Secrets of Writing for the Financial Markets: World’s Highest Paid Copywriter Clayton Makepeace Interviewed

For many years, Clayton Makepeace was the world’s highest paid freelance copywriter, earning as much as $4m a year writing largely for the financial markets. The interview below, originally conducted by American Writers & Artists Inc. is pure gold for any financial marketer. In it, you’ll learn:

  • The five most effective techniques to boost credibility – and the one mistake to avoid …
  • The single-most important thing you MUST have right – or you may as well toss your promotion in the trash …
  • How this powerful format transforms colder prospects into eager buyers …
  • The quickest, easiest way to breathe butt-kicking, response-rocketing life into a dying control …
  • The two troubling trends in financial marketing that you need to avoid like the plague …
  • And much MORE! Enjoy…

AWAI: Why don’t we start with you telling us a little bit about yourself; your background.

Clayton Makepeace: My father was a Methodist minister. He never made more than $500 a month in his life. We didn’t know we were poor, but we were. Dirt poor. In tenth grade, I found that the one thing that interested me most was writing. My teachers seemed to be amazed at my compositions, and submitted them for publication in the city’s anthology for high school students.

Unfortunately, my mom and dad separated when I was in tenth grade, and I had to drop out of high school in order to help support my mom. My first real job was for $1.60 an hour, running a folding machine on the graveyard shift for a letter shop owned by a national political organization based in Oklahoma.

While the folding machine chugged away through the night, I passed the time reading the organization’s fundraising letters. After a while, I became convinced that I could create far more powerful promotions than the company’s highly paid “experts” were producing. So I talked the owner into letting me try my hand at writing a fund-raising appeal for him. To my surprise, he let me do it – and sure enough, when my appeal letter mailed, it pulled better than the ones he was using at the time.

At the ripe old age of 16, I had become an amateur – read that as “unpaid” – direct mail copywriter. Of course, it didn’t even occur to me that copywriting could earn me a decent living at the time. So when the organization launched its national weekly television program, I talked them into moving me into the Television Division. By the time I was 20, I was writing, producing and directing their nationally syndicated television show. I had an annual budget of about $12 million and generated tens-of-thousands of new leads and donors for the organization.

In 1972, a California organization offered me the princely sum of $8,000 per year to run their television department for them – producing, writing, and directing their quarterly television specials. But I resigned promptly when I discovered that the principals were skimming donations for their personal use.

Then in ’73 and ’74, a recession hit the television and film industry. And although I was still able to pick up some freelance production work, it wasn’t enough to support my family.

Then, in 1975, I found a “Copywriter Wanted” ad for a small direct mail list brokerage in LA that was starting a creative division. I figured it was worth a shot: After all – I had written some direct mail for fundraising and a LOT of scripts for television commercials: How hard could this be?

At the job interview, the owner asked me to write an “audition” package for him – a fund-raising letter, response device and envelope teaser copy. When they read my copy a few days later, they hired me on the spot – for $12,000 a year.

Within a couple of years, I was able to build the agency’s creative billing up to $1 million dollars a year. But when I asked him to pay me the bonus he had promised for reaching the $1 million mark, he not only refused; he fired me on the spot!

So, with no money in the bank, and no other obvious choices, I became a freelance copywriter – and in my first month, I netted $15,000: $3,000 more than my annual salary at the agency!

A few months after leaving the agency, someone showed me a direct mail package that Research Publication was using to sell subscriptions to its Daily News Digest newsletter. Daily News Digest was a semi-monthly collection of political and economic stories and commentary, edited by Phoenix radio personality Johnny Johnson.

Johnny was one of the true pioneers of our industry. At the time, Johnny – along with Bill Bonner at Agora, Howard Ruff at the Ruff Times, Bob Kephart at what is now KCI, Martin Weiss at Weiss Research, and Tom Phillips, at Phillips Publishing – were literally inventing the investment newsletter industry that we know today.

After reading Johnny’s promotion for Daily News Digest, I called him up, introduced myself and told him that his sales letter sucked – BIG time! I told him that I could quadruple his response. But Johnny said that money was too tight and he couldn’t afford to pay me: So, I offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse: “If I don’t beat the living daylights out of your control, pay me nothing,” I said. “If I do, you owe me $800.”

Long story short: As I predicted, my package did quadruple Johnny’s response, and I spent the next several years creating successful promotions exclusively for his stable of investment newsletters.

Next came my big break. By 1982, I was earning $1,200 per promotion package and around $100,000 per year. That’s when a fellow from Minnesota asked if I would write a direct mail package promoting his brand new financial newsletter called The Money Advocate. I did; and within about 18 months my sales copy had generated 120,000 paying subscribers.

After a few months of writing for The Money Advocate, I asked my client if he would let me take a whack at the promotions he was sending to his active subscribers. He had been sending monthly promotions to his actives to sell them on investing in rare coins, and was generating about $360,000 in sales per month. The client accepted my offer, and when the dust had settled, my rare coin promotion had multiplied his usual monthly sales – by a factor of ten!

As you can imagine, the client was thrilled with the results and in a panic to retain me exclusively to create rare coin promotions for his file. I demanded a $250,000 annual retainer, plus a $40,000 signing bonus, plus a whopping 5% of sales revenues. He accepted, and within a year, we were selling $16 million worth of rare coins per month. After a while, a friend called to say that my client was cheating his customers – delivering low-quality rare coins at premium-quality prices. I resigned instantly and structured an exclusive marketing arrangement with Jim Blanchard of Blanchard and Company – the second largest rare coin dealer in America.

Over the next four years or so, I was able to quadruple Jim’s revenues to more than $115 million per year. Then, in late 1988, Jim sold the company to a subsidiary of General Electric for tens-of-millions of dollars. I ended my relationship with the firm and returned to freelance copywriting, creating newsletter subscription and book promotions for Phillips Publishing, Boardroom, Rodale Press, and many other financial and health publishers.

In 1991, Phillips Publishing called to ask if I would help them launch a new alternative health newsletter, Dr. Julian Whitaker’s Health & Healing. I agreed, and over the next three years, my promotions were mailed to 90 million prospects, and generated more than two million paying subscribers. As a result of this success, I was retained exclusively by Phillips to provide marketing consultation and to write for Health & Healing as well as the company’s new health and investment newsletters – including letters for Dr. Christiane Northrup, Elaine Garzarelli, the Dolans and many others.

Finally, in 1998, I ended my exclusive with Phillips Publishing to take on a new challenge at Weiss Research. Since then, I have provided marketing and management consulting services and created promotions that quadrupled the number of paying subscribers to Dr. Martin D. Weiss’ Safe Money Report,Undiscovered StocksStocks on the Move and other investment newsletters.

I also help Weiss create new products for sale to active subscribers and have created sales campaigns that generated up to $5 million in revenues in as little as six weeks.

AWAI: Now it sounds like you had a fairly unorthodox transition into this industry. Do you think it’s still possible for somebody who hasn’t gone through college, but is a very talented writer … is it possible for somebody in that situation still to break into this industry and what advice would you give them?

Clayton: Sure! The secret to becoming a great copywriter has nothing to do with what kind of sheepskin you have hanging on the wall.

I’m a high school dropout. I got a GED diploma and about a year-and-a-half of college taking very general courses … certainly nothing on marketing or advertising. But in more than three decades as a professional copywriter, not a single client has ever even asked about my educational background.

What we do is about the numbers. You write a package. It gets printed. And within two weeks, you know if you’re a hero or a putz. If your packages win, no one is going to say, “Well, we know this guy has written all these winning packages, but we’re not going to hire him because he doesn’t have a degree.”

If your copy performs, your dance card will be filled regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman … old or young … fat or thin… gay or straight … white, black, brown, or chartreuse, for that matter.

I’ve mentored quite a few beginners over the years – and as far as I know, not a single one of them had a formal education in copy-writing or marketing. Brien Lundin’s copywriting skills have made him a millionaire, and president and CEO of the New Orleans Investment conferences. Carline Anglade-Cole was a marketing director at Phillips Publishing when I began helping her refine her copy skills. Today, Carline is one of the top direct response pros in the alternative health newsletter industry. I also mentored Parris Lampropoulos, Kent Komae, Robert Hutchinson and Brad Petersen early in their careers. All of them are million-dollar copywriters today.

So when you ask if a “talented writer” can still break into this business, and my answer is “Sure!” But that’s only half an answer, because in the end, what we do isn’t about writing. Yes, you have to have the basics. You have to have an adequate vocabulary – or at least know how to use a thesaurus. You have to know how to construct a coherent sentence.

But if you want to think about yourself primarily as a “writer,” you’re probably in the wrong business. To make it as a direct response copywriter, you must be – first and foremost – a salesman.

Not a single great copywriter I’ve ever met thought of him – or herself as a “writer who sells.” Instead, they saw themselves as “salespeople in print.”

It’s a crucial distinction. As I said, I’ve mentored many copywriters over the years, and I just named the ones I’m proudest of. What I failed to tell you is that when it comes to training copywriters, I’ve had far more failures than successes. And one of the most important lessons those failures taught me is this: Great writers often make lousy direct response copywriters. Why? Because the writing gets in the way of the sale. Financial publishers aren’t looking for great literature. Nobody ever intentionally rolled out three million losing packages just because they were enchanted by the prose!

Give me a successful life insurance rep or a used car salesman or any other kind of salesperson who has been in the trenches and excelled – and if he or she can also construct even a semi-decent sentence on paper, I’ll turn him into a multi-millionaire copywriter.

A great salesman doesn’t give a damn about split infinitives or dangling participles. He has no aspirations to write the Great American Novel. To him, Shakespeare is just another brand of fishing tackle.

Whether by heredity or by training, great salesmen are masters of seduction: They select their prospects with care … seize their attention … instantly put them at ease … are attentive – attuned to what the customer is thinking and feeling at every moment …deftly stroke the right emotional erogenous zones with the appropriate intensity and at the right times … cultivate a rising sense of urgency … and then compellingly close the sale in a way that leaves the customer blissfully satisfied and eager to repeat the experience.

So instead of thinking of yourself as a writer, see yourself as a master salesperson who just happens to work with the written word. Everything you do needs to be about selling.

Your headline must sell the reader on reading your deck. Your deck needs to sell the reader on reading your first sentence. And the first sentence – and every sentence thereafter – needs to sell the reader on reading the next paragraph.

Put simply, the greatest copywriters are the greatest persuaders: Our mission is to help prospects see things from our perspective. And it’s an art; not a science.

AWAI: Then what is the role of education and training for beginning copywriters?

Clayton: The first thing a writer needs to be able to do is to differentiate between strong copy and weak copy. You have to make that judgment minute by minute – hundreds of times a day – as you conceptualize your promotion piece, as you write, and as you edit what you write. It sounds simple, I know; but you’d be surprised how few copywriters – or their marketing manager clients, for that matter – really know the difference.

That’s where training comes in – especially early in your career. Direct response copywriting dates back more than 100 years – to the old Montgomery Ward catalogs of the late 1800s. Since then, millions of direct response catalog blurbs, post cards, sales letters, self-mailers, print ads, e-mails, TV spots and radio commercials have been produced. Each of them has elicited some level of measurable response. Many were duds. More were just so-so. A memorable few were dynamite. The point is, because direct response copy generates a measurable response, we know what has worked in the past. And over the years, much of that knowledge has been condensed into sets of “rules” – guideposts for copywriters.

Master those rules. Internalize them; make them a part of your DNA. They represent lessons that others have spent billions of dollars to learn. But understand that the one constant in our business is change. Markets mature. Prospects become more sophisticated. Techniques that kick butt in a bull market will likely doom you to failure in a bear market, and vice-versa. What worked a year ago, five years ago, rarely works as well today. As the S.E.C. likes to remind us, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

More than that: Understand that rules are no substitute for personal experience. As you mature as a copywriter, allow what you learn from your own successes and failures to override these rules. If you blindly follow the rules every other copywriter is following, your packages will sound like every other package out there. Creatively breaking the rules that your competitors follow – and doing it in a way that boosts response – is what separates the mediocre copywriter from the pro.

AWAI: I’m going to jump back to the financial industry. When you write for the financial industry, can you give us your basic approach to a package?

Clayton: First and foremost, it’s essential that you understand your prospects’ fears and desires at the deepest possible level. The legendary Bob King – the marketing genius who presided over Phillips Publishing during its period of most explosive growth – referred to these fears and desires as the prospect’s “resident emotions.” In the case of investment copywriting, resident emotions are the feelings that a majority of prospects already have about their finances: The fears that wake them up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat – or the waking dreams that have them so excited that they find it difficult to go to sleep in the first place.

When you can put your finger on what your prospects’ most powerful resident emotions are now, you’re half-way there. You can plant a touchstone in your headline and deck structure that immediately gets the prospect on your side, and a mantra that returns to that touchstone throughout the sales letter. They can say, “This guy has the solution to something I’ve been losing sleep over.” Or, “This guy can get me something that I want desperately.”

The financial newsletter industry and the alternative health newsletter industry – both of which have generated billions of dollars in sales over the years – were both born of the same basic resident emotion: A healthy distrust of the establishment.

Back in the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter was telling the American people that we should lower our expectations for the future. The experts were telling us that the world was about to run out of oil. Economists knew that Washington’s rampant printing of U.S. dollars was killing the value of the dollar – and yet the government was feigning ignorance as to what was causing inflation.

At one point President Carter chastised his chief economic advisor for even using the word “inflation” in public. So in his next speech, the advisor announced, “I’ve been asked not to use the ‘I’ word. So in this speech, I’m going to use the word ‘piano’ instead. And let me tell you: The current piano is one heck of a big problem!”

To the average investor, it felt like the inmates had seized control of the asylum. The value of their money was vanishing before their very eyes, and yet Washington was in denial. As a result, millions of investors lost faith in the government’s ability to create a profitable investment environment. They realized that, if they were to have any hope of surviving inflation – let alone becoming financially independent or enjoying a comfortable retirement – they would have to rebel against the establishment and take control of their own finances.

To do that, they needed a guide to them tell them what Washington and Wall Street wouldn’t. That’s when the pioneers of this industry – Howard Ruff, Harry Schultz, Harry Brown, Bob Kephart, Tom Phillips, Martin Weiss and Bill Bonner – stepped up to the plate. They said, “You’re right to distrust Washington and their puppets in the mainstream financial media. If you wait around for them to make you rich, it will never happen! You’ve got to do it yourself, and I want to help.”

Their message was in perfect synch with investors’ primary resident emotion at the time. And as a result, we sold millions of subscriptions to their investment newsletters.

Years later – in 1991 – many Americans had developed similar feelings about the medical industry. Marcus Welby – the caring family doctor – had been replaced by cold, uncaring, greedy medical corporations. Doctors were doling out drugs with horrendous side effects. One drug, Tambocor, killed 100,000 Americans before it could be withdrawn from the market – more than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the medical industry was stubbornly ignoring breakthrough studies suggesting that simple lifestyle changes and good nutrition could often do what drugs couldn’t.

As a result, millions of Americans were becoming increasingly distrustful of the medical establishment. They were thinking, “My health is too important to trust to strangers. I think they’re taking advantage of me to get to my money. I think they’d be willing to poison me with toxic drugs, cut anything off of me, or even cut a hole right through me just to get at my wallet! I’ve got to get my own solution. And I need a dependable guide.”

It was in this environment that a vice president at Phillips introduced me to Dr. Julian Whitaker at his offices in Irvine, California. At the time, Dr. Whitaker had written a couple of relatively obscure paperback books about reversing heart disease and a few columns for the local paper in which he railed against the medical establishment for its refusal to even evaluate promising alternate ways of treating America’s #1 killer.

After talking to the doctor for an hour or so, I returned to my hotel room, laid out what I believed would be an ideal newsletter for folks who were fed up with the establishment and ready to take control of their own health. Then, sitting by the hotel pool, I wrote a direct mail package to launch that newsletter.

At the time, nobody had successfully promoted an alternative health newsletter in America. The only successful letters in the field were mainstream letters, published by Harvard, Berkley, Tufts and the Mayo Clinic. And none of them asked for cash with the order. All of them were “bill-me” offers, and all of them were cheap – just $19 or $29 per year.

Now here I was, writing a promotion for a new newsletter … from a virtually unknown doctor … that was in the unproven alternative health field … that cost 33% more than letters published by some of America’s most respected medical institutions … AND that required the customer to pay up-front

When I submitted the copy, there was so little enthusiasm for it at Phillips that almost no one bothered to even look at it. The VP and I proceeded to push it through graphics, printing and mailing with only minor alterations to my first draft.

A few days later, my phone rang. Orders were pouring in. Phillips’ telemarketers were swamped: Customers were cooling their heels on “hold” for fifteen, even twenty minutes just to place their orders. The mailroom was stacked to the ceiling with Business Reply Envelopes, each one stuffed with money.

When the dust had settled, my launch package for Health & Healing had generated an eye-popping, unheard-of 4% response. That was more than EIGHT TIMES the response levels Phillips had ever seen on its mainstream health letters!

Soon, we were rolling out with 3 million … 5 million … up to six million pieces per month. No matter what list we tested – health names, investment names, catalog buyers, book buyers, even expires that were so old we had to clean the lists before using them – everything worked!

In the next three years, we sold more than two million subscriptions to Health & Healing at an average unit of sale of about $57 – more than $100 million in all!

But even that was just the beginning. Those subscribers enabled Phillips to build a vitamin business, which, I understand, now generates hundreds-of-millions of dollars in sales each year. And Health & Healing created an entire industry, as Phillips’ competitors launched health newsletters and vitamin companies of their own.

That’s the kind of magic that can happen when your copy connects with your prospects’ resident emotions!

AWAI: Do you have any rituals that you use for generating ideas for hitting those nerves?

Clayton: My first mental step is kind of a Zen thing: BE THE PROSPECT.

The single-most important thing that any investment copywriter can do is open a brokerage account and put a significant amount of money into it – money it would hurt you to lose. Then, go through the bewildering experience of researching the stocks you’re going to invest that money in. Then, put that money into the best stocks you can find. All of it.

Suddenly, you’ll begin experiencing the daily news and the daily ups and downs of the stock market in a distinctly personal, tangible way. You’re thrilled by every advance, crushed by every decline, and disappointed when your stocks go nowhere. And you’ll experience the agony of reluctantly selling a losing stock and turning a paper loss into a real loss.

For more clues that reveal how your prospects are feeling, expose yourself to the same media input that they’re getting. They’re getting their perception of the markets – and therefore, the emotions they have about them – from CNBC, CNN and Fox News. They’re reading the Wall Street Journal,Investor’s Business DailyBarron’s and the business section of the New York Times.

Connecting with these news stories also helps in another way. It tends to make your packages more topical – more connected with the day’s news. And that can be a powerful advantage. Imagine your prospect, sitting there with a package you wrote about making money in a rising-interest-rate environment. Meanwhile on TV, they’re announcing the latest hike in the Fed Funds Rate hike. In effect, you’re putting the financial media to work for you!

Another way to get a good read on your prospect’s resident emotions is to go to sites like Gallup.com, Zogby.com, Harrispollonline.com and some of the other polling sites online. The answers to the political, economic and investment questions they’re getting right now can give you great insight into what investors are feeling. I also recommend that my clients poll their own subscribers and even send polls to rented investor lists – especially when they’re struggling to get a new control.

From time to time, the newsletter industry hits hard times – usually when investors are preoccupied with other things, and response just drops by thirty or forty percent. Promotions that were generating 100% return on investment suddenly begin coming in at 70% or even 60% of cost – even on “A” lists. It happened during the O.J. Simpson trial. It happened when Reagan was first elected, and later on, when he was shot. It happened when Princess Diana was killed. And it happened in the build up to the Gulf War, both of them. Usually, these slumps in response only last a few weeks.

But in 2004, it began happening in March, with bad news corning out of Iraq and as terror threats increased in the run-up to the presidential elections. Those are the times that try copywriters’ souls. Your only defense at a time like that is to clearly understand how your prospects are feeling. Figure out why they’re not reading their mail. And polling is a powerful way to do that.

AWAI: That’s very good advice and it’s advice I hadn’t heard before. On to my next question, in the financial industry, is there a typical prospect and if there is, how would you describe them?

Clayton: First, you’re talking to guys: Predominantly, to older, white Republican guys. Last time I looked, our average prospect was around 65 years old. But that doesn’t mean he has the same psychographic profile as a 65-year-old did when I started writing. Today’s 65-year-olds were teenagers in the 1950s … 20-somethings in the 1960s … and 30-somethings in the 1970s. And today, they’re far more hip, sophisticated and involved than their parents were at the same age.

Many of them are active or retired small business owners with substantial net worth. At The Money Show – which derives its attendees primarily from investment newsletter subscription lists – the average attendee has a net worth of around a million dollars. But that’s not necessarily liquid, investible wealth. They tend to have a big chunk of their net worth tied up in the family home, and possibly, in a business as well. So the average prospect may only have $100,000 to $200,000 to actually invest, and many of your prospects have substantially less.

Another key to understanding our prospects is that they are not merely casual readers who are content with the variety of views that are soft-pedaled by anonymous reporters in the big investment websites and magazines. They’re looking for emphatic, confident leadership: A more personal relationship with an investment advisor who has a strongly held world-view and investment philosophy that’s in synch with their own, and who offers clear, unhedged advice.

AWAI: Is there a particular tone or voice that reaches that market best?

Clayton: The tone of voice that you use and also the format of the package you design should always connect with the emotion you’re trying to convey. The investment publishing industry uses two kinds of packages: 1) Fear packages that connect with something the prospect is already fearful of and that offer a solution, and 2) Greed packages that connect with something that the prospect wants and offers to give it to him.

I do nearly all of the promotions for Weiss Research, the publisher of Safe Money Report. A couple of years ago, Dr. Weiss was the first to discover accounting irregularities at major corporations. He simply crunched the numbers and discovered hundreds of companies where stated earnings didn’t add up with the revenues and costs.

Now, put yourself into your prospect’s shoes: You’re an investor, trying to buy value stocks – shares with favorable price/earnings ratios – and you suddenly discover that the companies behind your stocks are lying to you about half of that ratio – their earnings!

These guys are swindling you. They’re telling you they have earnings way up here, but really they’re way down there … In short, they tricked you into buying stocks that were ridiculously overpriced. Even worse: You know that when the companies behind your stocks are eventually forced to restate their earnings, share prices are going to tumble and you’re going to get your head handed to you.

Now I ask you: What is the appropriate emotional response to that piece of news? Any investor worth his salt would be livid! Incensed! Outraged! Any other reaction would seem oddly detached and out of place. So the tone of our package was outrage.

But evoking emotion alone isn’t enough to make a sale. You also have to offer an outlet to the prospect – a way to directly address, and in this case, salve his outrage. So we also offered the solution: A free report entitled The Weiss Corporate Earnings Blacklist that allowed investors to make sure none of the companies behind their stocks were likely to be cooking the books.

Sometimes a little bit of humor also works. A few months ago, we found a bunch of billionaire corporate executives who had been out on tour, essentially telling investors, “Buy my company’s stock!” Meanwhile they were dumping hundreds-of-millions of dollars of their own companies’ shares! My idea was to run pictures of these crooks – Bill Gates and others – above a headline that read, “Two-faced, Lying S.O.B.s!”

In the investment newsletter industry, packages with a passive or scholarly tone almost always fail. And for a simple reason: Intellect alone doesn’t sell. Emotion does. You can use an intellectual argument to trigger an emotion, but if you go in on a purely intellectual basis and you have this cold, stilted, tone, you’re not going to trigger the emotions necessary to make a sale.

Look. There is always something your prospect feels he needs much more than the newsletter you’re trying to sell him. Maybe he’s in dire need of a new house, a new car or a new suit of clothes. Maybe it’s a bigger contribution to his own IRA. Or maybe it’s a vacation, a romantic night out with his wife to help their marriage, or a gift for the kids or grandkids.

As a copywriter, your job is to convince the prospect that buying your newsletter is the single best thing he could do with his money now. You can do that negatively – by convincing him that without you, he faces the specter of massive losses. Or, you can do it positively, by convincing him that his small investment in your newsletter will help him realize his dreams of a richer life now, a more secure future and a more comfortable, more exciting retirement. Both approaches conjure powerful emotions – and those compelling emotions are what it takes to make the sale.

AWAI: In your opinion, what’s the most important part of a financial promotion? You may have just stated it … it needs to be alive with emotion. Are there any other elements critical to its success?

Clayton: I think anyone who has done any testing at all would agree that the headline and deck copy and the first few paragraphs of the main sales copy have a greater impact on response than any other part of a sales promotion. On countless occasions, I’ve taken a package that was pulling at, say, 120% of cost, tested new headline and deck copy and pushed response up to 150% or 170% of cost.

That’s why every time one of my packages mail, I include anywhere from two to four new headlines to test along with the control.

Second, there’s the offer. I generally like to test pricing at least once every 12 to 18 months. If you have the time, testing premiums – particularly the fast-response and/or phone-in bonus is also a great way to boost response.

Also – never forget that your return on investment in the mail is composed of not one, but two vital elements: 1) Your response rate – the percentage of your prospects who actually buy, and 2) Your average unit of sale – the percentage of your prospects who opt for a two-year or even a three-year offer. After I’ve tested everything I can think of to boost response, I like to look at the higher-dollar offer and test things – pricing, premium line-up, etc. – to add a few extra dollars to each sale.

Third, I like to test formats. Time after time, I’ve found that a package that’s doing “just OK” as a bookalog will suddenly come to life as a tabloid. And almost invariably, I find that changing the format of a dying control gives it new life. When I get my way, I like to test new formats on the very first roll-out of a new control. If it’s a 24-page report-style self-mailer, I spin off a 6 X 9 component package version … a bookalog … a tabloid … or sometimes, even a scaled down #10 First Class version.

Finally, although I never test this, credibility is right up here as one of the most important parts of each package. Everyone we mail to sees hundreds of newsletter promotions per year from scores of advisors. It’s important to position your advisor as not only being a credible voice in this sea of self-serving hype, but also head and shoulders above the carnival barkers out there. So, beginning right on the front cover, I make a huge effort to include credibility elements – track record statements, testimonials, etc. – throughout the piece.

AWAI: How do you go about developing credibility in your packages?

Clayton: I like to do it in a number of ways. Right on page one, I like to list the accurate forecasts or the profitable investments that we’ve already nailed on the wall. You can tell somebody that the man who predicted the Tech Wreck of 2000 now predicts – fill in the blank – you’ve got some credibility right off the bat.

I like to also weave that into the early copy and expand on it with actual examples of either accurate economic or market forecasts or very profitable investment recommendations. The more specific the better: Give them the date of the buy, the date of the sell, and the profit amount.

Another, more subtle way to add credibility is by including a spot within the piece where the advisor can show some humility and really connect with the prospect. I write very high-energy packages. But I also like to create “islands of calm” in the package where the advisor connects to the reader on a personal level. Maybe he admits a minor mistake he made in the past … talks a little bit about his background … his family … his feelings about current events … how he got started. Do it right, and the reader comes away feeling like your editor is his friend. “He wouldn’t be lying to me about this,” says your prospect, “He’s a good guy.”

A third way to add credibility is to add specificity to your arguments in the text. Most investment newsletter promotions begin by discussing current dangers and opportunities. The more specific you can be, the more data you can provide to dimensionalize the opportunity or danger, the more credible it will be to the reader.

Beginning copywriters often make the mistake of making flat statements without any backup. They’re just assuming that the prospect will just accept what they say at face value and start nodding his head. But if they don’t, you can lose the sale. You can’t make these flat statements and then walk away from them. You lose traction when you do that.

Another credibility booster is to include testimonials and endorsements throughout the copy – both in the running text and prominently featured in sidebars. These fall into four categories:

First, there are testimonials from subscribers who testify about how much money your editor has made him or saved him. My advice to clients is to actively pursue testimonials from subscribers. Every time the newsletter closes out a winning trade, mail a testimonial request to your database. I’ve found that offering a prize or a series of prizes for the best testimonials produces the best results.

Second, there’s the detailed narrative, told by your editor, of how he spotted a major profit opportunity for investors. Weaker than a testimonial, but because of its specificity, still very effective.

Third, there’s the media mention that reads like an endorsement. I’m fortunate to be working with Dr. Martin Weiss, who has been praised in many articles by the New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalBarron’sForbes, and just about every other financial publication you can name. In every promotion, I excerpt these positive comments for use in sidebars.

Fourth, there’s the implied endorsement. The very fact that your editor has appeared on CNBC or quoted in The Wall Street Journal implies that he must be credible. Dig for these nuggets and use them aggressively.

I urge my clients to place a high value on public relations. The goal is to get your client quoted in the media, and to get him in front of the cameras as often as possible. You get two benefits. You can use these appearances and mentions as credibility in your mail packages, of course. Plus, the fact that your prospect has seen your editor in the papers or on TV further paves the way for you. The money you spend doing this pays dividends in greater response, revenues and profits.

I also think the way you write the guarantee is crucial to the credibility of your offer. Guarantees are much more than just “risk relief.” If it is written compellingly, the guarantee proves that the editor is absolutely convinced that the prospect will be delighted with his service.

To drive this home, I like to put a dollar amount in the guarantee: “If within 12 months, I haven’t earned you or saved you at least $5000 – 50 TIMES the price of your subscription – just let me know. I’ll rush you a full refund and everything I’ve sent you in the meantime is free!” The prospect comes away thinking, “Wow, this guy really believes in what he’s telling me. It must be incredible stuff.”

AWAI: What kind of resources do you use as you as you write a package?

Clayton: I rely heavily on my clients to provide research that backs up the editor’s views. Ultimately I’m writing in the voice of the guru. The copy must accurately represent his views. And his views are based on data that he is using. I ask to see that data.

A lot of writers will get a general topic and do their own research and kind of run off in that direction. I like to challenge my clients, when they tell me it’s an absolute lock that interest rates are going to rise, I challenge them, and I get them into a debate on it. And it’s wonderful because they’ll start trying to sell you on their view of the world. Essentially, they’re starting the copywriting process for you!

Dan Rosenthal is a legend in our business. He loves to let his clients write their own headlines. He just gets them talking, and within minutes not only has he reaped salient copy points, he’s identified at least one or two headline possibilities.

To augment information provided by the client, I also use the Internet very heavily. I get news stories, data, charts and other valuable material to add credibility to my theme. I have a brokerage account at Fidelity Online and they make detailed stock reports available free of charge. Those reports are a great way to get all the fundamentals on a company in a quick five or six page report.

One of the standbys of our industry is the “Sexy Stock” package – a package in which you introduce a company with an incredibly exciting story behind it. Maybe it’s a cure for cancer, or the best drug since penicillin, or a fuel cell company about to hit the big time. When I latch onto a stock like that, I simply open my browser, log onto Fidelity.com and download all the analysts’ reports on the stock. Using those reports, I’m able to tell a prospect that the company has no debt, that the valuation of the company is 50% lower than the valuation of the average S&P stock, and find many other ways to dimensionalize what a great company this really is.

And of course, The New York Times is absolutely essential. I subscribe online. First thing every morning, I spend an hour or two reading all of the latest business news. A lot of good ideas for new packages come out of The New York Times. It’s really a rich resource. And of course, I also scan all the other business news sites. Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, CNN, and so forth.

AWAI: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from writing in the financial industry?

Clayton: I’ve learned that the most crucial moment in the writing process has nothing to do with writing. It has to do with establishing what you’re going to write about. And that involves building a bridge between what your prospects want and how your product meshes with those pre-perceived needs. If you get that right, the rest is child’s play. But if you get it horribly wrong, all the effort you put into your copy will be wasted.

Ironically, the editor and/or the marketing manager who hired you can be the biggest obstacles to doing this. Most newsletter gurus tend to focus on what they have to sell – not on what the market wants to buy. And most publishers are more attuned to the whims of their editors than they are to the resident emotions that are dominant in the marketplace.

Be prepared to fight ferociously for the ideas you believe in. If you lose the fight, be prepared to politely walk away from the assignment. There’s nothing more miserable than having to sweat bullets writing copy on a theme you feel is doomed to fail.

At times, your clients may hate you for standing your ground. But ultimately, your value to a publisher is based on your success rate. Each package you write costs the publisher somewhere around $100,000 just to test. If half of your packages become controls, your average control costs the publisher $200,000 up-front, plus any ongoing royalties. If one-fourth of your packages hit the big-time, you’re up to $400,000 for a single control.

Naturally, publishers look for writers who give them controls at the lowest possible cost.

So if you accept package themes you don’t believe in and end up giving the publisher a series of duds, you’ll find it more and more difficult to get assignments from that publisher. Even worse: This is a small, incestuous industry. Publishers meet every year to compare notes on copywriters. And they e-mail and phone each other constantly. Get a rep for losing packages and you’re sunk.

AWAI: Now you’ve been in the financial industry for quite a long time, and I imagine you’ve seen many changes. What’s the most important change that you’ve seen?

Clayton: Well, some of the changes are cyclical. It’s like wearing a 20-year-old tie: You know that sooner or later, it’ll come back in style again.

Take forecast packages, for example: Packages in which the guru presents seven, or 14 or 21 predictions for the economy and the investment markets for the next 12, 18 or 24 months.

They were really hot in the early 80s, but they fell out of vogue. But within the last six months, I’ve seen a whole raft of forecast packages out there, and my intelligence tells me some of them are working again.

Then, there’s the political angle. In the old days, most investment newsletter promotions had a strong political component to them. Editors were either conservative Republicans or hair-on-fire Libertarians and infused a great deal of political rhetoric into their promotions. They were more than just stock-pickers. They were crusaders for a more honest monetary system, more honest markets. They moralized about rising federal deficits and the debasing of the U.S. dollar. Today, we’ve lost a lot of that. Today’s gurus lack that moral compass and the advocacy that it spurs them to. Although politics are inextricably linked to economics, you’d be hard-pressed to find these kinds of packages today.

The biggest recent change has been the moronic profit claims I’m seeing on many packages today. In the old days, investment promotions tended to lead with the guru’s world view, on an opportunity in a particular investment area like gold, foreign stocks or zero-coupon bonds, or on the superiority of a specific investment approach. Today, most of the packages I see begin with truly outrageous profit promises: “Turn $10,000 into $1.5 million in 12 months or less!” And unfortunately, these packages seem to be working to some degree.

I hate to admit it, but I may be somewhat responsible for triggering this trend. Over the past few years, one of my clients recommended investments that actually jumped as much as 860% in just a few months. The gains were documented inside out, upside down and backwards. Heck he even has subscribers’ brokerage statements as proof that these kinds of gains were actually realized! So naturally, my packages shouted those victories from the rooftops, and we mailed tens-of-millions of those packages between 2000 and 2003. Now, however, many advisors are mailing packages containing misleading and patently false profit claims. Mark my words: The regulators are watching. And if this trend doesn’t end soon – if this industry doesn’t regulate itself – there will be regulatory hell to pay.

Another troubling trend: Several advisors are making deals with the devil – soliciting funds from publicly traded companies in return for touting their stocks in direct mail promotions for their newsletters. On the surface, these packages appear to be objective analyses of these stocks. It’s only when you read the fine print that you discover that the advisor is anything but objective: He has been bought and paid for by the company he’s promoting. That stinks.

Package formats have also changed radically since I began. Back in the 1970s, newsletters were sold in #10 packages with an eight-page sales letter. Then along came Howard Ruff with a two-color, mini self-mailer that started the copy right on page one. That was a real breakthrough. Later, in 1983 or ’84, Ted Kikoler and I started doing magalogs – four-color 16-page self-mailers – to sell attendance to the New Orleans Investment Conference. And within a year or so, we started seeing magalogs pop up all over the place as financial newsletter promotions. Today, all of us are searching for the next great breakthrough in mail package design.

In the meantime, many publishers have returned to their roots: Simple, two color, shorter-copy packages – like Agora does for Taipan and some of their other newsletters. Design is basic – almost primitive – and that makes their packages look more topical. They feel more urgent because they don’t look like you spent six months designing them. Plus, they’re cheaper to design and to print.

AWAI: You mentioned several different formats that you can use for a financial promotion. How does your approach differ depending on the format you’re using?

Clayton: Essentially, my formats are driven by the nature of my message. If my message is topical-based on fast-breaking, current news events – I default to simple-looking packages: Two-color special report format pieces, #10 component packages, and sometimes a 6 X 9. These kinds of packages send a clear message, “This stuff is HOT!”

On the other hand, if the package theme is more evergreen, not keying off of short-term news events, I prefer packages that appear to have intrinsic value: Magalogs and bookalogs, for example.

A magalog looks like a magazine and may even display a newsstand price on the page one masthead – $4.95 or something like that. Bookalogs – typically 5×8 booklets containing 48 to 64 pages plus cover – also appear to have value.

These formats work because prospects find it more difficult to throw away something that appears to have value. If someone sends you a $5 bill – or a book or magazine that looks like it’s worth five bucks – you don’t cavalierly toss it in the trash. I created the very first magalogs for Boardroom and Weiss Research – and they boosted response rates appreciably. Much of this increase came from the fact that our doubling date – the date at which half of your response is typically received – jumped from the traditional 14 days to 18 or even 21 days. So more prospects were hanging on to these pieces and eventually ordering the product.

Another factor in choosing my format has to do with the length of the sales copy. If you’re mailing primarily to “A” lists and have a simple message, you can sometimes get away with a cheap and dirty #10 component package. But if you’re looking to elicit a response from less responsive rented files, long copy is still king.

To sell colder prospects, you need space for credibility boosters … to present the premiums in the most compelling way possible … to fully develop your selling arguments and overcome objections. In these cases, tabloids, 24-page and 32-page magalogs and special report formats work great. So do bookalogs. They let me break long copy into bite-sized chapters: Chapter I – Why rising interest rates are inevitable. Chapter 2 – Stocks that will be hurt the worst by rising interest rates. Chapter 3 – How to find stocks that double or triple when interest rates rise – your premium sell. And then in chapter 4, you’re actually getting into your offer.

Making sure you have plenty of room to sell the heck out of your premiums is absolutely crucial. One of the major innovations that Gary Bencivenga introduced to the industry was his insistence that premiums – not the product itself – are the strongest selling tool in any investment newsletter promotion. His logic was faultless: When you’re selling a financial newsletter, you can’t tell your prospect precisely what’s going to be in the newsletter next month – let alone during the 12 or 24 months of their subscription. And so early on, Gary introduced the idea of creating a free special report containing specific, tangible, useable advice and information, and writing the package around it. That was a huge leap forward for our entire industry.

AWAI: You’ve mentioned a few times in our interview the importance of the graphic artist and the design of a package. How much do you interact with the graphic artist on a project?

Clayton: I insist on controlling the entire graphics process. I supervise the designer through three, four or more graphics drafts – and when I’m pleased with the layout, I show it to the client. I then filter any comments the client may have and pass along only the ones I agree with to the designer.

There’s just too much at stake to leave this to chance – or to people who don’t understand the finer points of graphic design. The design of your package has only two purposes: 1) To grab the prospect’s attention, and 2) To present the copy in a way that makes it easy to read.

No graphics school teaches this. That’s why so many ads are beautiful, artsy-fartsy and completely unreadable. Graphic artists go to school for years to learn how to make things look pretty. They love white space and nine point sans serif type and fully justified columns and graphic images that are meaningless but that take up space and make the page look nice.

All those things are deadly enemies of successful direct mail copy. I have two or three designers who understand this. They’ve created hundreds of sales promotions for me over the years, and have been a big part of my success.

Also, I insist that my designer actually reads my copy before he begins laying it out. If I even suspect that he hasn’t read this thing, he’s going to get a phone call from me.

AWAI: What do you think is the most important attribute that a copywriter can have that will help them succeed?

Clayton: First, you have to be a self-starter. When you first begin with a new package, the amount of work ahead of you can be quite daunting. It’s very easy to put it off for a day, then another day, and so on. Even the best copywriters fall prey to the siren song of procrastination. That’s why so many of them take three to six months to produce a first draft. Part of that is because they have other packages in the pipeline, but I’m convinced that a lot of it also has to do with the fact that there’s so much to think about when you start writing a new package, it’s easier to just to put it off.

Well, there’s something to be said for sleeping on it. But you’ll have plenty of time for that after you begin writing. My best ideas come to me when I’m writing – whether I feel like it or not. It takes discipline to do that. It’s not always easy to do. But if you plan to write more than three or four long-copy packages per year, it’s essential to get started.

Here’s another thing: You have to have thick skin. Like a rhino.

You fought for a package theme you believe in. You spent countless hours reading everything the guru has ever written. You spent hundreds more hours writing, rewriting and editing your copy – tweaking, massaging, sweating blood over every jot and tittle.

Then you hand it in – and the client, who has spent exactly 30 minutes reading your draft … zero time writing copy himself … and who hired you because you’re the pro … wants you to make “just a few minor changes” in your copy.

After nearly four decades in this business, it’s still all I can do to resist reaching through the phone and strangling the bearer of the bad news. But that’s just my first reaction. I keep my mouth shut, take a moment to cool down, and then think carefully about the critique.

Maybe he is just a preening middle manager who has never invested a dime … never subscribed to an investment newsletter … never even bought anything through the mail … and couldn’t identify great copy if you held a gun to his head.

Or, maybe he’s right – at least on some level.

Either way, you have to have the composure and the self-confidence to take an objective, non-defensive new look at your copy and objectively decide whether to accept the critique or fight like hell.

Thick skin comes in handy at other times, too. Like when you win all your battles, get your way at every step – and your package bombs. I’ve had a copywriter call me in tears after a package failed to become a control. When I answered the phone, the writer just uttered two tearful words to me: “I suck!”

It’s dangerous to allow your failures or your successes to define you. You have to understand that failures occur for a multitude of reasons, many of them out of your control. You also have to understand that some of the projects you have the most faith in will ultimately fail. And when that happens, you must find the fortitude to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn what you can from the failure, and then find the positive mental attitude you’ll need to move on to the next project.

When it comes to qualities you need in order to produce winning copy, the answers are very different. You need to be a voracious reader before you can be an effective writer. You need to be personally connected to, interested in, and excited about the subject at hand. You need to have a visceral understanding of your prospect’s greatest fears and desires.

You need to love doing research, and finding little nuggets that others have missed. You need the knack for keeping things simple, and making even complex subjects easy to grasp. You need the capacity to focus and maintain clarity of vision as you move through the copy. You need strong organizational skills in order to move through your arguments in a way the casual reader can easily follow. You need a comprehensive working knowledge of how the economy and the investment markets work, and a mastery of the technical terms and jargon that let you speak to your prospect on their level.

You need the creative capacity to make even the most boring data a thrill to read about – and to turn negatives into positives and to overcome the prospect’s unstated objections in a compelling way. You need to love debate for the sheer sport of it – and for the fun of winning with cogent arguments. You need a healthy ego that forces you to do your dead level best whether or not anybody else notices. You need to be sensitive to that sinking feeling that hits you when reading weak copy – and that little tingle inside that tells you when your copy is spot-on. And you need a nose for the jugular – the instinct that tells you the one thing that needs to be said in order to persuade your prospect to do your bidding.

AWAI: What advice would you give to a copywriter who wants to break into the financial market?

Clayton: Read … Get on lots of mailing lists. If you know a publisher or someone who works for a publisher, get on their lists. You’ll start getting a lot of direct mail as the list is rented to other publishers. Read everything you get. Take notes of the techniques that have the greatest impact for you. Especially take notice of promotions you think you can improve on.

Then, write. Write, write, write!

If you don’t have a client, pick one and write a kick-butt package for him. When you’re done, show your package to the publisher. If you’re good, he’ll probably mail it and pay you a fat royalty. If you’re not, you’ll learn valuable lessons from the experience.

I don’t know a lot of publishers who would turn down a writer who walked in the door and said, “Look, I can kick the living daylights out of what you’re mailing right now, and if I don’t do it, don’t pay me.”

But if you think you can do it, get him to agree to the highest royalty rate possible, right up-front. My $50-per-thousand royalty rate only seems high. Fifty bucks a thousand is less than one-tenth of the cost of printing and mailing a typical promotion package. Your royalty is nothing to a publisher unless you beat his control – and even then, the extra money your control-beater gives him dwarfs what he’ll pay you.

There are other ways to break in, of course. You can run ads in vendor directories published by the DMA and NEPA. You can haunt the halls of investment shows and publisher’s conferences and button-hole every publisher who crosses your path. It’s easy to spot them; they all have badges. You can call a copywriter’s agent and convince him to represent you. You can write a package promoting your work and Federal Express it to every financial newsletter publisher in the Oxbridge Directory, then follow up by phone.

Remember: You’re a selling machine. And the most important thing you’ll ever sell is yourself. So hop to it!

AWAI: What do you think a copywriter should know before entering the financial industry?

Clayton: Million-dollar paydays don’t magically happen just because you’ve decided to become a freelance copywriter. It took me more than 20 years to break the $1 million-a-year barrier, and another five or six years before I broke through $2 million in annual income. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get to $100,000, $200,000 or even $300,000 per year in a reasonable amount of time.

Carline Anglade-Cole springs to mind. Carline is a wonderful human being and she’s got more energy than any two-year-old I ever saw. She knew some people in the industry and in her first year as a freelancer, she made six figures. Her second year she made more. In the last couple of years, her copywriting income has been enough to pay cash for her daughter’s college tuition, pay cash for a new Corvette for her husband, pay cash for a fancy in-ground swimming pool, travel the world, and buy a brand new house for her mom.

So stick with it. If you like the idea of making a ton of money at home in your underwear, you couldn’t have chosen a better profession.

AWAI: Do you have any books or television shows that you recommend to students who want to specialize in financial copy?

Clayton: Early on, I read The Theory of Money and Credit by Ludwig von Mises – an introduction to Austrian economics that really helps you understand the big picture: How the economy works. The Incredible Bread Machine is also a great expose on how taxes impact consumer demand and the earnings of companies you’ll be writing about.

For insights into investment strategies, read anything by Peter Lynch or Warren Buffet – the greatest investor of all time. Get familiar with the terms. You’ll want to speak to your prospects in a vernacular they’re familiar with and you’ll have to be using some stock market terminology and economic terminology. Who knows? Someday, you might need to know what “capacity utilization” means and why over 86% is considered to be the flashpoint for inflation.

On the writing side, read anything you can get your hands on by Gene Schwartz, Rosser Reeves, and Bob Stone. Although they were not exclusively financial newsletter marketers, a lot of what they have to say has application in our industry.

As far as television is concerned, I try to watch Kudlow & Kramer nightly on CNBC. And FOX has a bunch of great programs – “Forbes on Fox” … “Bulls & Bears” … and “Cashin’ In,” for example. Two of my favorites are Neil Cavuto’s nightly “Your World” and Saturday’s “Cavuto On Business.” For schedule times, just check FOXNews.com.

AWAI: Thank you for your time today, Clayton.

Clayton: My pleasure.

This interview was conducted by AWAI for its outstanding book, Secrets of Writing for the Financial Markets. If you’re serious about sharpening your ad copy, point your browser to www.awaionline.com NOW!

This article was first published in The Total Package. To sign-up to receive your own FREE subscription to The Total Package and claim four FREE money making e-books go to www.makepeacetotalpackage.com.