There is a dichotomy of thought in the world of copywriting. One says do not be original. Simply copy what has been tested and proven to work in the past. Another says to be original. To be the first in the mind.
(Note: Being original does not mean you will be first in the mind, although for this article I'm assuming the two are synonomous.)
Like Michel Fortin, I've read The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. It's simple and straightforward... a must-read for any serious marketer.
And like Ries and Trout suggest, I agree that it's vital to be first in the mind for whatever it is you represent or stand for.
But in copywriting, being first is considered dangerous territory. John Carlton says a pioneer is the guy on the trail with an arrow in his back. (The advice between the lines: follow the leaders.)
Some say swiping is the best way to go about "writing" world-class copy. Honestly, I'm not very good at swiping. The times I've swiped successfully, I've only swiped a lead or intro to a letter. The rest was my original work.
Yet when I swipe (or think about swiping), I always consider that some copywriter was the first to write that letter. He is the real genius.
Are not the great copywriters remembered for what they did FIRST?
- Who did John Carlton swipe to come up with "the one-legged golfer?"
- Who did John Caples swipe to come up with "They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play?"
- Who did Maxwell Sackheim swipe to come up with "Do you make these mistakes in English?"
All these headlines originated with a single person. These advertising geniuses are remembered for what they created, not what they swiped.
Is a great copywriter one who swipes well? Or one who writes original ads that still get fabulous results? (Given all the sales copy that's been written, can an ad ever be original?)
I'm not suggesting there is an easy answer to these questions. David Ogilvy's famous headline for Rolls-Royce was a word-for-word rip from a car review. Clearly, his genius was in recognizing what should be emphasized to sell the car. The reviewer, while clever, would never have been so adept at selling as Ogilvy.
This morning I listened to Ron Romano's CD on how to create an outrageous USP. He was interviewing a North Carolina realtor named Dave Bowers who has innovated and prospered. He is the first (possibly only) realtor to show properties by helicopter. This is a free service for serious clients.
Why does Dave Bowers prosper in a crowded market? Because he tried to copy what other realtors were doing... and failed. So he decided to go his own way... and succeeded beyond what he expected.
Here's my prediction: Copywriting, like all products and services, will become increasingly like a commodity as more writers enter the market. Outsourcing web sites like Elance only accelerate the rate at which it happens. To stand out, you must be different. Preferably, you must be first in the mind for something that clients value.
Here's an exercise: Imagine copywriting as a commodity like bookkeeping. What will you then do to be unique... to capture attention... to close sales easier than everybody else? What will you do to command higher fees as the labor supply pushes rates down?
These are the questions I have pondered and continue to ponder. And day by day I make steps toward clarifying my answers.
Perhaps being first in the mind is really only important in how you position yourself. After that, how you write copy may be irrelevant, so long as it gets results. (After all, it is called copywriting.)
So which side of the thought spectrum do you fall on? Will you choose to be original--to be first in the mind--or will you choose to stand in the long shadows of great advertising men? Or does it even matter? Your thoughts please.