Interview with a Barefoot Writer: Mark Ford

Mark Ford

“ … To make the big bucks, you
have to develop two skills: writing
and selling yourself as a writer.
You must be competent at one of
those skills and masterful at the
other. The choice is up to you.”
— Mark Ford, Million-Dollar Copywriter and Successful Entrepreneur

Mark Ford is not your typical businessman. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he never took a class in business, rarely reads the business press, and doesn't like to talk business. But he has played an integral role in dozens of successful businesses — public and private, service- and product oriented, local and international. As the primary growth strategist for one of those businesses (a former competitor), he helped grow its revenues from $8 million to more than $500 million. Another exceeded the $350-million mark. Eight more have grown to around $10 million plus.

Mark’s entrepreneurial experience is immense, even compared to other successful entrepreneurs.

He has owned restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and art galleries. At one time or another, he has been in businesses as diverse as information publishing, investment advisories, health and nutrition, sports and fitness, public relations, career advancement, and real estate.

He has written more than a dozen business books. Several of them were New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. Currently, Mark writes Creating Wealth, a monthly newsletter for the Palm Beach Research Group. He also consults for a handful of private clients and writes for The Palm Beach Letter, a newsletter for individual investors.

The first promotion you wrote was a multimillion- dollar success. But, you’ve said it took about 20 revisions … What tips in persistence can you give new writers who are tempted to give up too soon?

I’m sure it didn’t take 20 revisions — it just seemed like that. And I wouldn’t say that I exhibited persistence per se. As you say, it was my first effort at writing a sales letter and it was also a sales letter for an entirely new kind of investment publication. I’d written both the sales letter and the product in my spare time and I’d pitched my boss on giving me a piece of the action if it became successful. So there was a lot riding on it and I saw it as a make-it-or-give-up sort of situation. I was very motivated to see it work and so I was eager to make whatever changes he suggested. I probably did three full revisions and another three or four partial revisions over a period of three months. It never even felt like work. It felt like, “This is so cool. If this works, I’m going to be a hero.”

You’ve said studying one marketing promotion a day is one of the secrets of your success. For people who don’t want to write sales copy and would rather write something like websites or e-books, what’s the best way to find great copy to learn from?

First of all, let me address the second part of your question. To me, there is very little difference between writing sales copy or writing websites or writing e-books. If you are paid to write, then you are paid to write persuasively. All the same rules apply.

The truth is, I did a little bit of that transcribing myself and found it to be useful, but I never had the patience to practice what I preached. I did study (read with the intention of learning) loads of copy at that time and I’m sure that was very helpful.

When you study copy regularly, you not only notice strategies and techniques that the copywriter has used to make the package stronger, but you also get an ear for the rhythm of the phrasing and the tone of voice — two very important aspects of writing that are nearly impossible to learn any other way. I wasn’t the first person to recommend this sort of learning (Aristotle, among other critics, recommended it more than two thousand years ago). And there have been many other writing coaches that have repeated it since then. But I seldom see people explaining why this is so important. It’s all about learning what I think of as the musical side of the craft.

What do you mean by musical?

Have you ever noticed how much emotional impact music gives to lyrics? Have you ever found a song profound and moving and yet later realized that the lyrics themselves were very ordinary, even cliché? This is what a great prose stylist can do with phrasing and tone of voice. It’s very powerful and, as I say, it can’t be learned analytically. You have to absorb it word-by-word.

How much of success as a freelance writer is about writing good copy, versus understanding how to find clients who value your work?

That is a seemingly simple question that requires a long and complicated answer. I will attempt to make it short by making a few statements that are connected without spelling out the connections. First, writing is a technical skill. As with any skill, it can be learned in degrees and as with any skill, there are four “macro” levels: incompetence, competence, mastery, and virtuosity. To become competent, you must be willing to practice writing for about 1,000 hours while you are incompetent. Many would-be writers never achieve competence because they refuse to admit (even to themselves) that they are incompetent. To become masterful, you need to put in 5,000 hours of conscious learning. (I wrote about these hourly requirements years before Malcolm Gladwell made them famous.) To become a virtuoso, you need a natural talent.

You can make lots of money as a merely competent copywriter. But to do so, you must confine your writing to markets that pay reasonably well for competent writing. Happily, there are many such markets. If you want to make good money without being masterful, then you must spend a good deal of time learning how to sell your competence, over and over again.

If you decide to become masterful at some sort of writing, then you will only have to do a modest amount of marketing at the beginning. A masterful writer will have little or no problem finding work. Virtually anyone that employs him will want to use him over and over again.

Put differently, to make the big bucks, you have to develop two skills: writing and selling yourself as a writer. You must be competent at one of those skills and masterful at the other. The choice is up to you.

What’s your best tip for writers on how to find clients who value their work and are willing to pay fair fees?

Spend a full week — 40 hours — studying the company you want to work for. Study their products. Study their sales literature. Study their customers. Don’t approach them until you know what they need and are 100% sure you can give it to them.

Most of the great copywriters were protégés of other great copywriters. For someone new to the writing world, what criteria should be used to find and vet a mentor?

It’s amazing to me how little value people place in finding a mentor. There is this bizarre idea out there that accomplished writers should be happy to work with inexperienced writers merely for the pleasure of it. Mentoring someone in any sophisticated skill is enormously demanding. The mentor is offering a huge value and he will provide that effort only if he thinks that the protégé is both ready to learn at a certain level and also willing to pay for it in some way.

Beginning writers should not expect that accomplished writers will be willing to mentor them. They should be happy with peer-to-peer feedback and the sort of secondary and tertiary mentoring they can get from programs like AWAI offers.

There are professional mentors out there who offer their services for a fee. I used such mentors when I was learning to write fiction. Some of them were good and some not so good. I don’t have any helpful advice on how to “find and vet” a good mentor other than to jump in with a positive attitude and get out respectfully and appreciatively if it doesn’t seem to be working out. The world of professional writing is a small one. Never, ever burn your bridges.

Throughout your life, you’ve launched scores of successful businesses. What gave you that confidence to put yourself out there and go for it so many times?

I never had any confidence that I could be successful in business. In fact, until I was 33, I never had any interest in business. I had lots of dreams about what I might do in life. I wanted to be a teacher and a writer and an artist and an art collector and a martial artist, etc. But I never even thought about business in a serious way until I decided one day to make “getting rich” my top priority. People talk about priorities, but most of that talk is rubbish. Making something a top priority is a very big and very dangerous thing to do. It is entirely different from, say, underlining one of the items on your to-do list.

After making that decision, everything changed for me. I thought about everything differently. Difficult decisions were suddenly easy to make. Confusing questions were easy to answer. I started moving, very quickly, in a very clear-to-me direction. And things fell into place, including a series of dozens of successful, multimillion-dollar businesses. I wrote a book about all that, The Reluctant Entrepreneur. I recommend that to anyone who thinks they might want to own a business and who is also reluctant — a sign of intelligence.

You helped debunk the myth that copywriting talent is something people are born with and can’t be learned. Can you also debunk the myth that people are stuck in their own circumstances, and explain whether it’s possible for anyone to become wealthy? (And if so, how?)

I’m not going to say anything here that you haven’t heard before. Yet it can never be said too often.

We are not in charge of what happens to us in life, but we are in charge of how we think about it. Is it harder for a black or Hispanic person to make it in Corporate America than a white person? Yes. But it can be done. Is it difficult for someone who can’t use his hands to become a successful writer? Yes. But it can be done. Is it difficult for someone who did not have the benefit of a good education and caring parents and well-placed friends to become rich? Yes. But it can be done.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about that called David and Goliath. It explains that handicaps can be advantages if the individual responds to them in a certain way.

I wrote my own book, Seven Years to Seven Figures, which told the story of a number of people I mentored who developed multimillion-dollar businesses, starting from scratch, in less than seven years. And I’ve developed an entire program — a very extensive program — called The Palm Beach Wealth Club to give people every idea and every tool I could think of to make such an ambition come true.

Who are the top copywriters you’d recommend studying today?

I don’t have such a list. But it’s not a difficult list to put together. You must start with the industry you intend to work within. Then identify the top two or three companies in that industry and then identify the top two or three copywriters working for those companies. Those are the copywriters I’d study.

As someone who’s been wildly successful as a writer for over two decades, is there room for people from all backgrounds and circumstances — age, means, etc.? What can they do to set themselves apart?

I think I answered that question already. Age can be considered a handicap. But it is also an advantage. Older people usually have a lower tolerance for bullshit. And that can be a great advantage to anyone who wants to develop a writing style that is based on wisdom and honesty and a straightforward voice.

I have trained young people and I’ve trained older people and have had success with both. The main difference between the two is the obvious one: younger people have more time to become competent and more earning years after they achieve competence.

But so what? You can become a competent copywriter by spending 1,000 hours learning and practicing the skill. If you have a good mentor, even a mentorship program like AWAI offers, you can cut that time down almost in half. Do the math. Figure out how long it will take you, given the time you can devote to it. But don’t be deterred, at all, by your age or circumstances.

How did your time in the Peace Corps — two years teaching students at the University of Chad in Africa — change your perspective on life?

For one thing, it taught me how difficult it is to be a good teacher. Since my parents were both teachers, I figured I’d be a natural. I wasn’t. Teaching, like writing, requires skills that must be learned over time. It also requires the gradual dissolution of the ego. The first can be accomplished simply by putting in the work. The second is a lifelong challenge.

I also learned that having lots of money is not related to living a rich life. I wrote a book about that too, just published last year. It’s called Living Rich.

So is a writing career one of the best ways for someone to increase their income?

Writing is a great career. You can do it successfully as an employee or as a freelance writer. One is not more lucrative than the other. The choice is more about comfort, whether one prefers the comfort that working for a business provides or whether one prefers the independence of freelance employment.

I certainly believe that writing commercially is a great way to go. I’ve recommended it to many friends and to my children, one of whom has actually listened to me!

What’s the very best Glicken you’ve ever received, either from a client or as a result of your own endeavors?

Again, I’m going to say something you’ve heard a hundred times before and it may make you puke. The Glicken I most enjoy is when someone approaches me in the airport or at a conference and tells me that I changed their life in some positive, concrete way.

What’s something a new writer can do this week to advance his or her writing career?

Find an extra half hour a day and devote those 30 minutes to study and/or practice.

This interview was previously published in the Janruary, 2015 issue of Barefoot Writer. To read more interviews from fellow Barefoot Writers be sure to checkout The Barefoot Writer's Club.

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Published: January 11, 2018

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