What's your goal in writing copy: creativity or selling?
By Robert W. Bly

I was recently irritated by two UK copywriters, NH and MF, who lurk on a LinkedIn copywriting forum and spend a lot of time bashing what I do, which is direct marketing (DM) -- often also called direct response (DR).

NH calls direct response advertising "huckster crap" and grudgingly admits that some young copywriters today are moving to DM only because "in some markets it works." But he doesn't think much about those markets or writers.

I explained to NH that I find the opposite: youngsters today are fleeing from DM, preferring more trendy marketing channels including SEO, blogging, content marketing, and social media.

Why? Because direct response sells -- and both new media evangelists as well as many old-school Madison Avenue copywriters alike seem to find selling somewhat shameful ... as incredible as that sounds.

Also, in DM, copywriters who don't know how to sell are naked and exposed.

In direct response, the results of your efforts can be measured down to the penny.

And a lot of writers hate that, because when their stuff doesn't work, they are unmasked as the poseurs they are.

I agree with MF's observation that many youngsters flee DM "as it is seen as the unsexy side of advertising."

But I cannot fathom why copywriter MF says, and so many copywriters agree, that "It's more fun to work on big budget ads and TV ... some would rather enjoy their working life building a brand rather than a bank balance."

If indulging your creative whims on the most elaborate and expensive ad campaigns you can conceive, and then explaining to the client why their sales did not go up as you flushed their millions down the toilet, is fun – then yes, I guess branding is fun.

To MF I say: Hey dummy, do you understand that companies pay you to build their brands precisely because they also want to build their bank balance, otherwise known as the bottom line?

MF concludes: "DM has its place, but it's usually only those creatives who don't succeed in above-the-line advertising who find themselves sucked into it."

I will offer a contrary view: The best copywriters who, by definition, are tops at generating sales, are drawn to DM because they can see immediate rewards for themselves and their clients.

Often the worst copywriters go into branding and above-the-line advertising because, with no accountability, these hacks lack the selling chops to get consumers to actually buy their clients' products -- and in general advertising they can get away with it.

Then NH kicks his demonstrated stupidity into higher gear. He writes: "America being so much bigger than the UK must have a large simple-minded underclass who will still respond to DM's crude promises and hand over money for stuff they really don't need or can't afford, be it a lawn mower or an insurance policy."

Let's break down NH's moronic utterance: First, he insults our vast middle class by calling us simple-minded. I have seen no data supporting the assertion that the American middle class is not as intelligent as the middle class in Europe or the Far East.

Second, he accuses DM of selling stuff people don't really need.

The fact is, products fall into two categories: must-have and nice-to-have -- the latter being, as NH calls it, stuff people don't really need.

I ask: What is wrong with selling products that people want and are nice to have? The reality is that most products are in this category. And sellers of nice-to-have products advertise heavily and actively with both direct marketing and general advertising.

For instance, most luxury cars are sold using TV commercials, full-page color ads, and the Internet.

Consumers don't need luxury cars, because a Toyota driven at 60 mph will get you to work just as quickly as a BMW driven 60 mph. As a Prius owner, I have proven this through testing.

And, luxury car advertising is selling stuff that consumers clearly cannot afford. The proof: approximately 90% of consumers cannot buy their cars without a loan. And if you can't afford to pay cash for your car, then I contend that car is too expensive for you.

The last word on creativity in advertising vs. selling in advertising? David Ogilvy, my copywriting hero and NH's former boss, whom NH frequently denigrates: "If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative."


I also find it odd that NH cites a lawn mower as stuff you don't really need.

If you have a lawn and are not willing to pay a premium price to a lawn service to cut your grass, as I do, then you in fact do need the mower.

In many U.S. towns, you will get notices and fines if your lawn grows out of control. And you will alienate your neighbors.

Word to NH: When you get the facts wrong, people's belief in the accuracy of your arguments quickly plummets.


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter with 20 years experience in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has written direct mail packages for Phillips Publishing, Agora Publishing, KCI Communications, McGraw-Hill, Medical Economics, Reed Reference Publishing, A.F. Lewis, and numerous other publishers.