How can you become a copywriter, by selling silver polish and spying, of course!


What if you could become a copywriter without knowing how to write?


Believe it or not, some of the greatest copywriters and advertising geniuses didn’t have a background in writing or advertising.

In fact, many didn’t have university degrees and ended up leaving post-secondary education to pursue less glamorous opportunities.

Are you an aspiring copywriter, but know absolutely nothing about advertising? Well, I hate to break it to you (note the dry sarcasm here)… but it doesn’t really matter what you studied in university, or how great you are at writing poetry.

So then, how can you become a copywriter?

It looks worthwhile to get some experience in sales… oh, and having Scottish ancestry doesn’t hurt either.

Read about how these two average Joes started out their bizarre yet wonderful careers.


Mr. Hopkins


Claude C. Hopkins (1866 to 1932)

– “The Greatest Advertising Pioneer”


Claude C. Hopkins, an advertising pioneer and a talented copywriter, was originally educated to become a clergyman at the age of 17, but was forced to make a career change after he offended an entire congregation of 800 churchgoers with his very first sermon and his own mother disowned him.

After a childhood choked with poverty he had to help feed his family at the age of 10 when his father died by selling books and silver polish mixed with stints of hard labour – after being outcasted by his community… he now had nothing.

With only $3 in his pocket and completely alone, he made his way to his uncle’s fruit farm where he worked 16-hour days. Eventually he saved up $100 and got another $100 from his grandfather to enrol himself in a bookkeeping course at a nearby business college.

Mr. Hopkins said the institution was “ridiculous” and that his professor “taught us nothing… might as well have spent those six months in a university studying dead languages”.

After shortly attending the bookkeeping course, Mr. Hopkins dropped out to accept a $4.50-per-week bookkeeping position to pay the bills (keep in mind this was in the 1880s).

Shortly thereafter he got a new job as an assistant bookkeeper for $10 per week at a carpet sweeper company… making those big bucks (apparently even in those days, this was barely enough to feed yourself with, let alone rent a room).

Mr. Hopkins finally pounced at his first opportunity to prove to his colleagues that he could do much more than just bookkeeping.

He approached his boss and said that the advertising pamphlet that was proposed by a well-known advertiser would fail in increasing their sales for carpet sweepers – he proposed to write a pamphlet that would best the other.

The pamphlet he wrote impressed his boss, so he was given the opportunity to run a few test advertising campaigns.

It turned out that his campaigns were immensely successful and he managed to sell more than their 14 salesman combined. In a matter of months he helped his company capture 95% of the carpet sweeper market.

This was his first step towards becoming one of the best copywriters/advertisers in the world.


Mr. Ogilvy


David M. Ogilvy (1911 to 1999)

– “The Father of Advertising”


David Ogilvy, the “Father of Advertising” who is known to be one of the world’s best copywriters/advertisers started his career by attending university to study history.

Surprisingly, he then dropped out of university and traveled to Paris to become an apprentice chef.

After a year of working as an apprentice chef, Mr. Ogilvy decided that he no longer wanted to face “slave wages, fiendish pressure, and perpetual exhaustion”.

Soon afterwards he returned to the UK and worked as a door-to-door salesman selling cooking stoves.

Mr. Ogilvy’s employer noticed his ability to sell kitchen stoves like hot cakes and asked him if he would put together a sales manual for the company’s other sales reps – this marks the first time he is recognized for his talent in sales.

Eventually, he found his way to the United States where he would work for an audience research institute. It was during this time that Mr. Ogilvy was recognized for his analytical intellect by the British Embassy and was employed to help the British Intelligence Service in their fight against the Nazi economy during WWII.

At one point, he was even trained at a top secret spy camp in Ontario, Canada where he learned hand-to-hand combat, sabotage techniques and effective use of propaganda.

After the war, Mr. Ogilvy purchased a farm in the US and lived among the Amish with his wife.

Apparently farming wasn’t for him, so he moved back to the big city and decided he wanted to go into advertising (at the age of 38 being unemployed and having no advertising experience, this was a problem).

By achieving the impossible he was accepted by an agency in London and convinced them to finance a partner agency. He then hired a small team in New York and started to get high-profile clients.

A few years later, his agency became one of the hottest and most successful advertising agencies in the US.


What do these copywriting geniuses have in common?


There is one interesting trend among the best – they all had a background in sales…

Whether it was selling silver polish as a child or being a door-to-door salesman selling cooking stoves, these two had a talent for selling the most mundane things imaginable.

They spent their early days listening to the needs and concerns of common folks – both knew the importance of the human element in advertising.

Using common sense and understanding what people really want is sometimes forgotten by many copywriters when they’re too focused on getting two words to rhyme.


Research, research and research!


Another key aspect to their success was their emphasis on doing research.

Research was basically what they did 24/7 – in many ways, the writing took care of itself based on what they discovered.

Mr. Ogilvy even billed himself as the “Research Director”, and Mr. Hopkins usually conducted small test campaigns to learn more about what people wanted.

Good research leads to good copy… this, I believe, is the cornerstone of any successful copywriter’s career.

This is why I also emphasize research when it comes to the work I do. Even creative copywriters should base their work on research regardless of the subject matter.


What’s the final verdict?


How you can become a copywriter:

  • You should definitely want to become one (so motivation is important)
  • Knowing what people want and how they think (an understanding of psychology based on sales experience)
  • Be persistent and (ironically) don’t just focus on writing… gain a variety of different experiences


Tell me, how did you become a copywriter?


I would love to hear your story about how you came to call yourself a copywriter.

Did you start out being a bookkeeper, or by being a farmer? I’m sure you can top that.

Write a little about yourself in the comments below!

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