Seven things you can learn from the old ad men

Generations of advertisers have racked their brains over how to use good copy to win over customers. Let’s go over some of the essentials that matter as much today as they did back then.

They smoked, they drank – and sometimes they had ideas that were worth getting the secretary to type up. Those days are long gone – times have changed dramatically since the era of Mad Men and Don Draper. There are a few ideas that are still relevant in the age of Facebook, though:

1. Originality

“Nobody buys from a clown.” Claude Hopkins

Mistaking a witty saying or a funny idea for a good headline is a classic rookie error. Good does not automatically mean funny. Of course it’s good to make your readers laugh: the question, however, is who it’s good for. For the copywriter or the company who wants to sell a product or service? Instead of making your readers cry with laughter, it’s better to make them think. Like about why they can’t afford to miss out on this product for any longer.

2. Frequency

“The more you tell, the more you sell.” David Ogilvy

A picture is perhaps worth more than a thousand words, but nobody falls over themselves to buy something based on a well-lit packaging shot. If someone’s going to pay out, they want the reasons for it laid out in black and white. Buyers research and compare – both online and offline. The more expensive something is, the greater the thirst for information. Anyone who keeps their brochure or website as short and sharp as possible loses potential customers to those who describe the product down to the last detail. The key is content marketing.

3. Heart

“I’ve never marketed products. I’ve just always loved my customers.” Zino Davidoff

Readers can tell how much involvement and passion an author has put into their writing. If your Facebook posts are nothing but gushing product descriptions, you’ll not only get no likes, you also won’t make yourself any friends. But if you make the effort to offer your readers something, then you’ll be rewarded. Good writers are mad (wo)men; motivated, driven. Always on the search for new ideas and arguments, new ways to phrase things.

4. Repetition

“Everybody knows about God, but he still has the church bells rung every Sunday.” Ernst Bächtold

If you have a winning argument, a unique product, or a great customer story, then don’t hold back: spread the good news as far and as often as you can, in every way possible. It’s an advertiser’s job to describe the same product in continually new ways. Which is exactly the opposite of a journalist, who continually describes new things in the same way.

5. State the benefits

“Don’t tell me how good you make it; tell me how good it makes me when I use it.” Leo Burnett

Self-praise stinks. A fact which many marketing departments seem to have missed, though maybe they’ve just got used to the smell. Nobody wants to read umpteen slogans clumsily trying to talk up a product (“The best, cheapest, most natural shampoo in the world.”). It’s much more important to make it clear to women that the new protein mixture will leave their hair looking as good as Julia Robert’s after a single shower.

6. Dedication

“The creative process is 20% inspiration and 80% perspiration.” Jürgen Knauss

Most advertisers aren’t more creative or blessed with more imagination than anyone else. Their secret is their willingness to work – and work hard. Not to give up when the page stays blank, but to keep thinking until something comes to light that didn’t appear in the first five minutes. Meaning it’s exciting. This is back-breaking training. Or, as Arnold Schwarzenegger knows: “When it hurts, it grows.”

7. Distance

“Don’t tell my mother I work in an advertising agency – she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.” Jacques Seguela

A healthy dose of self-deprecation helps, as does a certain distance from the products and the company. Tunnel vision blocks your view of the big picture all too quickly. When copywriters look at the service to be advertised in isolation and forget about the context, the reader won’t feel connected to it. Sometimes taking a walk can help. Or a cold shower.

Title image via Flickr: Mad men smoke – amira_a (CC BY 2.0)


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