Archive Monthly Archives: September 2007

Yes, And It’s A Blank Page!


Just finished up the much ballyhooed second-ever Copywriting Sweatshop. It was fun, invigorating, and a shuddering success.

And — hey — I learned some cool new stuff, too.

My old pal David Deutsch was in the audience. I’d asked him to fly out, as a fellow “A List” copywriter, to sort of watch my back while I rambled and ranted and did my schtick on the stage. David and I have been discussing copy for almost twenty years now, and we’re dead serious about it. (At last count, he had six controls for Boardroom, which has got to be some kind of record.)

Anyway, after lunch on the final day, I asked David to grab a mike and join me under the bright lights up front… because I wanted the crowd to hear what we’d been talking about during breaks.

This was a subject that caused a curious reaction in people. For veteran pro writers, our eyes all lit up like Xmas come early. For non-writers, it seemed… a bit weird.

The subject? Improv.

More specifically, improvisation… as in attempting comedy without a script.

It’s definitely an art form (and one dominated by British and American actor/comedians). On TV, you may have seen the Drew Carey-hosted show “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” (which was a rip from the English original, as most of the good stuff on the tube is these days). Actor/director Christopher Guest (the gum-smacking lead guitarist from Spinal Tap) has put out a major Hollywood release about every other year that is primarily improv — no actual scripts, and lots of spontaneous brilliance from the crew. (“A Mighty Wind”, “Best In Show”, “Waiting For Guffman”, and of course “Spinal Tap”.)

Monty Python worked a lot with improv.

So the pedigree is golden. Most actors fear improv, though, cuz you gotta think fast and rely on your wits. (Something many actors lack. Without a script, they are helpless.)

Yet, there are nevertheless some fundamental rules to doing improvisation… and it is the #1 Rule that copywriters get kinda excited about.

That rule? Whenever you are teamed with someone to create a bit, spontaneously… you NEVER contradict your fellow actors. The line you rely on is: Yes… and

In other words… you build on what the other guy just said. As David illustrated at the seminar, one guy might say “Gee, it’s cold here in the Artic”. And it would be verboten for the other actor to then shake his head and say “No, we’re not in the Artic, we’re in a desert.”

That would be “bad comedy”… and leave the first actor out in the cold, scrambling to figure out what the hell to say next. Contrariness throws the whole scene off the rails, and while it may be odd and absurd, it ain’t funny.

No. What you might actually say is: “Yes. And look at those penguins over there. They seem… hungry.” Or something like that.

The key is to build on the previous entry. The reply then might be something like: “Yeah… hungry and looking at us funny…” Now, the story is going somewhere.

Improv scares most people even more than simple public speaking (or handling snakes, the other top fear). There’s a sense of being so… naked and vulnerable.

No script. No road map. No way to predict where the scene is gonna go.

For trained comedians, heaven. For most folks, hell.

For people addicted to contrariness and stubborn negativity, it’s like entering another universe.

I took exactly one improv class, around three years ago. Loved it. Chicago’s Second City improv group came to town, and after the performance, they offered an one-time workshop. On-stage. It was easily the toughest class I’ve ever attended.

But that single rule — yes, and — intrigued me.

Turns out it’s intrigued many other marketers and writers. David is serious about it, and well into a months-long study of improv. My pal Eben Pagan (of Altitude fame) studied it, too. The list goes on.

Why the fascination with improv… a bizarre art form that seems miles away from the dreary and unfunny world of advertising?

Dude, it’s all about facing the blank page.

Sitting down at your desk with an ad to write… and not having a clue how to begin.

Well… in improv, nearly every second of performance time brings that identical problem to your plate. What are you gonna say now?

And you can’t plan ahead, because you must wait for your fellow actor to finish before you open your mouth or engage your brain. Which you gotta do, like, immediately, to keep the flow going. Bang, bang, bang.

It’s the ultimate blank page.

The concept of using “yes, and” to move ahead appeals to all writers… because it’s so friggin’ positive. It’s easy to be cynical and jaded — it’s the refuge of all scoundrels who can’t create anything, but consider knocking stuff down to be just as valuable a skill. (It isn’t.)

I realized, smack in the middle of that class, that I’d been using that same kind of positive “move it along” tactic myself… every time I sat down to write copy.

You can almost feel the enthusiasm in the simple words “yes, and“. Salesmanship thrives on enthusiasm, and shrivels under the cruel heat of negativity.

A great ad may indeed start with a not-so-good platform — in fact, most ads address some kind of urgent, dire problem. And yet, the greased slide of the sales pitch MUST steer the process into positive territory. A solution. The restoration of hope. A pleasant picture of better days, resolution, redemption, and success. (You didn’t know advertising was a distant cousin of epic drama?)

“Sure”, you might write to your skeptical prospect, “things are tough right now for you. But soon, you can start doing this. Yes, and also this. And this. And that. And also this other thing…”

You build on the tenative spark of hope your hook or USP offers, and keep building until you’ve presented the promise of a whole new life to your reader. A positive, enthusiastic transformation. (Yes, even if you’re just selling dumb little widgets.)

I’m not convinced that David and I convinced the audience at the Sweatshop of the critical nature of “yes, and“… but we at least made them more aware of the role of positive action while creating ads.

The way to break through the paralysis of the blank page… is to get high on the happy hormonal flush of building toward something nice. You can start small… but make your promise, your presentation of benefits, and your entire sales process heave and swell with each new paragraph. Bring on your hidden goodies with panache and enthusiasm and unexpected revelation.

People out there are bored, worried and clueless. As a writer, you have an opportunity to reach out and give negativity a wedgie.

And it won’t be able to get you back, if you’re climbing up and away on cool drafts of blooming good vibes.

“Yes, and” is all about working with your reader.

And anyone with a drop of salesmanship in their veins has got to be nodding right now, thinking “Yeah… and thanks for reminding me.”

Stay frosty… and watch out for penguins bearing silverware…

John Carlton

P.S. The other top copywriter in the audience was my longtime friend David Garfinkel — another “ringer” I asked to hang out so I could bounce things off him, and know that I had multiple professionals in the room keeping me in line.

“Garf” and I are teaming up to do a presentation at another upcoming seminar down in Los Angeles starting Wednesday, October 17th. More details to come. The seminar host insists on all speakers doing hands-on workshops, so in many ways this will be a condensed version of the Sweatshop concept. (The good thing about a real Sweatshop is that it lasts all weekend. David and I will not have that luxury, but we are plotting evil ways to force-feed advanced skills into a large, startled crowd in less than two hours. It’s a spectacularly high-wire-act tactic that only super-creative types could ever come up with…)

This will be an event for the history books.

I’m also gonna jet down to the Altitude event, right after finishing my speaking gig at the Big Seminar in Atlanta this coming weekend.

No peace for the wicked, and all that.

This Fall has become a major season for stunning new revelations in advertising and marketing. It’s always been the “main” seminar season, but this year is just nuts with opportunity and specific direction. Even if you can’t make any of the many events being held, at least be hyper-aware of any post-event material being released.

Just don’t risk falling behind, all right? Things are moving faster than ever, especially online. Watch this site, and your other “go-to” sites, to stay hip to what’s happening. It’s always a good idea to stay current, but it’s now a hard-core requirement for serious marketers.

Exciting times.

Plus (warning: blatant pitch here)… we’ve still got a free “look” equal to two months of content down at the Carlton “Radio Rant” coaching club. No risk, killer info and advice, a chance to get your copy personally critiqued by me, and much more… this month, for example, I did a shocking co-critique show with Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero, who brings a unique female-based attitude to copywriting. Important stuff, presented with flair, mystery and fun. (That show is still posted, but you gotta hurry.)

Check it out:

Happy trails…

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


Just kinda checking in here, let people know I haven’t been kidnapped or anything.

It’s been a super-busy past couple of months, and the hecticity (is that a word?) is scheduled to continue for another month at least.

And right now, I’m getting my head straight for the big damn Copywriting Sweatshop this weekend. (I haven’t pestered anyone about this exclusive event because it filled up right away.)

For anyone who’s curious, this will be somewhere around my gazilliointh seminar (counting all the ones I’ve hosted, co-produced, spoken at, and attended as a special guest)… and over the years I have learned 2 basic lessons about mounting the stage:

1. Get your physical system in shape. Hosting even a short seminar is like running a marathon, in terms of taxing your body — and if you’re not prepared, you’ll experience mental and physical fatigue equal to being in a car wreck. (It was typical, in the early days when we piled up seminars one after the other, for the entire staff to suffer cold-like system-shutdown symptoms beginning about five minutes after each event ended. It was our bodies way of saying “That’s it, we’re taking a break.”)

2. Have a couple of “Plan B” options in your back pocket.

I always know I’m dealing with rookies — in any kind of venture or project — when I hear them say “We got it covered — what could possibly go wrong?”


I’ve always nurtured an attitude of optimistic pessimism. I happily expect things to go horribly wrong… and thus I’m never shocked or unprepared to dive into alternative plans.

So when the electricity goes out… or the hotel double-schedules a wedding in the meeting room we’re using… or an attendee has a schizophrenic episode that requires intervention… or the camera guy shows up drunk or missing… and yes, all of these things have happened… I do not suffer even an instant of paralysis.

Just take a deep breath… knowing you’re gonna have one hell of a funny story to tell later… and start fixing things.

Also… if everything accidentally does go off without a hitch, you are more appreciative… because smooth sailing wasn’t expected.

Nothing tempts the gods of mayhem more than someone who takes it for granted that all will go well.

Right now, every detail of this upcoming sweatshop has been handled by my loyal assistant, Diane, who has weathered several of these events with me. She’s a human dynamo, and the hotel staff is terrified of her, as they should be. She knows their jobs better than they do, in most cases… and she is well versed in disaster avoidance and problem resolution.

Still, as an irony-drenched joke, we often say to each other: What could possibly go wrong?

I hear this quite a bit from clients, by the way… only, they’re serious. And I always stop the consultation right there and lay down the law. Get real, dude. No matter how much money, time, energy and staff resources you’ve poured into this project… a LOT can — and will — go wrong.

It’s not a cause to panic, in most cases, if you’re prepared for detours.

Usually, anyway.

I had to laugh, grimly, at this recent AP story in the paper: The University of Central Florida just had opening day at their brand-spankin’ new 43,000-seat football stadium. Cost: A nickel over $55million.

The big story: Piles of people collapsing from heat exhaustion.

Because, in that entire $55million cutting-edge facility, there is not a single public water fountain.

In Florida.

Stunned officials, clearly surprised by the sudden attention of news crews, actually said: “Well, you’re supposed to buy water at any of the several beverage stands when you’re at a game.”

A PR moment for the history books.

I’ll bet they really thought they had everything covered. Top architects, all the ticket machines humming, all the beverage stands well-stocked.

They just completely frigging forgot to account for human behavior. And while, at some near point in the future, the idea of water as a non-free commodity will be accepted by all (H2O is the new “oil”, you know)… it was just really, really dumb to think you could be a pioneer in this area without suffering the wrath of the beer-chugging, severely dehydrated public.

What could go wrong?


It doesn’t have to harsh your mellow, though. Just be prepared. Consider worst-case scenarios, and refuse to be paralyzed by challenges.

Another example of why choosing experienced veterans as your “go to guys” makes sense. (I’ll bet the “top” architect of that stadium was a rookie, right out of some fancy school.)

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

P.S. Quick rundown of upcoming events: I’ll be one of the experts with Eben Pagan’s upcoming “Print Persuasion” master-class teleseminar series — my spot is Thursday, 9/27. (My pal Frank Kern’s in the mix for that series, too.)

I’m then flying to Atlanta to speak at Armand Morin’s crazy-good Big Seminar the weekend of 10/5. (You got my email on that, right? I’m sharing the stage with Jay Abraham and other notables, and it’s gonna be another killer seminar.)

The following week, I’ll be one the slack-jawed attendees at Eben’s Altitude event in Los Angeles (hope you snagged a seat, if you caught wind of how great that event will be). And I think I’m scheduled to speak at another event in mid-October, also in LA — more on that when I get the details settled.

Busy, busy, busy.

I’ll be blogging when I can. If there is any subject you’d like me to write about, let me know in the comments section here, will ya?

In the meantime… enjoy your autumn. My favorite season, by far…

Life Under A Cloud Of Tobacco Smoke…

I hate it when I discover a show on TV that forces me to watch it compulsively.

See, my private vision of myself is of a suave, worldly guy who nurses a beer in an overstuffed leather chair while reading good literature and expanding my mind with Big Thoughts.

In reality, I keep finding my ass welded to the couch instead, riveted to mindless visual crap on the tube. (I love “Whacked Out Sports”. So sue me.)

I’m so ashamed.

But, heck, I gotta stay involved in the culture (or so I keep telling myself).

So, every late summer, I check out the new offerings. Besides, HD is so bitchin’ to watch, it’s like television has been reinvented all over again.

The new show that’s got me obsessed is “Mad Men”, a rare series on AMC (the cable channel that usually shows old movies, mostly from the MGM catalog). It’s not on HD — big minus — but it IS the brain-child of a former Soprano’s producer. (How HBO lost the bid on this show, I’ll never figure out. It’s getting shockingly-good press, and the water-cooler buzz is amazing.)

The “mad” part refers to Madison Avenue — circa 1960. Easily the most classic year of the most classic period of advertising seen by our civilization. It’s a period piece, and they’ve paid excruciatlng attention to detail: Everyone chain smokes, the guys wear thick glasses, globs of Brylcreem, and fedoras (the hat disappeared from fashion right after John Kennedy got elected prez in the autumn of 1960 — part of his “youth appeal” was his habit of not wearing a hat)… and racism, sexism and religious bigotry is so ingrained, there is zero self-consciousness about behavior that — today — would be considered at best offensive, and at worst criminal.

You keep finding yourself stunned by passing comments, by the treatment of women (who are called girls and regarded as intellectually inferior), by the casual alpha male refusal to take ulcers, sobriety or fidelity seriously on any level. (Trust me — the drug and sex fueled immorality of the 1980s have got NOTHING on 1960.)

I love period stuff. I was just a kid back then… but this was the golden age of the super-agency, when John Caples was still around, Rosser Reeves was just getting reved up, and David Ogilvy was writing his most famous copy. Most of the ad and copywriting books on my shelf are from this period.

Sure, the ads are all about slogans, with lots of graphics (mostly paintings by damn good illustrators, since photography didn’t print so hot yet)… but salesmen were still in charge.

It was a different world back then… bad in many obvious ways, oblivious of psychological and physical health concerns (doctors smoked in the exam room), and you gotta wonder how anything ever got done when nearly every guy in the agency started drinking — heavily — at noon every day. In fact, you were regarded with suspicion if you weren’t a lush. (No promotion for you, Mr. Teatotaler.)

You can draw a straight line from the online advertising of today, clean through those late-fifties/early-sixties days, on back to the “official” beginnings of direct response in the heydays of the late 1800s.

You can laugh at how naive they seemed back then… but these are your ancestors, working away at the new-fangled IBM Selectrics after the exact same goals you’re after with your plasma monitors and laptops. (And really, we aren’t all that smart today… and a good case can be made that we’re going backwards intellectually, Devo-style, in spite of technological spurts.)

People often ask me for “extra” secrets to getting really good at marketing and copywriting and advertising in general. What they usually expect to hear is some overlooked secret about technique or some hidden tactic I’ve been keeping from everyone.

But you wanna know one of the really juicy, extra-advanced secrets to getting really good?

It’s becoming a student of history. Not just advertising history, but the history of our culture, of language and art and war and technology. We do very much live in exciting times, and the online adventure is as much a sci-fi story as anything else humans have ever experienced before.

But nothing has happened in a vacuum.

There are precendents to every detail of modern life. We tend to take things for granted… but that’s thinking inside the box, and that kind of stunted non-imagination is for losers.

History is the easiest way to expand your consciousness (without drugs, even), and to get the Big View of life (where all the truly mind-blowing revelations like to gestate).

Most folks fear history because they can’t see how it’s relevant to modern life. (Plus, it seems to be centered on lots and lots of reading, and that scares Americans.)

Just get over it. History is where genius finds inspiration, and where the most creative among us can put their ideas to the test.

Just catch a couple of “Mad Men” shows. It’s got a good series of plots going — ala the Soprano’s — and it’s a joy to watch. Well written, tightly edited, just a blast to veg out and absorb. I was years away from being a teenager back then, but I sort of remember the Zeitgeist of the period. So I’m mostly watching it as a stranger to the era, too. Don’t think it’s not for you just because you weren’t even a glimmer in your daddy’s eye in 1960.

Expand your horizons. Get a well-studied, documented taste of what life was like for your immediate ancestors in advertising.

The show comes with my highest recommendation.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton