Learning From My Copywriting Hero

You can become a great copywriter without knowing anything about the history of copywriting. Or about the great, classic copywriters of the past.

 … But I highly recommend against it.

Knowing your history as a copywriter adds depth to your understanding of the “why” behind copywriting.

You don’t simply adopt a strategy because of some “rule” you’ve learned. That blind approach invites violating the “rules” because … well, because rules are meant to be broken.

But, when you know the history of your craft, you understand how and why those rules developed. You learn they grew from years of practice and experimentation in the art and science of persuasive copywriting.

Plus, knowing this history is just plain fun.

So, today I’m going to delve into a part of our mutual history. I’m going to introduce you to my biggest copywriting hero.

A giant among men …

I admire people who dare cross arbitrary boundaries defined by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, or gender.

My hero is one of these people … someone who wasn’t stopped by the notion that advertising and copywriting is a man’s world.

That person is Helen Lansdowne Resor. She holds the position of the first great female copywriter.

A little background about Helen …

Helen Lansdowne was the youngest of nine children. When she was four years old, her mother left her husband and took the nine children with her.

Her mother got a job as a clerk to support the family. She impressed on all the children – especially the girls – the importance of self-sufficiency.

“You’re never going to get caught the way I was,” she told Helen. “You’re going to learn how to work.”

And, did Helen work! In 1908, Stanley Resor – the man who would later become her husband – hired then 17-year-old Helen for industry giant J. Walter Thompson (JWT). Helen was the agency’s first female copywriter … and one of the first in the industry.

Not limited by a limited niche …

As was typical in advertising until after the Mad Men era, Helen worked exclusively on “women’s products” – soaps, toiletries, food products, and the like.

But, being confined to that niche didn’t limit her. It provided her an opportunity to learn … and to educate.

Helen figured out early the key to making sales was knowing her prospects intimately. Knowing them as she might know a personal friend. Because her prospects were women, she understood them more intimately than the men at JWT did.

But, she didn’t depend solely on herself as the model for the woman she wrote to. She insisted JWT do extensive research into female prospects. She herself interviewed women and talked to her friends. And significantly, she hired other women to write to them.

She made sure her ads reflected a woman’s point of view – in the promises she made, in the words she used, and in the look of the ads she wrote and supervised.

Her perspective worked. After Helen joined the firm, success at JWT was due largely to its focus on women.

She said, “The advertising appeal which seeks to increase the sales of products bought by women must be made with knowledge of the habits of women, their methods of reasoning, and their prejudices.”

A revolutionary in many ways …

Helen Lansdowne Resor revolutionized her industry. One of many examples is how she transformed endorsement advertising.

She persuaded society leaders and royalty who appealed to her female readers to appear in her Pond’s cold cream ads. This approach brought tone and elegance previous ads had lacked. This elegance appealed to the prospects she knew so well – women.

Resor is also credited with being the first copywriter to bring sex appeal into ads. Her famous Woodbury soap ad, “A Skin You Love to Touch,” was the first of many.

Of course, her approach was mild by today’s standards. Had it been more extreme – like we see today – it would have repelled her prospects. She understood this intimately … because she knew her prospects intimately.

Securing women a lasting place in copywriting …

Helen Resor actively mentored young women in advertising. This earned JWT a reputation as an agency where women could succeed. She set up a separate women’s editorial department. Being separate from the men’s group (as expected back then) allowed talented women to freely share ideas.

JWT employee Nancy Stephenson said, “Women in advertising … owe Mrs. Resor a great deal – not only for opportunities she opened up, but for inspiring standards she left for us to follow.”

Your biggest copywriting takeaways …

Helen Lansdowne Resor left a huge legacy for copywriters, both women and men. Her greatest contributions to you as a copywriter are …

  • To be successful, you must know the habits of your prospects, their methods of reasoning, and their prejudices (paraphrasing her).
  • Copy must be believable (quoting her directly).
  • Gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, or social status is no barrier to success in copywriting … if you’re willing to do the work.

I’d love to hear your feelings about Helen Lansdowne Resor’s pioneering efforts.

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Published: December 7, 2015

15 Responses to “Learning From My Copywriting Hero”

  1. This article is outstanding, Will. Helen is my new hero. Someone I can lookup to. Thank you.

    Sandy BracceyDecember 7, 2015 at 10:35 am

  2. Great story, Will. Thanks for sharing. Always good to know about the groundbreakers.

    Karen BentleyDecember 7, 2015 at 11:18 am

  3. I love articles that prompt me to dig further into a topic that peaks my interest. Your article on Helen will definitely provide that opportunity.

    Thanks Will!

    Terri

    TLCDecember 7, 2015 at 1:02 pm

  4. Thanks, Will! I love little bits of inspiring history like this! The only thing missing was a visual. I wanted to see that pivotal ad. (Wikipedia helped with that.)

    Felicia RDecember 7, 2015 at 2:27 pm

  5. Enjoyed the article and mainly agree with the premise, but still not sure about women in combat units.

    Sue CDecember 7, 2015 at 2:34 pm

  6. Will, I always appreciate your columns for this wisdom and insight. I loved this column for providing historical background for women and men alike. In a given time and place, know your prospects. Relate to them and they will respond to you.

    Thanks. Pat

    Guest (Pat Casello-Maddox)December 7, 2015 at 2:44 pm

  7. Great story, Will, if you like century-old stuff. To REALLY tap today's markets, why not try a Steve Jobs' bent on copywriting which can anticipate prospects' habits long before they become habitual?

    By transcending mere limits, belief in truth-well-told scenarios can be as hands-on as coveting our otherwise inaccessible horizon. Everyone sees it; everyone's dying to get there; and as their pathfinder, you're their ONLY way.

    Guest (Chris Morris)December 7, 2015 at 9:29 pm

  8. Hi Will, A very motivational story. But does anybody feels that this effort was without hard work? she would have worked day and night to get her place and become the first woman copywriter. Every effort to succeed in any profession requires a lot of hard work, new insigts and sense of understanding others. If you have a sense of obligation and hard work you will definitely touch the heights and will leave a legacy in this world - Legacy of name and fame.

    Guest (Mahesh seelvi)December 8, 2015 at 1:20 am

  9. Hi Will, I appreciate this article. I have never heard of this lady. Given her influence, I would have thought we would have heard of her in the AWAI materials before now. I Googled for more info about her and was hoping to see copies of the actual advertising she worked on. The only one I found was for the soap, this in spite of many yeas of work. Samples of her work should be included in the AWAI Wall of Fame.

    Nora KingDecember 8, 2015 at 1:43 am

  10. Correction:
    In my prior comment I noted that AWAI should include materials related to Mrs. Resor in their Wall of Fame. The publication I was actually referring to is The Master's Program for Six-Figure Copywriting.

    Nora KingDecember 8, 2015 at 2:01 am

  11. The real trail blazer was Helen's mother who instilled in her daughter strength, possibility, and an overcoming spirit by example. Hard work was more common to women than a visionary mental attitude. Imagine making it alone with 9 children in toe during the early 1900's. Bravo to them both!

    MadelynDecember 8, 2015 at 9:01 am

  12. I really thought it strange that two women headed AWAI and all of the greats noted, in my introduction to copy writing course Six Figures....,
    were men. I am glad to learn about Helen Lansdowne Resor. I don't think I would have had the courage to choose to raise 9 children on my own as her mother did for her time. And I tbought becoming a copywriter was tough to break into much less for a woman in a then male dominated world. Thank you AWAI for streamlining the process of becoming a copywriter for all.
    Regine Baptiste

    Guest (Regine Baptiste)December 8, 2015 at 1:07 pm

  13. Loved the introduction to another piece of copywriting history, Will! Only one oversight in your list, though.

    I'd add "age" as a barrier that can be blown away in the copywriting industry.

    As proof - one only needs to look at the numerous young successes in the AWAI stable and contrast that with Herschell Gordon Lewis and Jerry Huntsinger.

    Otherwise, great as usual!

    Guest (KATrimels)December 8, 2015 at 1:40 pm


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