Interview with a Barefoot Writer: Chris Marlow
“When you learn the skill of copywriting, you learn the skill of being able to direct your career for the entire rest of your life and make business decisions based on what you want, and not what somebody else chooses for you.”
— Chris Marlow, award-winning direct-response copywriter
It’s a rare treat to connect with one of the pioneers of the copywriting industry, and veteran Chris Marlow is exactly that.
Not only was she one of the very first women to make waves in the world of direct-response advertising, she’s also claimed some of the highest honors in the industry, including three ECHO Awards and a regional MAXI Award, and notable clients such as Microsoft, Symantec, Intuit, Walmart, and VeriSign.
Despite over 30 years as a professional, Chris shows no signs of slowing down. She actively coaches new writers and presents at industry events, and stays plenty busy with her writing projects. In fact, when I called Chris on a Friday afternoon at her home in Palm Springs, California, she was in the middle of putting together a direct-mail package for a brand-new niche she’s targeting.
Enjoy Chris’s vast understanding of what it takes to succeed as a professional writer as she explains how to charge the fees that make the writer’s life so attractive and what it takes to really excel in a niche over the long-term.
How did you first get involved in direct-response marketing and life as a writer?
I went to college and was told that I should get a business degree because that’s what everyone was doing back then. But when I got into it, I didn’t like it. I thought, “Why am I doing what I hate?” What I really wanted was to be a journalist. To be a writer.
So I started writing journalism pieces and I became the arts editor of the student newspaper. And I wrote an article that I thought was good enough for The Oregonian, our biggest publication in all of Oregon. So I took it to them — it was a piece on the different ways you can get published. And they put it in a part of their paper that was really prestigious, on Sundays.
Unfortunately, I got paid badly. In fact, I got paid more for a bad photograph than I did for my writing. And I thought, “I can’t live on that.” To top it off, I was delivering my work one day in my husband’s Cadillac and a reporter shooed me away from the parking spots underneath the building. He said, “You can’t park here.” I said, “I can too, I’m delivering an article.” He replied, “No, you can’t be a writer, because you couldn’t afford to drive a car like that.” That was confirmation I needed to do something else.
So I went down to the bookstore, went to the advertising section, and thought, “Let’s see if I can write for advertising.” And that’s where I discovered a total of four books on the subject. Because back in those days, which was about 30 years ago, they did not have everything that we have today with AWAI and all the coaches and teachers and things like that. We had four books. That was it. One of them was Bob Bly’s very first book.
You’re kidding — what a way to start.
Yes. So I got those four books and thought, “My God, there’s a world called copywriting … and I’m going to learn it!” So I started teaching myself and fumbled along. I eventually found my way into some marketing organizations and met a few people in marketing. And I just kept banging my head up against the wall for years until the wall broke open and somebody finally hired me.
I love the tenacity you had in going for it — despite going against the grain.
I couldn’t find any other copywriters in the whole city of Portland.
And at that time, there were so few female copywriters.
Exactly. Though it worked, it sure was a long, hard path to get there. But you don’t see that problem anymore today.
We’re glad you helped pave the road for the rest of us! Do you still do a lot of writing or have you transitioned mostly to coaching?
I did a lot of writing until I created the Marlow Marketing MethodTM for Copywriters. And then, for 10 years, I did primarily coaching but I kept my fingers in the pot with copywriting by doing fun jobs here and there. But last December, I decided it was time to start writing on a bigger level. So I’ve been working with clients again and carving out a new niche market for myself. That’s what I’m working on today, mailing out a bunch of direct-mail packages to my new target market.
What’s your new market?
I’m going to restaurants. And it’s not just for copywriting. I’m offering full-service agency services. So they’ll be able to get anything they need from me for their marketing, including, of course, copywriting. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun because it includes writing menus and things like that — a little bit lighter than some of the things I’m used to writing for, like big corporations like Intuit and Microsoft and all that technology stuff. And so it’s time for something a little bit lighter and more fun.
Especially if you get to go sample menus as part of your research!
Oh yeah, I’m going to local restaurants just for that reason.
So before all this happened, what did you originally want to do when you grew up?
When I was young, I thought I’d be an airline stewardess. But I was mostly just focused on who I was going to marry. Growing up, I didn’t have any real desire for a career, I only had the desire to move out of the house. That was my number one desire, to move out. College was more or less an afterthought. I didn’t even go to college till I was 25 because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I think starting at 25 was a really smart thing to do because by then I cared about my education. Otherwise, I would have just partied all the way through.
Now that you’re a well-known industry veteran, what changes have you seen in the world of freelance writers in the last three decades?
Well, like I said in the beginning, we had nothing to work with except those four books on advertising — a book by Ogilvy, a book by Bob Bly, a book by a fellow named Bob Stone, and this other one … I think his last name was Benson. So really, there wasn’t anything to read. There was nobody to contact. There were no organizations. And nobody knew of any copywriters. So that’s been the biggest shift that I know of, and it’s really thanks to the Internet.
When the Internet came along, I was working as a senior copywriter at a well-known direct-response agency. So I started working online, and believe it or not, there were only three copywriters on the Internet for years. And that was myself, Bob Bly, and another fellow named Ivan Levison. We were it. So for years, we didn’t have to market. But now today, we’ve got teachers and companies like AWAI, and all these resources for writers, it’s a huge shift from nothing to so much abundance. That’s one thing that I think was remarkable. Another is that there’s more competition out there because more people know about copywriting and copywriters. Although, I don’t want to discourage people about that. Because yesterday, I went to a Chamber of Commerce meeting where we had about 45 people. And I stood up and said, “Does anybody know what a direct-response copywriter is?” Only one person knew.
Only one? Wow.
So even though we have more competition out there for copywriting jobs because there are a lot of copywriters, there are still a ton of people out there who need to be educated as to what you can do for them. I guess the best way to put that is, there is more competition because there are more copywriters, but it hasn’t hurt anything because there’s just so much to be had.
Even with all the demand, many direct-response writers don’t charge enough. Why do you think writers undervalue themselves so much?
The real reason, the root of it all is emotional. And that’s because we love to write. In our culture, we’ve been brought up to think that work is misery. And if you get to work and do something you love, well, you feel guilty for it.
So I think that’s the first thing. Also, when anybody attempts any kind of new thing in a career where we could possibly be judged, there’s insecurity. We haven’t been through the process of success yet. So we don’t know what that looks like. And therefore, that leads to insecurity where we say things like, “Okay, I really want this job, I’m going to come in lower because that’ll give me a better chance of getting this job.” That’s the psychology that goes on.
Isolation is another factor. I created the Freelance Copywriters Fee & Compensation SurveyTM in 2005 and 2007 and then the last one just came out. So, we have statistical guides where we didn’t have them before. But that doesn’t mean that every copywriter on the planet knows that they exist. So they’re making decisions in isolation and without a benchmark that they can really rely on. That happens a lot.
Another reason is that people get into the wrong market. When we start off, we start thinking, “I’m doing something new, I start at the bottom.” And that’s a big mistake in copywriting. You want to start in the middle where people have money, but new writers tend to go to the bottom where the people who will want to hire them don’t really have enough money. So those writers are automatically confronted with the big obstacles of getting a job in the first place and then working with businesses that are way too small. They don’t have the money, and you’re not going to get to work with them unless you come down in fees anyway. So going to the wrong market or having experience with the wrong market makes you think that you can only get so much. You know, entry level as a copywriter is $75 an hour, minimum. And within a year, if you’re good, you should be able to go up to about $125 an hour. That should be the hourly rate that you want to use to figure out what your flat rates might be.
And it only goes up from there.
Exactly. There’s one more thing that holds copywriters back, and that is that most copywriters — the vast majority — have never been trained in terms of filling their calendar. And you need to do this because you’re special, you’re valuable. People ought to be trying to get into your calendar. So that means that you would be saying to somebody, “Well, I can do the copywriting for you, but I won’t be able to get to it for three weeks from now.” In other words, turn it around.
And once you overcome these obstacles, there’s a big payoff on the other side.
Absolutely. We can make great money in this business because we have extremely low overhead. What we do as direct-response copywriters is get leads and sales and meet goals for our clients and these are goals that are directly tied to revenue. So you bring in more business, more customers, and more money. That’s why you can work with top level executives in a business. If it’s a smaller business, it would be the owner. If it’s a larger business, it would be the marketing director. You’re not dealing with, you know, the underlings. You have high value.
Excellent point. Now, what’s the most unusual writing project you’ve ever worked on?
Well, it wasn’t paid, but I should’ve gotten paid because it was worth millions …
One of my best friends came to me back when I was in college and was just getting started in copywriting. She said, “I’m tired of waiting for my boyfriend to propose.” And he happened to be one of the well-known multimillionaires in Portland, Oregon.
She said, “I need you to write me a letter — a Dear John letter—but we’ve got to leave it open a little bit so that he’ll come around.” So I spent all day long Saturday downtown working on that letter and then she ran it over to the post office and dropped it in to the mail right before 5 o’clock so it would arrive on his desk in his office on Monday morning. And on Tuesday night, we were sitting out on her patio having a glass of wine after work, and guess who comes walking up?
Five months later, I was her bridesmaid. She’s been married to him ever since.
You wrote a Dear John letter that got a gal married to a millionaire!
Yeah, funny. Like I said, I should have charged for it.
So true! What writing projects are you working on now?
Besides targeting restaurants, I’m also working with a large commercial roofer, putting together his entire marketing effort. He’s not online so we’re starting from scratch with the strategy, the Search Engine Optimization, all the copywriting, all the videos … basically every single thing that it takes to build out a great online presence.
I’m also helping a doctor sell $300K worth of seats in a seminar that she’s going to be putting on here in the Valley.
Then, of course, I run my membership site, mycopywriterscoach.com, and I’ve got people in there. And later today, I’m going to be doing some copy-chiefing for one of my former students who just landed a job with a direct-response agency over here in Torrance doing a financial services newsletter.
And I just finished up a 500-slide Jon Benson-style Video Sales Letter for a nutritional supplement publisher.
So you stay plenty busy!
Yeah. Becoming a direct-response copywriter allows you to start thinking as an entrepreneur. You know, it gives you the ability to become a real marketer down the line.
And one of the things I’d like to share, is that when I discovered copywriting in Powell’s bookstore way back when, I literally went, “Oh. My. God. If I learn how to do this, I will never be out of work because I will always be able to figure out a way to be relevant to somebody.”
True. There’s never that fear of the layoff or the stopped paycheck because there’s always something you can do. And you’ve written for quite a few niches over the years. What’s your favorite?
I would say throughout my career, I have enjoyed B2B more than B2C. They both have their good sides and bad sides. B2B is faster. It’s easier to make more money in. There’s a lot more work available. You’re working with professional people who follow processes, they have contracts, they pay you on time, they don’t haggle over money, they have the budget, they value you. B2B is very good for a lot of reasons. The only downside is that maybe the writing isn’t as much fun as writing, for instance, for the travel or food industry. So to me, B2B is great. B2C, I think, is a lot more fun to write but it’s also usually a lot of time — just bigger jobs on the whole, like a longer landing page or a 500-page Video Sales Letter — and it can be harder to make more money in that space because it’s harder to get a handle or how much time it’s going to take you to get it done.
For example, with B2B, you can easily say, “Okay, I’m going to charge $500 for a 2-page case study or whatever.” I actually charge $2,000 for a 2-page sales letter. A thousand dollars a page. So that’s my rate. But if you have a 20-page sales letter, it’s going to be very hard to get that done within the allotted time-per-page that you would take to get a 2-pager done.
So it’s harder to contain the time that you put into a bigger project and you see bigger projects typically on the B2C side. So both B2B and B2C have their highs and lows. Personally, I’m kind of burned out after doing four months on a VSL. So I’m happy to do a two-page sales letter. It’s refreshing. So I move back and forth between the two spheres.
Variety is another one of the huge benefits of the writer’s life.
Yeah, the B2B side is about lead generation, so the pieces are shorter. But on the Business-toConsumer side, most of it is order-generation, so you only have one chance to get it all in there, and that means often times the material is longer — longer landing pages and so forth.
What niches have a lot of demand right now?
Anything online. Web pages and so forth — at least, if you bill yourself as a direct-response copywriter. I don’t like to use the phrase “content generator” because there are a lot of people out there calling themselves that and they don’t have the ability to beat the sales and foster true engagement. Content is great because it can bring you bread and butter and we all have to eat, but I think that anything online that has to do with lead generation or order generation is where you want to go for the real money, and there’s huge demand for it that has been consistent and unchanging for years now Another niche market I like to point out to people is security, because security never sleeps, and that has to do with both the B2C and B2B side of things. I’ve done a lot of work for software security companies, and you’ve got the bad guys out there all the time hacking away, trying to get your data. So the world of security and software technology is big and thriving.
Another niche market I like to point out to people is security, because security never sleeps, and that has to do with both the B2C and B2B side of things. I’ve done a lot of work for software security companies, and you’ve got the bad guys out there all the time hacking away, trying to get your data. So the world of security and software technology is big and thriving.
Lots of potential there.
Exactly. You want to go to niches where there’s going to be longevity. Another one is medical devices. People will always need better health. If people are sick, they’ll pay anything to get well. So that creates a booming industry of supplements and solutions that help people feel better again. Same thing with security. We need to protect ourselves. Basically, when you look at the basics of human existence and consider the things that motivate us most that are vital to our survival, those are the places where copywriters can go and know that they will never run out of work.
While we’re on the subject of health — do you do anything in particular to stay fit and sharp?
One of my former students from 10 years ago became a close friend of mine, Pam Magnuson, who writes for the nutraceutical industry. So she knows everything that’s going on with me, and she has got me working on connecting with the earth. Going barefoot. So right now, I’m in the middle of building a big 15 x 8 foot organic garden. And you know how most of the time we put our shoes on to go work in the garden? I kick my shoes off and l let my toes squish into all the dirt there.
Pam says there’s something like ions and electricity or something like that — basically something that goes on between the body and the earth. There’s connectivity there. She says its grounding and it can help us feel more connected, more calm, more spiritual, and in tune with the earth.
Now that she’s got me doing that, I don’t even bother putting shoes on to go get the mail. I just go barefoot.
You’re a Barefoot Writer in the truest sense of the word.
That’s hilarious. Oh my God. That’s funny.
Final question: What’s the most important thing a freelance writer can do to get started in a profitable writing career?
Know the market. Pick a niche and figure out what’s working in that niche. Get up to speed on the vernacular and get to know that niche better than anybody else. Remember, when you learn the skill of copywriting, you learn the skill of being able to direct your career for the entire rest of your life and make business decisions based on what you want, and not what somebody else chooses for you.
This interview was previously published in the July, 2014 issue of Barefoot Writer. To read more interviews from fellow Barefoot Writers be sure to check out The Barefoot Writer's Club.
The Professional Writers’ Alliance
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