood me.
“What you should be doing,” I explained, “is increasing the lifetime value of your subscribers.”
He still didn’t look like he understood. So I explained that the merchant’s instinct to bring money in quickly does not make sense when you are building a quality business based on trust and good service. What you want to do is to offer your customers additional value all the time at reasonable prices.
The light bulb finally lit up and he looked excited. “This is really great,” he said. “I can see how we can make more money this way.”
I could tell you about half a dozen disturbingly similar conversations I’ve had since then – all of them with marketing executives who had several years (in some cases, decades) of experience.
The point is that even among educated professionals there is an alarming lack of specific knowledge about the principles and practices of direct-response marketing.
You can’t be a great marketer (or copywriter) if you are making decisions based on hand-me-down protocols. You must understand the science behind what you are doing.
It scared me to think that my client was running his business with so many empty cylinders. So I persuaded him to let me develop a retraining program for his marketing people.
Part of that program would consist of ideas I’ve been jotting down for years. But another part of it, I decided, would be a Recommended Reading List comprised of the best of the books sitting on that shelf in my office collecting dust.
So now I had a purpose to read those books. And I began with the oldest one: Claude Hopkins’s Scientific Advertising, first published in 1923. You might wonder whether a book published more than 80 yeas ago has anything relevant to say to the marketer of today. That was certainly a thought in my head as I picked up the slender volume.
Two hours later, I put the book down and tried to sleep. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I had just read.
Scientific Advertising is an amazing piece of work. It is the fruit of a master marketer, the accumulation of a lifetime of experience boiled down to 89 fast-reading pages.
Hopkins was a mentor to legendary Madison Avenue advertising guru David Ogilvy. Ogilvy is often called the father of modern advertising. But he learned most of what he knew from Hopkins.
Hopkins was the first one to argue that advertising has only one purpose: to make sales. Clever and entertaining advertising might win awards, but the company that pays for such advertising is wasting its money.
Hopkins was also the first one to preach the importance of knowing the customer and emphasizing customer benefits rather than product features. Customers don’t care about your product or about you, he boldly asserted. What they care about is themselves.
He was also one of the first to argue that long copy will almost always perform better than short copy. That was a revolutionary thing to say at the time. And even today, many marketers – including Internet marketers – have a hard time believing it.
If those were the only ideas in the book, it would be well worth the two hours it would take you to read it. But there is so much more.
Hopkins also recognized the power of advertorials – advertisements that have the look and feel of editorial. This is still one of the most powerful and least understood techniques of direct-response marketing. Hopkins had it sussed out more than 80 years ago.
One of the major problems with the advertising on the Internet is the proliferation of fancy layouts and eye-popping graphics. Hopkins explained why that is likely to diffuse the message and reduce sales. Yet advertising professionals today continue to make this basic mistake.
Another gem from the book: the importance of plain language. I’ve written about the power of clarity of expression many times, and it is a foundation of the writing programs I developed for American Writers & Artists Inc. (AWAI). Still, the majority of the advertising I see online is full of flourishes and jargon.
And yet another one: When writing advertising copy, never write to a group of people (even though you are writing to thousands). Imagine that you are writing to a single person and make the copy feel like it is personal.
Of all the many great and wise ideas in Scientific Advertising, the one that impressed me most was Hopkins’s comment on intimacy. “Intimacy,” he said, “is much more important than salesmanship.” I am willing to bet that nine out of 10 people who read that have no real idea what it means.
It took me 30 years to learn what I know about marketing and copywriting. I learned mostly by experience. And as I said at the beginning of this essay, my initial reluctance to read books on advertising was the product of confidence and arrogance.
There is no doubt that what you learn from experience is more deeply learned than what you learn by reading. But as you are gaining that experience, it certainly doesn’t hurt to read great books written by the masters. I keenly wish I had read Scientific Advertising when I was starting out.
If you haven’t read Scientific Advertising, you should read it now. If you have read it, you should read it again. Read it seven times – until you understand everything I’ve mentioned in this essay and everything else you’ll find in the book.
To make it easy for you, I’ve asked my publisher to reprint the book in a format you can download. It’s worth $1,000, but we will send it to you for just $5. That should cover our expenses and give us a bit extra to get the next book on my Recommended Reading List to you.
Get your copy of Scientific Advertising here.[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.]