Interview with a Barefoot Writer: John Carlton

John Carlton

“Copywriters are different than a lot of other people in the world. We’re more curious. We bring a dangerous sense of wanting to know … what makes humans work, what influences people, what makes them angry, what makes them actually act, and why people do the things they do.”
— John Carlton, Copywriter and “Marketing Rebel”

The first copywriter John Carlton ever met told him, “don’t even try to become a copywriter” … that he’d never figure it out — it’s too hard.

Not only did he prove her wrong, he went on to become one of the most respected figures in the industry. He’s since been behind-the-scenes of some of the greatest marketing campaigns in advertising history and is one of the world’s highestpaid freelance copywriters. His trademark style and sharp tongue have led him to create countless blockbuster controls, making his clients tons of money.

Such is the amazing and rebellious life of John Carlton: An incredible copywriter, storyteller, and entrepreneur who refers to himself as “the most ripped-off writer on the Web,” since so many marketers have taken his copy and repurposed it for their own needs. But they’re not the only ones to recognize his expertise — copywriters of all levels flock to him for guidance.

Despite John’s jam-packed schedule, he was able to take time to share his wisdom about living the writer’s life. He discusses the “arc of a successful career,” why freelancers need to “relax,” and the biggest advantage writers have entering the market.

How did you get started in copywriting?

I’m a good example of a guy who pretty much screwed up everything in life until it got to a point where I didn’t really have many options. I was in my early 30s, clueless about life, and had lost my girlfriend, my place to live, and my job all within about a month-and-a-half period. I was left living in my car and sleeping on friends’ couches on the West Coast, wondering what the heck I was going to do with the rest of my life.

I’d had some dabbling in advertising. I was in an art department and got my first brush with direct-response advertising. I didn’t even understand what it was. But I met my first professional copywriter and the meeting did not go well. She told me to not even try to become a copywriter. I’d never figure it out and it was way too hard. And that made me so angry that I stole her copy of John Caples’ Tested Advertising Methods and read enough to realize, before she stole it back, that I could actually become a professional copywriter.

I decided in my very special state of not having any other options that I’d give it a shot. And so I took a speed-reading course and I read everything in the library I could on advertising, marketing, and salesmanship, getting myself up to speed, really studying as much as I could a lot of the guys going back to the 1920s — Claude Hopkins and David Ogilvy, and all those guys. I kind of got a vague idea of how I could present myself at ad agencies as someone who could do the overflow work that they couldn’t handle. And I figured I needed to read all that stuff just to get up to speed with the guys in the ad agencies I was going to be dealing with.

Did all that research pay off in getting started?

Yes, just by sheer accident. The happy accident was, I didn’t realize the people in the ad agencies had never studied advertising. They had no idea what they were doing. So I came in as a rookie knowing more than they did about the history of advertising, about what direct response was all about, and how to make a sale even though I was more or less a rookie at writing that kind of stuff.

I quickly got a reputation around Los Angeles as being the go-to freelancer and then moved along. I was like flotsam on the ocean during a storm being bandied about. But I had vague notions of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. And I never met another freelance copywriter till a couple of years into my career. So it was not a well-defined career path that I was taking. But I figured it out. And of course, 30 years later, I’ve made just about every mistake possible, learned my lessons, licked my wounds, and crawled right back into the front trenches to give it another shot.

What kinds of lessons did you learn?

All the lessons I learned were real-world, and it was get slammed, figure it out, learn the lesson, go back, and do it right the next time. So that’s when I made a pivot in my career from just being a freelancer to actually teaching other people how to make this work — the mindset, the tactics, all of the stuff because, again, I’d made just about every mistake possible. So I was speaking from experience.

How long did you work in agencies before you felt comfortable enough to step into a freelance role?

Well, I was very fortunate in that I was down in the Los Angeles area. I was living at the beach in a ramshackle 1920s era apartment that was falling apart, but I had a view of the beach. And at that time in the mid ‘80s, the New York agencies, the big ones, had decided to dabble in direct response and they were opening several directresponse agencies in Los Angeles.

So I had a field day being able to go to these agencies who really didn’t understand direct response all that well. They were more used to doing commercials on TV and really bad ads in magazines; it was all a photo with a nice little slogan line. They thought that was good advertising, though there was no call-to-action in all that.

For about three years, I worked with direct-response agencies, also small boutique agencies, and other professional advertising entities. I did not specialize. I took on every single client I could because I had a sense that while specialization might be good down the line, early in my career I wanted to get as much experience with as many different kinds of marketing situations, businesses, and clients as I could.

How did you transition to writing for the major direct-response mailers?

I had a happy accident and I met up with Jay Abraham, who lived nearby. And through Jay, I met Gary Halbert and a lot of things happened. And I also met a guy named John Finn who connected me with East Coast publishers, the financial publishers, which included Agora, Phillips, Boardroom, and Rodale. And I started working with those guys. I called them the “A”-list writers.

These are the guys who, back then, included Gary Bencivenga, Clayton Makepeace, guys like that.

So I was on the rise back with those large directmail organizations, and I was writing a lot of pieces. This was pre-magalog, by the way. I was ghostwriting with Jim Rutz, one of the inventors of the magalog, which changed the game in the early ’90s. But in the late ’80s, I was a writing star with those large mailers. So I got away from the ad agencies into this other quasi-corporate world which was very focused on newsletters and books and publishing.

When I met up with Gary Halbert, I decided that I really wanted to work with entrepreneurs more. I really craved getting into a wider variety of clients and marketing situations. So I went off with Halbert for about five or six years. And it’s kind of a legendary part of the pivot that marketing took back then. We started doing seminars. There were no seminars at the time, but we did some of the very, very first marketing seminars. We created the Hot Seat model. And we started working with clients and finding out that teaching people how to do direct response was just as important as actually completing the marketing for them and doing the writing for them.

What’s the story behind your book?

At the birth of the Web was right about the time I decided to become a guru myself. And so I wrote Kick-Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel right at the time when a large number of younger entrepreneurs were realizing that the Web was offering them an opportunity to reach vast markets. And of course, with the advent of PayPal and Google AdWords and banks making it easier to accept credit cards online, the whole thing just exploded.

And I just happened to be right at the crest of the wave when it happened. So even though I was older than a lot of the guys, I was seen as the goto guy for a lot of the questions about how to write copy, how to market effectively, how to target the right markets.

Most of my career, I was the young punk at the table. I was the guy there to irritate the older guys. And then one day, I looked around and I was the oldest guy at the table by 20 years. And it just happened in a blink. So I went from being a rabble-rousing rebellious kind of guy who was causing trouble to the guy who was actually trying to corral the new younger group of rebels coming into this new wonderful world online. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. With all of these different experiences, how did you develop your distinct voice and style?

When I was working with the agencies, I had to develop, early in my career, a strict corporate voice. And anyone who has any experience in copywriting knows what I’m talking about.

I was a vendor. I showed up. They told me what they wanted written and I wrote it. So I took their ideas and wrote them pretty much as they told me to write them. I came in as a writer who could translate their ideas on how to sell stuff into the written word, which they would then take in either mail or print or whatever they would do.

Later, as I got involved with Agora, Phillips, and large mailers like that, there was more teamwork. I had a lot more input into what would actually go into the letter, how the angle would be. And as I rose in the ranks, I actually became the guy who would say, “How about if we use this angle or this hook as we go into this?”

Then, when I went into the entrepreneur world with Halbert and left all of the corporate stuff behind and started working a lot with single entrepreneurs and small mom-and-pop stores and businesses that didn’t have a corporate voice and there was no boardroom involved, I lucked into having a couple of clients who were desperate for good advertising. They had tried all kinds of other writers and agencies and all kinds of different ways to get their stuff sold. This was in the golf and self-defense and bodybuilding markets actually; three widely divergent markets.

And they came to me. And the deal they made with me was very unique. They said, “We will take the leash off of you. We will print and mail everything you write as you wrote it without stepping on it at all.” This is like catnip to a writer. I had never, up to that point, had a piece go out as I had written it. The client always stepped on it.

How did they step on it?

If I was lucky, it was just a client who would change a few words here and there or things that he was nervous about. If I was unlucky, he’d bring his niece with the English Lit Bachelor of Arts degree who would stomp all over, change the grammar, do all of this stuff.

So the idea of being in total control just was an amazing change. And I started pushing the envelope with their encouragement. Sometimes they spent many a sleepless night before a $100,000 ad in Golf Digest hit the stands thinking, “What have we done? We’re going to go down in flames.” And everybody told them, even the ad reps at Golf Digest said, “Please don’t run this ad. It’s going to fail. People don’t respond to this stuff.”

What kind of an ad was it?

I was writing a lot of slang, making up my own grammar as I was going. It was solid copy. The first ads we did in the golf magazines, for example, were three pages of solid copy. No photos, just a headline, page copy on the right-hand page, and you turn to a double-track ad with solid copy on both pages selling a $69 instructional video on how to play golf better.

It wasn’t until the third or fourth insertion of that ad that the guys at the magazine stopped begging my clients not to run that ad anymore. And they started asking, “Say, how well is this ad doing?” And, of course, it was doing gangbusters. These guys were making a fortune off this stuff because I was able to write directly to the prospect. I wasn’t writing the ad to please the golf magazine.

In other words, you really knew your prospect.

I knew from my long experience in marketing at that point that the golf magazine thought golfers wanted to be more like a Tiger Woods clone: very athletic, high end of the game, shooting near par all the time. But I knew the average golfer who was reading that magazine was overweight, middle-aged or older, and couldn’t break 100 to save his life.

And so I wrote to that guy. I didn’t care what Tiger Woods thought of my ad. I didn’t care what the guys running the magazine or writing these special articles all through the magazine did. I was going for the guy who was going to buy this product and I knew how to talk to him because I was that guy. I mean, I wasn’t middle-aged at that time, but I knew what it was like to have a bad back, to not have a windmill swing, to not be able to devote your entire life to golf. So you only got to go out three times a month maybe and your game sucked at various levels.

And here was some instruction from a guy who knew what was going on and could identify with you, and once those first ads started to work, my clients relaxed a little bit. Though they still spent many a sleepless night before an ad ran or an email campaign dropped and they still do. But they felt more and more confident as we went.

What gave you so much confidence in your ad copy?

I realized that everything I knew about direct response and street-level salesmanship and going for the jugular would work. That meant really presenting an ethical, but very slang-ridden ad aimed at the tender heart of the guy who really needs something and is looking for somebody he can believe in. And that meant establishing credibility and believability and putting a little bit of pressure on the guy to act now.

I was able to develop this style that became known as “muscle writing.” And online, of course, that kind of writing has dominated a lot of different kinds of markets. And it’s just trying to have a conversation. Once your ad, regardless of how it appears — whether it’s in direct mail, whether it’s in a magazine, whether it’s a VSL (a Video Sales Letter) or a written page online or an email — whatever the vehicle is, you want what you write to be the most important thing your prospect reads today.

What’s the ideal way for a prospect to react when reading copy?

It needs to take him out of that passive state of reading into an active state where he actually is thinking, “Oh my God, this is what I’ve been looking for!” or “This is going to fit the bill. This solves my problem. This is what I need.” Or even, “You know what? I’m going to give it a try because this guy has kind of convinced me that it’s worth it and I’m not risking anything.”

That puts your prospect in that active state where they actually click on the link to order or they pick up the phone and they do whatever it is you want them to do. It’s a process that most advertisers have no clue about because they’re not steeped in streetwise salesmanship. And I was hanging out with guys who sold door-to-door.

What did you learn from them?

I would interview them and find out their tactics and stuff because even though you’re writing something that goes online or goes into a directmail piece that then goes out to 100,000 people you’ve never met and never will meet, it’s still just you and whomever is reading. It’s a one-on-one human interaction and the process that happens face-to-face is the same process that happens whether they’re watching a Video Sales Letter or reading a piece of mail.

How can someone new to copywriting develop confidence about their copy?

Well, that’s the question. You need to know the difference between being a vendor and a consultant and the difference in levels of where you go. So you have something to aim for. So you realize you’re in stages.

The freelance manual I wrote is a manual on how to become a freelancer and all the stages you go through. There are only three chapters in the book, though they’re all long chapters. The chapters were Get Good, which means just get good at your craft. And then the second chapter was Get Connected, which means build out your network. Understand that the jobs are going to come from a network, from networking, from colleagues, from having clients, from recommendations, and from knowing where people are finding writers. So it’s Get Good and then Get Connected.

And then the third part was just Get Paid because a lot of writers weren’t getting paid. They’d wonder, “How much do I charge for my stuff? What is my value? Where am I?” So we talked about knowing where you’re going and where you’re at.

So that’s where all your experience is really valuable at helping new writers get started.

Imagine all the writers in the world were sitting in a valley and they were working — and things were working okay. But there’s this huge mountain range that nobody’s been over and you don’t know what’s on the other side. And people who occasionally come back from the other side report this wonderland of great clients, huge money, wealth, happiness, and fame, and all of this stuff. And the writers don’t know how to get over the mountain.

I’m the guy. I’ve been over the mountain a few times. I come back. I can show you the path. You get over the mountain. Your life is going to change. If you don’t take that path, though, it’s still going to be just a rumor and you’re never going to get out of that valley which I then call a rut.

You know the shortcut for writers who want to get past the mountain.

Let’s say you’re a good baseball player and somebody gives you the opportunity to go straight to the show and start for the Cleveland Indians. You’d be an idiot to do that unless you knew something about what it took to be a professional ballplayer. That’s why they have this long mentoring and apprenticeship.

It’s the same with writing. It doesn’t have to be years and years and years like I took. You can shortcut it in certain ways. But you shouldn’t shortcut, for example, experience. You should get a number of jobs under your belt. You should deal with a number of clients. You should have real experience, not book-learned stuff, before you feel confident rising to the next level.

But knowing that that next level is there and it’s attainable and if you keep your nose to the grindstone and keep going, this can happen. You can keep raising the amount of money you’re making, the quality of clients you’re getting. All of these things can come true. And if you want, at the end of the trip, there’s the opportunity to become the expert you wished you’d found early on who can help people along.

Is that what we, as writers, should aim for?

So the arc of a career encompasses a lot of things. Some people find a groove they’re really happy with. And I know a number of writers who have been in the game for decades who keep taking clients and they like it. They like to take regular clients, get paid for each job, and work along that way. I know other writers who can’t stand that. As soon as they finish with their first client, they want to get out from having clients. But they’re going to have to take clients for a while and then they want to get to where they can possibly maybe write books or they can speak at seminars or they can become a guru or whatever. But you’ve got to work into that. You have to know what’s going on. And it’s good to talk to somebody who’s trod that path before, if that makes sense.

That’s fantastic advice, especially for aspiring writers so they don’t get so stressed about reaching a high level of success right away.

Stop panicking. I see so many writers who panic and it’s largely because you don’t know where you’re at. It’s kind of like trying to swim across a body of water and not know where the other shore is. If you know how far it is to the other shore, you can relax and you probably won’t drown if you know how to marshal your energies and what your limits are. If you don’t know what your limits are and you don’t know where you’re going or where the other shore is, you’re going to drown.

So, one of my goals in life is to save as many writers as possible from going down that bad path of chaos, confusion, and eventual unhappiness.

What are you most looking forward to at AWAI’s Bootcamp this year?

I’ve got a number of writers who I will hang out with. David Deutsch and I go back decades. I believe he’s going to be there. Kevin Rogers is going to be there. I get to hang out with Dan Kennedy again. I haven’t talked to him since his last seminar. He and I spoke together at a GKIC event in Tennessee and we were on three different times over the weekend. And it was funny. We were telling war stories and taking questions. It was great fun. I love Dan.

And I haven’t seen Clayton in quite a while, and Bob Bly. So getting to hang with other writers for me is a treat.

Besides the money and freedom, what are other advantages of life as a copywriter?

The advantages are huge because the people you meet and your colleagues will be some of the best people you’ll ever meet in your life. They’re creative. A lot of them are introverts acting like extroverts so they understand the whole thing.

But copywriters are different than a lot of other people in the world. We’re more curious. We bring a dangerous sense of wanting to know how things work and tearing things apart. Even if we do it digitally or intellectually, we’re constantly prodding and looking for what makes things work, what makes humans work, what influences people, what makes them angry, what makes them actually act, why do people do the things they do.

Is that why you enjoy what you do?

For me, it’s fascinating. We live in the world the way it is, not the way we wish it was or think it should be. All pretenses and all false belief systems are dropped. And we look at humans and the world and markets and business the way they really are. And that scares some people.

But for a good copywriter, it’s just exciting because knowing how things work, knowing how capitalism and business work, and the wacky psychology of people who are in charge of things or buying things, knowing all of these just lays bare the world in a way that makes life much more fascinating, much more intense, and much more fun all the way down the line.

This interview was previously published in the September, 2014 issue of Barefoot Writer. To read more interviews from fellow Barefoot Writers be sure to check out The Barefoot Writer's Club.

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Published: February 6, 2018

2 Responses to “Interview with a Barefoot Writer: John Carlton”

  1. John's copy hit a chord with me to encourage myself to let my creative side flow while bringing credibility and believability to propects,not companies. I need to be the one, the vessel, that shows others who they are in certain areas. They already know who others want them to be, what to wear, ties, shoes, food. I want to be more to them, to give them a picture of who they really are and can be. I need to know them. I do know them, my creativity will find them and open their doors.

    CJacksonFebruary 7, 2018 at 4:36 pm

  2. John hit the nail directly on the head. The piece was well written and articulated. It reminiscent to what others have written, but in his own words, if you will. He reminds us that if one is determined, he/she can achieve greater heights, including becoming a successful copywriter. He mentioned how he was initially discouraged by someone who essentially told him that copywriting is not the way, which I suspect she was speaking from her own experience, not with malice as it might seem...Everything is not meant for everybody. Kudos John!

    Guest (clement)February 12, 2018 at 11:17 am

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