An Introduction to Copywriting from The Copywriter's Handbook: Third Edition (Henry Holt & Co.)

"A copywriter is a salesperson behind a typewriter."*

*The original edition of this book was written in the early 1980s, of today, of course, we would substitute PC for typewriter.

That quote comes from Judith Charles, president of her own retail advertising agency, Judith K. Charles Creative Communication. And it's the best definition of the word "copywriter" I've ever heard.

The biggest mistake you can make as a copywriter is to judge advertising as laypeople judge it. If you do, you'll end up as an artist or an entertainer-but not as a salesperson. And your copy will be wasting your client's time and money.

Let me explain a bit. When ordinary folks talk about advertising, they talk about the ads or commercials that are the funniest, the most entertaining, or the most unusual or provocative. Fast-talking Federal Express commercials, Wendy's "Where's the beef?" spots, and Michael Jackson's Pepsi extravaganzas are the ads people point to and say, "I really like that!"

But the goal of advertising is not to be liked-it is to sell products. The advertiser, if he is smart, doesn't care whether people like his commercials or are entertained or amused by them. If they are, fine. But commercials are a means to an end, and the end is increased sales-and profits-for the advertiser.

This is a simple and obvious thing, but the majority of copywriters and advertising professionals seem to ignore it. They produce artful ads, stunningly beautiful catalogs, and commercials whose artistic quality rivals the finest feature films. But they sometimes lose sight of their goals-more sales-and the fact that they are "salespeople behind typewriters," and not literary artists, entertainers, or filmmakers.

Being artistic in nature, advertising writers naturally like ads that are aesthetically pleasing, as do advertising artists. But the fact is, just because an ad is pretty and pleasant to read doesn't necessarily mean it is persuading people to buy the product. Sometimes, cheaply produced ads, written simply and directly without a lot of fluff, do the best job of selling.

I'm not saying that all your ads should be "shlock" or that shlock always sells best. I am saying that the look, tone, and image of your advertising should be dictated by the product and your prospects-and not by what is fashionable in the advertising business at the time, or is aesthetically pleasing to artistic people who deliberately shun selling as if it were an unwholesome chore to be avoided at all costs.

In a column in Direct Marketing Magazine (May 1983), freelance copywriter Luther Brock gave an instructive example of creativity versus salesmanship in advertising.

Brock tells of a printing firm that spent a lot of money to produce a fancy direct-mail piece. The mailing featured an elaborate, four-color, glossy brochure with a "pop-up" of a printing press. But, reports Brock, the mailing was less than effective:

They got plenty of compliments on "that unique mailing." But no new business. That's a pretty expensive price to pay for knocking 'em dead.

The next mailing the firm sent was a simple two-page sales letter and reply card. It pulled a hefty 8 percent response. Same pitch but no frills.

As a creative person, you naturally want to write clever copy and produce fancy promotions. But as a professional, your obligation to your client is to increase sales at the lowest possible cost. If a classified ad works better than a full-page ad, use it. If a simple typewritten letter gets more business than a four-color brochure, mail the letter.

Actually, once you realize the goal of advertising is selling (and Luther Brock defines selling as "placing 100 percent emphasis on how the reader will come out ahead by doing business with you"), you'll see that there is a cre­ative challenge in writing copy that sells. This "selling challenge" is a bit different than the artistic challenge: Instead of creating aesthetically pleasing prose, you have to dig into a product or service, uncover the reasons why consumers would want to buy the product, and present those sales arguments in copy that is read, understood, and reacted to--copy that makes the arguments so convincingly the customer can't help but want to buy the product being advertised.

Of course, Judith Charles and I are not the only copywriters who believe that salesmanship, not entertainment, is the goal of the copywriter. Here are the thoughts of a few other advertising professionals on the subjects of advertising, copywriting, creativity, and selling:

My definition says that an ad or commercial has a purpose other than to entertain. That purpose is to conquer a sale by persuading a logical prospect for your product or service, who is now using or is about to use a competitor's product or service, to switch to yours. That's basic, or at least, it should be. In order to accomplish that, it seems to me, you have to promise that prospect an advantage that he's not now getting from his present product or service and it must be of sufficient importance in filling a need to make him switch.