Secrets of a Master:
“Wannabe” vs. “Have-To-Be”: The Difference Between Copy That Works and Copy That Doesn't

"Spanish singer Julio Iglesias was on television with British TV host Anne Diamond when he used the word 'manana.' Diamond asked him to explain what it meant. He said that the term means 'Maybe the job will be done tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe the day after that. Perhaps next week, next year. Who cares?'

"The host turned to Irishman Shay Brennan, who was also on the show, and asked him if there was an equivalent term in Irish. 'No. In Ireland we don't have a word to describe that degree of urgency,' replied Brennan."

(Above anecdote courtesy of friend Thom Hickling)

Today, I'm going to generalize so much it will give every politically correct copywriter within earshot the shivers …

We'll class ALL styles of advertising in two categories: "Wannabe" marketing and "have-to-be" marketing.

"Wannabe" marketing is what you create when you start your marketing campaign by asking yourself …

  • How can I get customers to like me?
  • How can I get customers to like my product?
  • How much money do I want to make from this venture?

"Have-to-be" marketing is what you get when you start with a different set of questions …

  • What are my customers' biggest problems?
  • How can I solve them better than anyone else?
  • How can I show them I can do so at a reasonable price?

Are you a "wannabe" or a "have-to-be" copywriter?

Here's where the generalization gets really controversial: Most failed copy is "wannabe" copy.

Vanity-driven "wannabe" copy sets out to make the seller look smart or funny. It's loaded with puns, clever literary references, inside jokes, and irrelevant background information.

The writing is abundant with the first-person pronoun or bloated vocabulary … long sentences with haughty adverbs, unnecessary adjectives, and more dependent clauses than a law-school textbook. Benefits are implied. Even buried.



"Greetings, I'm writing you today with a most important message – the firm of Bainsbridge, Ostridge, Oosteridge, and Brodenberger Investment Advisory, Inc. has just opened a new branch office in your greater proximity. I am Froderich Bainbridge, Senior Advisor of BOOB, Inc. and award-winning investment advisor with a Masters in Business Administration from the esteemed University of Uzbekistan …"

Even the layout of a "wannabe" promotion is a dead giveaway. Logos are larger than they have to be. Photos look expensive, professional, and even gauzy. The paper is usually 4-colors and glossy, even where 2-color, flat, cream stock would do.

That's the "wannabe loved" urge.

There's another "wannabe" type of copy … "wannabe rich" marketing, where the purveyor writes what he writes simply because, dagnabit, he wants to sell stuff and pile up big bucks.

Hold on now, Petunia … I'm not saying there's anything wrong with wanting to be rich. I'm all for it. Bring on the dineros. But when the marketer turns the telescope around backwards and focuses only on his own desire to sell, sell, sell … it's all too apparent to the savvy customer.

Those kinds of promos, too, are filled with features-not-benefits. They're often either dry and passionless … or passionately pleading: "Please buy my water filters. If you don't buy my water filters, my boy Tom won't eat this year. And possibly next year, either."

"Have-to-be" marketing, on the other hand, is much more powerful. Much more effective. And for a very simple reason.

It's more strategically honest.

It recognizes a fundamental fact of all marketing ventures. Namely, that unless you're actually offering to DO something worthwhile for someone, that someone isn't going to want to pay you a dime.

The "have-to-be" is simply that. You "have-to-be" the thing your customer wants. No excuses.

Tough to come to grips with for some.

But the truth has been proven undeniable for centuries by successful and unsuccessful ventures alike …

Of all the things you CAN control with strategy decisions, the one thing you CAN'T control is your customer. Your customer is the guy with the money in his pocket. If you expect him to give it to you, you're going to "have to" abandon your vanity …

You're going to "have to" bend your back …

And you're going to "have to" find some way to extend a hand, palm open, that contains something the customer wants.

It's the only way to make sales over time.

Too often, the difference between what you or your client "wants to be" and what he or she "has to be" is fast. Though it doesn't have to be that way. There's a "choose to be" compromise. (Getting tired of the verb "to be" yet?)

You can choose to run or represent your business in such a way that it both feels worthwhile AND makes you look good AND makes you money.


Acknowledge from the start that by opening your doors for comers, you HAVE to set out to identify a prospect's problems … find realistic and valuable ways to fix them … for a reasonable price. Then, when it comes time to market, let that continue to be your guiding light.

One last great example from an advertising classic, then I'll let you go. I think – but I'm not sure – this comes from "Ogilvy on Advertising" …

At the top of the page, a headline read: "Which kind of advertising does your advertising agency create?"

Underneath, there is a split panel of white space. On each side of the split, there is a quote in big black type.

The quote to the left says, "Wow! What a great ad …"

The quote to the right says, "Wow! What a great product …"

On the bottom of the page, it says something like: "When you hire Ogilvy & Mather, we'll help you create the kind of ad to the right."

Okay, okay. You've heard that before. But it's worth remembering, yes?

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Published: September 23, 2002

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