Why Every Copywriter Needs a Big Idea

Why Every Copywriter Needs a Big Idea

I learned many valuable lessons from my 15-year partnership with Agora’s legendary CEO, marketing genius Bill Bonner. None is more important than the big idea.

In my father’s time, this concept was best understood by David Ogilvy, one of the most successful commercial advertising men who ever lived.

In our time, that position is held by Bill. He’s widely recognized as the man who brought the big idea into consumer direct marketing and sold more than a billion dollars’ worth of publications by doing so. I know. I saw him do it.

I want to share Bill’s secret with you today.

I won’t be able to show you everything about it and exactly how to execute it. But I will tell you why and how his concept of the big idea is unique, powerful, and profitable.

It may be the best direct-marketing technique of them all.

When I started consulting with Agora in the early 1990s, I came equipped with half a dozen theories about direct marketing that I had used to start a bunch of successful businesses (including one that hit $135 million).

We applied some of these to the Agora product line, and did very well. But when I worked directly with Bill, I discovered an entirely new way to create blockbuster promotions.

I had never heard of the big idea. But when Bill told me about it, I went directly to Ogilvy’s book, “Ogilvy on Advertising,” and studied it from cover to cover. I remember being particularly struck by the following:

“You will never win fame and fortune unless you invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.

Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well-informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.”

Ogilvy also explains how to recognize the big ideas of others. (This is a great way to figure out if your big ideas pass muster too.)

Just ask yourself these five questions:

1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
3. Is it unique?
4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
5. Could it be used for 30 years?

The first package that came over my desk my first week with Agora was a prime example of a big idea promotion. It was written by Lee Euler for a newsletter called Strategic Investing. The copy was formatted as a “bookalog” (a direct-mail format, new at the time, that looks like a paperback book) and titled “Plague of the Black Debt.” It was a huge success.

If memory serves, we mailed more than 14 million of those bookalogs and generated more than $7 million in revenue. The novelty of the format was an important part of the promotion’s success. Just as important was the copy itself.

It opened with this:

“You don’t have to be a conservative, a liberal, or anything at all to understand that America is about to be flattened by a tidal wave …

“That’s right, folks. Now that Clinton’s budget bill has passed—and if his economic projections are on target—we’re going to add $1 trillion to the federal debt in the next four years. That’s more than George Bush added in his four years. And it’s almost as much as Reagan added in eight years.

“It doesn’t matter whether you prefer my figures or Bill Clinton’s. We’re merely talking about different shades of disaster. When you’re dead, you’re dead. There aren’t some people who are ‘more dead’ than others.”

This wasn’t the first big idea package Agora had mailed. The very first promotion Bill wrote for the International Living newsletter was based on a big idea. It was the “control package” for almost 20 years. Thirty million pieces must have been mailed. (If Bill had gotten two cents per piece—standard for copywriters—he would have made $600,000 in royalties!)

The big idea of the International Living package was presented this way:

“You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees … amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.

“The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.

“A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.

“For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.

“But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle … as it would to stay in your own home!”


I was eager to learn how to write big idea promotions myself. But it wasn’t easy. My first few attempts fell flat. I asked Bill about it and, as I remember, he gave me a Yoda-like answer that I didn’t really understand.

Bill’s protégé at the time was John Forde, a bright young man with a classical education. John had developed an intuitive way of decoding Bill’s cryptic way of answering questions. He was very helpful in getting me closer to mastering the big idea.

Writing about it some years later in his Copywriter’s Roundtable e-newsletter, John had this to say about the big idea:

“Think about it.

“When you have a ‘great’ conversation … read a ‘great’ book … or see a ‘great’ documentary … what grabs you? Is it the litany of small details? Or the golden thread that unites them?

“More often than not, for most of us, it’s the latter.

“And the more you ‘get’ the core idea behind a story, a speech, a revelation … the more memorable that one core message becomes.

“This is just as true in sales copy.

“One message, well developed, just has more impact than ads—short or long—that are overloaded with competing ideas.”

When I finally figure out how to apply David Ogilvy’s concept of the big idea to direct marketing, I was able to teach it to some of Agora’s young marketing bucks. One of them, Porter Stansberry, soon wrote one of the biggest big idea packages in Agora’s history.

His big idea, in a nutshell, was that the Internet was going to have as big an impact on the 21st century as the railroad had had on the 20th century. Here’s how he expressed it in his lead:

“Imagine yourself wearing a top hat and tails, on the balcony of a private rail car, the wind whistling past as you sip the finest French champagne …

“It’s 1850; the railroad is growing like a vine towards the west. And although you don’t know it yet, the same rail that you are riding on today will soon more than triple your wealth, making you and your family into one of the great American dynasties …

“America’s economic history is illuminated by such stories of quick fortunes made by daring entrepreneurs with new technologies—railroads, motorcars, and more recently, computers. I’ve spent nearly my entire professional life studying exactly how great entrepreneurs made their fortunes—both in the past and today. What I’ve learned contradicts what most people believe about wealth building—and explains why 95% of mutual fund managers can’t beat the market’s average return.

“I’m writing to you today to show you what I’ve found. This year, four out of the six stocks I’ve picked for a well-known investment club have more than doubled the S&P 500’s return for all of last year. Meanwhile, the other stocks are poised to earn more than my first recommendations combined by the end of this year. I’ll show you exactly how I did it. But for now, flash back again—it’s 1908 …

“You’re an urban banker in Detroit, living a life of country clubs and summer ballroom parties …”


Throughout its history Agora has published hundreds of big idea packages. And they have been a big part of the company’s growth—from an $8 million business when I started working with them, to one with revenues in excess of $300 million today.

The big idea is now widely known and talked about. But most direct-response marketers who attempt to use this technique fail miserably because they don’t’ really understand how to do it.

Recently, Bill and I met with the writers from one of Agora’s financial advisory divisions. They presented us with a number of leads that they thought contained big ideas. In almost every case, they were wrong. One of these leads predicted that China and the USA were going to be battling it out over the dollar, and this was going to have a major effect on investing in the next 10 or 15 years.

“Well, that’s not really a big idea,” Bill said.

They all looked at us wide-eyed. “How could that not be a big idea?” the writer of the lead said. “Our two economies combined dwarf most of the rest of the world. If we get into a major fight with one another, it will affect every investment everywhere.”

“That’s a big concept,” I chimed in. “But it’s not a big idea.”

“Isn’t that just semantics?” someone else asked. “Big idea, big concept. Don’t they both mean the same thing?”

The answer was no. A big and definite no. But try as we might, we were not able to get them to understand exactly what we meant by a big idea.

“It’s ironic,” I remember thinking. “I’ve become a Yoda, too!”

Obviously, there was a gulf between our understanding of this important technique and the definition that was being given to this third generation of copywriters who were producing the promotions Agora was relying on.

So I set to work writing this—an attempt to explain, in the clearest terms, just what the big idea is and what it isn’t.

Let’s start with a definition that borrows from Ogilvy:

A big idea is an idea that is instantly comprehended as important, exciting, and beneficial. It also leads to an inevitable conclusion, a conclusion that makes it easy to sell your product.

Furthermore, it is an idea that will continue to be important and exciting for a long time.

That’s a mouthful. So let’s break it down.

A big idea is important.

By important, I mean important to the customer—not the copywriter—and relevant to the product being sold. The devaluation of the dollar may be important to American investors, in general. But it won’t be important to a customer who is being asked to buy a newsletter about a type of investment that won’t be affected by the dollar’s decline. The swine flu may be important to this same customer, but it cannot possibly be relevant in a sales letter that is selling investment advice.

A big idea is exciting.

You are not going to excite your customer by repeating the predictions or promises that the rest of the media world is publishing. They have already been exposed to those ideas. To provoke real excitement, you need to go beyond the conventional. You need to find some new angle that makes your customer sit up and pay attention.

A big idea is beneficial.

The excitement created must benefit the customer. Put differently, it should make the customer want to buy the product being sold. Let’s say you’re selling grass-fed beef. You can get your customer excited by telling him about how quickly people in this country are becoming poor. But that kind of excitement will make him less—not more—likely to buy the expensive type of meat you’re selling.

A big idea leads to an inevitable conclusion.

The big idea must contain some internal logic that is fundamentally simple. It must be easy to grasp and easy to see how the product you are selling solves a particular problem or delivers on a stated promise. The best big ideas tie into something that makes the product unique. As soon as the customer hears the idea, he begins to feel the need for the product, even before it is mentioned in the copy.

The best big ideas do all of that work with very few words. The sale is half-made in the headline or by the end of the first paragraph.

Let me give you three examples.

Big Idea: Example 1

In this first example, the big idea is aimed at readers concerned with their health:

How the French Live Longer Than Everyone Else …

Even though they eat like kings and smoke like chimneys!

This headline offers to answer a riddle that has puzzled the reader for many years: why the French—who eat cheese, meat, and rich sauces—stay so thin. There’s another riddle the reader just discovered as well: why the French—who smoke like chimneys—outlive everyone else!

Implicit here is a promise that will appeal to almost anyone: You can eat like the French eat … and lose weight … and live longer.

Big Idea: Example 2

This next example is a big idea that would interest avid golfers:

Want to slash strokes from your game almost overnight?

Amazing Secret Discovered By
One-Legged Golfer Adds 50 Yards
To Your Drives, Eliminates Hooks and Slices …
And Can Slash Up To 10 Strokes From Your Game
Almost Overnight!

The idea that there’s a secret discovered by a one-legged golfer is exciting. It implies that if the reader has two legs, he’ll have an even greater advantage. Plus, the promise that this secret could add 50 yards to his drives and slash up to 10 strokes from his game is both VERY important and beneficial.

The reader can’t help but come to the conclusion that he needs this secret.

Big Idea: Example 3

Finally, here’s an example geared toward savvy investors:

Outlawed for 41 years, now legal again,
this investment launched the largest
family fortune the world has ever seen …
and could return 665% in the next 12 months.

The big idea here is that this secret investment was once illegal. It’s exciting, because it’s the same investment that launched the largest family fortune in history. What’s more, when the reader learns what this investment is, he could stand to make a 665% return on his money in a year or less. That makes it important and beneficial.

The inevitable conclusion: “I’ve got to read this and find out what this investment is.”


If you would like to become a master of the big idea, you can get step-by-step instruction—with plenty of examples and expert guidance—from American Writers & Artists Inc. (AWAI). They’ve got the best courses on copywriting anywhere.

And remember: having a big idea is critical to copywriting success.

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. 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.