Straight Talk: A Game of Mindsweeper with Robert Lerose
In June, freelance copywriter Robert Lerose was named "America's Greatest Thinker" after winning the 2004 Great American Think-Off competition in Minnesota. To enter, contestants submit a 750-word essay stating their position; four finalists are chosen, who then must argue their case in front of a live audience. This year's topic: "Should Same-Sex Marriages Be Prohibited?" Lerose was awarded the title and a check for $500.
Lerose has scribed control packages for Institutional Investor, KCI Communications and Panel Publishers. He now pauses to reflect on his copywriting mentor, boring, product-centered copy and the lasting impression of Mother Jones.
PB: Which copywriters inspire you?
RL: I try to learn from every piece of copy I read, the good and the bad. Too often I don't know which copywriter is behind the words, so I'm not able to assign praise. That said, of the copywriters whose work I know well, four stand out and serve as models for my own work. Ed McLean's [writing] has a powerful influence. I admire his clean, straightforward style and his way of talking to the reader with sincerity. Bill Jayme's letters always surprise me, even after rereading them. He had the knack for assuming any voice and reaching perfect pitch. Don Hauptman has become a mentor of sorts. I admire his techniques for keeping the reader involved and for the rich content of his letters. Richard Armstrong's writing is a delight. He comes at a letter from an unexpected angle and infuses it with color, life and wit.
PB: How do you stay connected with the world at large so your copy speaks to the average American?
RL: I'm not sure what an average American is, now more than ever. There is less common ground and fewer common references than before, or so it seems. I write a lot of copy for magazine and newsletter publishers and other information-service providers. By their very nature, they are specialized products and talk to a select, clearly defined audience. My copy is directed to that audience, not to the mass market. I try to stay connected to the world by reading widely and sampling the culture and, most importantly, talking to people. The copy begins and ends with the human touch. If a promotion fails, typically it's because the writer focused on the product and not the person.
PB: What was the most unfamiliar market segment you had to write to, and how did you overcome that challenge?
RL: The first subscription package I wrote for an investment newsletter was tough and complex. I wasn't versed in the product. I didn't understand the mind-set of the typical prospect. I wasn't an investor at the time, so I couldn't draw on personal experience. I didn't know how to do it. It was daunting and the package failed. No surprise. They say you learn more from your failures than your successes, and I think that's true. The next investment package I wrote was the launch promotion for a newsletter for silver investors. I immersed myself in the topic. I learned a lot about silver and investor psychology. I questioned the editor relentlessly, and even interviewed him on the beach one summer afternoon. In short, I did my homework. The package went on to pull 400 percent of the break-even point.
PB: What is the current consensus from clients about mailing long letters versus short letters, and vice versa?
RL: There is no consensus. Short letters work and long letters work, depending on who you ask. I don't have a definitive answer myself, save for this: If you provide the prospect[s] with timely information they can use; if you show how your product can improve their life or solve a particular problem; and if you put the person first, then they'll stay involved in the sales process for as long as it takes to make the sale. Boring, product-centered copy has always been a turnoff, and still is.
PB: What was the last piece of direct mail you responded to, and why?
RL: I received a new-subscriber acquisition package for Mother Jones magazine that I held onto. I don't remember precisely when I saw it first, but it impressed me right away. The outer envelope carries a fierce, black-and-white photograph of Mother Jones with a balloon coming out of her mouth that says: "Ready for ballsy, ass-kicking, truth-telling, free-thinking, hell-raising Real News?" It's earthy and packs a wallop that stopped me. The letter and inserts continue in the same way, contrasting the "news" put out by big-time media outlets with the "real" news you get from Mother Jones. The whole package has personality, punch and passion.