An interview with top American copywriter Brian McLeod

September 4, 2013 | By | 2 Replies More
brian mcleod copywriter

“Stick a fork in it… this copy’s done!”
Brian McLeod, Copywriter

It takes a pretty clued-up guy to help turn a tiny spare bedroom start-up into a hugely successful, nine-figure business that employed over 200 people…

That said – you and I both know copywriters are pretty clued-up folks, right?

US copywriter Brian McLeod certainly proves that.

After co-founding one of the most successful product development companies in America, these days he runs FastEffectiveCopy.com, along with his business partner David Garfinkel.

I caught up with him to talk about all things copy and we covered a hell of a lot of ground.

In fact, we kick right off talking about copywriting legend, Gary Halbert:

AllGoodCopy: You’re a Gary Halbert fan, right?

Brian McLeod: Definitely. My original physical copy of Gary Halbert’s handwritten Boron Letters given to me and signed by Bond Halbert is one of my prized possessions.

To me, The Gary Halbert Letter is like the Smithsonian for direct response copywriters… it’s Mecca… and The Boron Letters are my favorite part of The Gary Halbert Letter.

AGC: I agree. I remember first coming across him through some videos on YouTube that a UK copywriter Nick Laight sent me. I always think he’s like the Hemingway of DR copy. I’ve used a lot of his ideas. What do you think made him so damn good?

BM: Gary Halbert was equal parts charming, conversational storyteller and deadly-effective salesman.

And he was a great teacher… something that often gets lost in the legend. Halbert explained the craft of writing copy and general salesmanship in a piercing, understandable way that very few contemporary copywriters including some of the best A-List writers in the world cannot.

AGC: Aside from Halbert, who else would you list as your most important copywriting influences?

BM: Without question, my business partner in FastEffectiveCopy.com, David Garfinkel. I call him “Jedi”, because he is.

But I’ve also learned a ton from John Carlton, Gary Bencivenga, David Deutsch, Eugene Schwartz, and even my good pal whom I consider the hottest online copywriter in the game right now, Kevin Rogers.

AGC: I just got delivered a copy of John Carlton’s new book actually, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Getting Your Shit Together. There’s a headline!

BM: It’s a fantastic book, and as those of us who’ve worked with or know John personally can attest – the advice he lays out is exactly what you’d get privately from him when no one else can hear. That’s not often the case. It’s really good.

AGC: You mentioned Eugene Schwartz so is it safe to assume you’ve read Breakthrough Advertising?

BM: Of course. If I was forced to pick just one, I’d say it’s my desert island copywriting book.

AGC: It’s great isn’t it? Though hard to get hold of these days. I know it’s a hard question, but what’s the most memorable ‘takeaway’ from it that comes to mind?

BM: Chapter 9, the concept of Gradualization and Chapter 11, the concept of a Mechanism in the copy.

Gradualization is the process of taking a really big claim that wouldn’t be believable right up front, and breaking it down into smaller claims that eventually lead the reader to the conclusion you want them to draw – which is to believe that REALLY BIG claim you couldn’t use on its own.

Mechanisms come into play when the prospect understands they have a problem, and that you have a solution for that problem by demonstrating “how does it get that result?”

AGC: That’s great. Outside of copywriting books, do you read much fiction?

BM: I read very little fiction, honestly. I just really, really love non-fiction books – biographies and collected interviews in particular.

I enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio and Neil Strauss’ Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead collection of Rolling Stone music interviews recently.

AGC: You’re a musician, right? Who’s on your stereo – or should I say iTunes – at the moment?

BM: My favorite new record in the last little while came out last year I think – Albatross by a band called Big Wreck.

Big Wreck is to rock what 25 years in a barrel is to Scotch – aged to mellow sophistication with plenty of bite.

AGC: Nice. So anyway, how come you got into this crazy business in the first place?

BM: That’s a very long story going back twenty years… so I’ll simply say this – I was a damn good phone salesman long before I was ever a copywriter. But I was also a copywriter long before I realized I was a copywriter.

Some of the things I did to support my sales efforts on the phone were instinctive or intuitive, like sending great letters, personal postcards and newsletters to my customers every day at the end of the day. It took some time and experience to realize that what I can do with ease and confidence is really very, very difficult for others.

AGC: That’s interesting. I think a lot of writers come in like that – having the skill but not really knowing how to control it. Did you have a mentor starting out?

BM: Yes, my first advertising mentor was a guy by the name of Harry Bua – a painter and artist by gift and a very talented ad man in the swinging seventies Miami advertising scene, which was scorching hot in those days.

Harry taught me so much – the craft of mechanical layout and design for direct response, how to PRESENT a sales argument in print… I already knew how to persuade and sell but Harry sat by my side and helped me create pieces that ended up mailing millions of times and DRTV spots that ran on all the major networks. I owe that man a huge debt. He just recently passed away actually, RIP Harry Salvatore Bua – Sicilian first, everything else also.

AGC: You mention starting out in phone sales, which I’ve written a few scripts for myself. But what copy medium do you prefer writing for – online, DM campaigns, television, etc?

BM: I don’t particularly prefer any media though I definitely dig the speed of email and seeing your work on national television is a highly recommended experience both personally and financially.

Creatively, I guess the most fun is in writing character driven spots for TV or Radio but I don’t really do much of that anymore these days.

AGC: Do you think there are any major differences between writing copy for online or off?

BM: Well, there’s an obvious caveat – technology changes constantly while human behavior doesn’t change all that much, all that often… and even that fact carries its own set of caveats about how we consume information through technology.

But at its core, whether you’re writing to a person who will be reading your message on a piece of paper in their hand, on a computer screen or their phone, on TV, on their iPad, in the car on the radio… you’re still talking to ONE HUMAN at a time.

AGC: Well said. I was asked a similar question recently in an interview and said pretty much the same: good copy is about learning the fundamentals, about understanding how people tick – if you do that, working out the format just becomes a technical thing.

Of course, the catch is that tapping into emotions is the hard bit. Do you think there are certain emotions that are more effective?

BM: FEAR and GREED, unquestionably. An ugly answer perhaps, but I’d prefer to frame it as meeting the market where it really lives.

Almost anything you’re selling comes down to fear of loss and/or coveting something you don’t yet have but deeply desire.

AGC: I agree. What about particular words? I always like to ask: if you had to pick five words that you always had to use in every piece of copy, what would they be?

BM: You, yours, get, have, be.

AGC: There’s that word ‘You’ again. I think almost every copywriter I’ve interviewed has it first and rightly so. Focusing on the reader is one of the most important things you can do, yet still so many rookies make the mistake of talking about themselves. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made, which since influenced the way you write?

BM: Over the years, for whatever reason – laziness, unfamiliarity, overconfidence – I’ve stubbed my toe many times on this one and it always hurts:

“Never assume the reader will connect the dots in your copy – they often can’t/won’t/don’t.”

There’s no higher aim than clarity, you’ve got to be explicit about what you’re saying and what you want the reader to do in possession of this information.

AGC: Very wise words. Talking about ‘laziness’, what’s your writing routine – are you disciplined or do you take a more relaxed approach?

BM: Years of being a studio rat musician have made me really nocturnally productive. When I really need to get it done, I always know I can take a nice nap in the afternoon and settle down after midnight when everything is still and calm and just “go”.

In terms of starting from scratch, my favorite place to start is to just start jamming on bullets… bullet after bullet. Entire new hooks and headlines and angles can emerge from these “cheap victories”, knocking out a bunch of bullets.

AGC: What’s your biggest writing ‘quirk’?

BM: Don’t know if it’s a quirk, but I tend to get ruthless about editing down to really short, punchy sentences in the copy. Grammar? Meh. That’s something Jedi has really drilled into my head.

AGC: Quirk or not, it’s something I fully support. I interviewed author James Altucher recently and we spoke a lot about the importance of editing. It’s so key I think, especially in getting down to that clarity you spoke about earlier.

BM: There’s an old saying, “Write freely. Edit ruthlessly.” and that’s exactly how I see it – don’t stifle the creative flow by judging what you’re doing or trying to clean it up while you’re writing. Just get it down. Later, ideally after enough time to approach it with fresh eyes, break out the fine sculpting tools and start chipping away. And NEVER get married to your ideas or your copy. Sometimes you have to kill your babies.

AGC: So, with clarity in mind… what’s the one piece of copy – be it an ad, poster or sales letter – that you wish you’d have written?

BM: Chiat-Day’s entire Think Different campaign for Apple is one of my favourite examples of brilliant branding and positioning.

Perhaps an unexpected answer for someone known as a direct-response guy, but I’ve always viewed DR as part of a larger effort anyway.

AGC: Are you a big fan of Apple generally?

BM: Absolutely, although they’re not perfect – no company is. My first Mac in 1994 changed my life the day it came out of the box. Steve Jobs was/is a big influence on multiple levels. His business philosophy – in terms of quality, aesthetics, and premium positioning – all had/have a big impact on me.

AGC: I think it’s fair to say he’s touched a lot of people’s lives. Indeed, with Jobs’ many famous stage appearances in mind, it leads me to the final question I always like to ask: if you were the last guy speaking at copy seminar… what’s the one piece of advice you’d offer?

BM: If you’ve truly got the goods – you’re smart and talented and willing to outwork everyone else – never be afraid to demand the unreasonable from life and business. Because you just might get it. I did.

Clients dislike writing checks for $5K the same way they dislike writing checks for $25K. Since they don’t like cutting the check either way, you might as well get the $25K (Hat Tip: John Carlton).

AGC: “Never be afraid to demand the unreasonable.” I like that and it’s a great point to end on. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Brian.

BM: My pleasure, thanks for asking me!

You can check out Brian and David’s copywriting membership website at www.fasteffectivecopy.com

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Category: Great Copywriters

About the Author ()

Glenn Fisher is a professional copywriter, founder of AllGoodCopy.com and author of Write Better Copy. He is an expert in long copy sales letters, having written copy that has so far generated more than £10 million in revenue. Born in Grimsby, he now lives in London.

Comments (2)

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  1. “… never be afraid to demand the unreasonable from life and business. Because you just might get it. I did.

    Clients dislike writing checks for $5K the same way they dislike writing checks for $25K. Since they don’t like cutting the check either way, you might as well get the $25K …”

    That’s going on my wall, right up there in front of me, so I can’t miss seeing it every day. Thank you!

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