From Stand-Up Comic to Copywriter: Interview With Roberta Rosenberg

A few weeks ago, Roberta Rosenberg offered great tips for encouraging repeat business from your current clients. Today, the 23-year copywriting veteran (and former stand-up comic) tells the tale of her copywriting journey and explains why it's important to keep your ego in check when writing copy.

TGTE: Roberta, please give us some background information about yourself.

RR: Since 1987, I've owned and managed MGP DIRECT, INC, a full-service direct-marketing agency that specializes in print/electronic/Web information marketing. We work primarily with medical/healthcare, academic, and association publishers, assisting their efforts to market books, journals, periodicals, software, conferences, and now websites. I am the senior copywriter for the firm.

Previously, I worked for two years as an account executive for a direct-marketing agency that specialized in association marketing. Prior to that, I spent 5-1/2 years working for an educational publisher. I started there as a junior copywriter (my first copy job) and left as their direct-marketing manager.

Also, in 1999, I opened an ecommerce retail site (, selling adoption gifts and books (I'm the mom to 3 kids, 2 adopted from Korea), which has continued to grow and do very well. So I also do a lot of “catalog” type copywriting now.

TGTE: What did you do to prepare yourself for your first copy job?

RR: I had done a little ad writing when I worked for a clothing manufacturer in NYC and worked with their ad manager editing billing inserts. (I learned that fashion copywriting involves a lot of “s” adjectives and adverbs – silky, soft, supple, sensuous, etc.). I also would write an occasional ad spot for a small radio station I worked at later. But I really had no idea of what I was doing.

I landed the job as a junior copywriter, though, in part because although my resume was light on copywriting experience, my cover letter was unique, humorous, and informative. I beat out a lot of more experienced candidates because I took a chance on doing a cover letter that broke the traditional rules and had loads more personality. It was then, although I didn't quite realize it at the time, that I began to appreciate the power of a strong and captivating sales-type letter.

Once I started working as a copywriter, I realized I still didn't really know anything. So I began to read books by top folks in the direct-marketing copywriting field (Bob Stone, Joan Throckmorton, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Bob Bly, Eugene Schwartz, among many others), subscribed to the more important direct-marketing journals and newspapers (like DM News, Target Marketing, and Direct), and joined the local direct-marketing club to get access to workshops and seminars. I was then and still remain an information junkie about direct marketing and copywriting practices. I'm always looking for new techniques to try.

I also enjoyed the support of great bosses who let me experiment with offers, techniques, formats, etc. on the corporate dime. Being able to put techniques into action and analyze results unquestionably made me a stronger writer.

TGTE: Obviously, experimenting with different techniques has worked well for you. Tell us about one of your biggest-selling letters.

RR: I've written several subscription-acquisition packages that have pulled 3% to 5% and have developed formats for clients that continue to pull year after year. I also write a mean subscription-renewal series.

Here's the strange story of a package I wrote that pulled 11% – but the client fired me anyway …

I did a publications package for an association that needed a response boost. After chatting with them, I discovered they had hundreds of a 1-2 year-old resource directory collecting dust. I suggested we use this as a premium – which we did. Like I said, the mailing pulled unbelievable numbers. But what happened was that folks didn't want the publication we were promoting. They viewed the premium (which they had seen promoted several times before) as more valuable. So folks would sign up for the publication and then cancel, just to get the premium.

I was unceremoniously canned. I wish, though, I had had the chance to review and rework the package, since I did a better job of selling the premium than I did the lead product.

Another story …

I had a client, a well-known clinical memory expert, who developed a program for late middle-agers/seniors to help them boost their memory abilities. Even today, I think it was a great package on my part. Totally on target. But the client, who was a Ph.D. and didn't understand a whit about marketing a consumer product, hated the package. Hated it! Why? Because I used the language of the market he was trying to reach – and in one spot of the copy, I referenced several stereotypes about seniors and used the word, BALONEY, as a counterpoint.

Package never saw the light of day. Too bad, though. It would have pulled like crazy.

TGTE: Do you work with clients on a project-by-project basis or do you generally have some other arrangement?

RR: I generally work on retainer with my biggest clients as opposed to project by project. Minimum contracts are three months and, depending, can go for as long as two years. Most clients work on yearly contracts. I like retainers for a couple of reasons: They even out my cash flow and allow me to work deeply with a client's marketing needs. I get a fuller picture and then can offer suggestions on offers, mailing lists, things to test, etc. In turn, I become more valuable to them as a writer and marketing consultant.

TGTE: You've been in this business for more than 20 years. What keeps you motivated?

RR: Generating results – as quickly as possible – still floats my boat as much now as it did when I first started copywriting. (Even when I did stand-up comedy, the joy for me was earning the laughs and affection of the audience.) Nothing like reviewing great numbers after a promotion has mailed. Also, I love working for myself and being able to act immediately (or something close to it) on ideas for my own companies as well as my clients. Working for yourself doesn't allow you to become complacent or lazy. There's always a little “fear factor” at work to get you pumped and motivated.

TGTE: As the senior copywriter for your firm, and an AWAI coach, what is the most common problem you see novice copywriters make? What methods do you use to help them overcome it?

RR: To be successful, I think any copywriter must thoroughly respect, if not passionately love, the sales process. As I tell my students, you're not writing for your personal satisfaction or creativity. You're writing to sell something – a product, a service, or even an idea.

The best copywriters understand that copywriting is a dance and dialog between writer and prospect – except the copywriter has to anticipate and write all the dialog and devote it completely to the self-interest of the prospect who opens the mailing piece. Being able to place yourself in the prospect's shoes and view your product/service with your prospect's eyes is critical, to my thinking, to the success or failure of any promotion. You have to leave your ego at the door.

Specifically, I see students wanting to dive right into the letter writing without a thorough grounding in the foundation of the promotion. So I spend a lot of time working with them to prepare comprehensive “Creative Briefs,” which detail the unique selling proposition, offer, target market, product/service description, features/benefits, and perceptual obstacles/challenges that a prospect might have. I find that with a thoroughly detailed Brief, the copy begins to write itself.

TGTE: Do you have any final words of advice for our students, Roberta?

RR: Be passionate about your work, be confident about your abilities, always deliver your very best effort no matter how large or small the project – and always, always, always bill the project as soon as the client approves it and be diligent about collecting your fees. A positive attitude and cash flow are your very best friends.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: October 28, 2003

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