Category Archives for Marketing

Inside The Marketing Poker Game

Though I live near a downtown crammed pretty much wall-to-wall with casinos, I never haunt any of them unless friends are visiting.

And most of my friends, by the time they arrive, are visibly hungry for an evening spent in degenerate splendor, throwing their money away. The more gritty the casino, the better, too.

I had an old friend come up for Superbowl weekend with his son, and we decided to watch the slopfest in the dirtiest, darkest, and most out-of-controlRead more…

Bad Thinking Habits

Great article in the January 29th issue of The New Yorker titled “What’s The Trouble?”.

It’s primarily a deep deconstruction of how doctors think and make a fast diagnosis under pressure. Which turns out to be dangerously flawed in many cases… especially if they like you.

But the article also makes an excellent cross-reference to how the same kind of thinking can affect business owners. This isn’t about evil or obtuse agendas… it’s about how a very natural way of looking at vast, changeable, and not always clear data can mess with your head.

The result can be frightening for a patient. And disasterous for a business owner.

I love the New Yorker, by the way. It hosts the best writing in journalism right now, and yet it’s on the stands every week. (I have a subscription.) There’s no telling how long this excellence will last — it’s dependent on enlightened publishers, hard-ass editors (who barely exist anymore in journalism), and ambitious, competitive writers who are at the peak of their game.

Learning to write well has nothing to do with grammar. It’s about communicating. And it’s nearly a lost art in America. Molly Ivins died yesterday, one of the last of the truly-courageous Old School columnists and book writers in politics. (Thank God P.J. O’Rourke is still pounding ’em out.) We won’t see her like again soon… especially since the Corporate Beast discovered how easy it is to use books to coat public discourse with bullshit propoganda and rabble-rousing name-calling nonsense. (Both Al Franken and Ann Coulter fall into this category. These scumballs and their publishers are strangling American political dialogue.)

All this, however, isn’t necessarily bad news for people who care about good writing. And I assume this includes you, since you’re reading this blog.

The need for clear, truthful writing will be filled. If you care to join those of us who work to master the craft (and while it ain’t brain surgery, it does require waking up and facing reality), the rewards are beyond counting.

For business owners, the lack of good writing in your market is an opening you should leap into with guns blazing. Whether it’s honing your sales message, or building up your content and nurturing your list… this is the most important writing you will ever do.

And doing it really, really well allows you to stand out no matter how much better funded, or better situated your competition is. A single good copywriter can go up against Attila The Hun, Inc, and win.

Just remember that when I suggest articles to read.

Sharpening your ability to communicate is like putting money in the bank.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

Schedules, Scalability, and Screaming

Sorry I haven’t been blogging much lately. Very exciting stuff going on, and time has been at a premium.

But I’m back now, eager to bother you with all sorts of fresh wonders and scary advice.

I’m reorganizing my entire life here… plus traveling hither and yon to seminars in such far-flung joints as San Diego, Chicago, Melbourne and San Francisco. I’ve squeezed as much action and adventure into the last three weeks than I managed to experience all last year combined.

Operation MoneySuck is in full tilt boogie mode, finally. My old pal Stan has signed on as partner, and his first order of biz was to drag me — kicking and screaming — into the world of schedules, scalability, and outsourcing. He’s a long-time operations expert, who just hit a wall working with house-hold-name corporations in Silicon Valley and Europe… and succumbed, after several years of cajoling on my part, to the lure of the entrepreneurial universe.

My loyal and much-overworked assistant, Diane, is breathing a deep sigh of relief, too. We accomplished amazing things as a two-person office, but my lack of operations savvy put an automatic crimp in every project’s potential.

That was then.

Suddenly, my personal workload has dwindled to almost obscenely-logical proportions, with not a whiff of being overwhelmed. Every hour I log now has trackable consequences that mean less work down the road, and more money coming in.

It’s just friggin’ amazing what a little planning can do.

Stan and I drove back together from the copywriting seminar in SF I just held with my buddies Harlan Kilstein and David Garfinkel, talking biz the entire trip… and spent Tuesday filling up flip-charts and mapping out the conquest of the Western world.

Kickin’ ass and takin’ names… that’s what it’s all about, here in the wonderful world of entrepreneurial capitalism.

I’ll be harping more on all this as things continue to pan out. Online entrepreneurs and small business owners have needed a good dose of operations voodoo for a long time… but we’re slow to realize it. Many of us came to the Wild West Web from the coporate world, and resist implementing anything that smacks of the stick-up-your-butt formalism that dominates nine-to-five office life.

But, as Stan has proven to me, basic planning can still allow for being a lean and mean machine… especially with the wonders of outsourcing. Which, coincidentally, is now a million times easier to do with the global reach of the Web.

And I’ve been thinking about that — about adopting the best parts of well-planned Cubicle City type corporations, while nurturing the sleek and fast jungle animal style of good old kitchen-table entrepreneurism.

It’s how I’ve survived so long in my career, in fact. I’ve never been locked into any particular way of doing things, and I never have a dog in any fight — I’m open to what works.

This came up at both seminars. In San Francisco, an attendee was just incredulous that people “still” read long copy online. “That’s all changed, hasn’t it?” she asked, innocently.

With the brouhaha of Web 2.0 still roiling the blog-0-sphere, she can be excused for her doubts. And the fact is, if I woke up tomorrow and realized the universe had changed in such a way that a decent sales pitch no longer required persuasion, proof, credibility, believable offers, and all the other classic ingredients… and we could now create sales with just a smidgen of copy here and there, like dabs of gray ink in the colorful wonder of an over-designed Web page… well, I’d be the first one writing short copy that day.

I don’t write long copy because I like long copy.

I write long copy… because that’s what works.

You start at the beginning of your sales message… cover the points your prospect needs to hear in order to make a decision… urge him toward the right decision (buy your stuff)… and close with panache.

When you can do that in a few terse sentences, or in a single brief whiz-bang video, let me know. I’ll be right on your heels with my next pitch.

After almost three decades in the front-line trenches of business — slogging through the fog and chaos of multiple technological upheavals — I’m not holding my breath, though.

Still, the nature of business requires flexibility.

And, curiously, this is NOT an age-related thing.

At both seminars, I encountered wizened old farts who were cleaning up online, totally hip to every cutting-edge burp and tweak of the Technology Beast… and I met bright young business would-be-wizards who couldn’t ossify and wall themselves up in a cave fast enough.

And vice versa, of course.

The guys, young and old, who were making it work were flexible jaguars, alert and eager to learn. The ones wandering off into the desert — young and old — were dogmatic dinosaurs, unable to change even when the case for change couldn’t be more obvious.

Two quick examples: (1) I met several too-young-to-be-considering-suicide online biz owners who were, indeed, considering some form of suicide… because the Google Slap of last summer ruined their only business plan. Without the easy traffic of unchallenged Adwords, they became depressed and sleepy and unable to adjust.

Get a grip.

(2) I also recently critiqued a direct mail letter that looked like it’d been written in the early 1970’s, fossilized, and put somewhere safe from every single change that’s happened to advertising since Jobs and Woz wandered bleary-eyed from their garage-lab, giddy with success.

I didn’t even bother getting into the copy — instead, I gave the mailer a focused little pep talk about what had transpired since the digital explosion.

The basic rule is simple and eloquent: Things change.

And most folks resist change. Yes, that super-tight polyester disco-era leisure suit in the back of your closet may yet come back into vogue… but nearly every aspect of successful advertising has moved along at a brisk clip.

The days of easy traffic online are now as quaint as the days when having a toll-free 800 number was an exotic luxury. Ancient history.

The good news: It’s actually fun to stay hip and wired into the cutting edge.

There never was a rule dictating that the adventure and excitement had to stop in your life after a certain expiration date.

The key is simply to stay loose and alert, like a jaguar. The action is still hot and heavy at the front lines, as it always has been and always shall be.

And if you need a little help finding your way through the fog and chaos of the rear ranks… well, that’s what guys like me are for.

We live in exciting times. I understand the urge to go hide under the covers… but I also know the thrill of going mano-a-mano with the great Technology Beast, and winning.


Stay frosty…

John Carlton

P.S. Whole new killer piece of copy at the above site, too. Check it out, if you’re not scared of new stuff…

The Ego Echo Chamber

Well, happy new year to y’all.

Are we having fun yet?

I was kinda hoping my first blog post of this brand-spankin’ new year would be a positive one, full of good tidings and all that.

But I waited too long. One week into aught-seven, and the fur is flying already.

So my first post is on… Read more…

The Tangled Web 2.0

After listening to people (mostly geeks) wax rhapsodic about the wonders of “Web 2.0” for, oh, almost two years now… I decided to go deep and see what the fuss was about.

The reality?

Nothing much to see here. Move along. We’re just tearing down the set, getting ready for the next act.

Web 3.0 and 4.0 are getting dressed and ready to take the stage.

2.0 (or “The Tooster”, as his friends call him) is pretty much history. The term was really just a glib marketing gimmick meant to separate “today’s” Web from the bad old “bubble” Web circa 1999 and 2000. The mainstream media — clueless, as always — decided the bursting of that bubble signalled the death-blow to this “Internet-nonsense fad”, and promptly found other things to be ignorant about.

(The scariest example of just how out-of-touch mainstream culture is toward the Web is the fact almost NONE of the federal government is wired in any significant way — not the FBI, not the Supreme Court, not the politicans. True to form, just as The Tooster is fading away, those in charge are finally beginning to upgrade to DSL.)

The term “Web 2.0” is useful only as shorthand when you want to refer to the notion that — yet again — technology is changing fast. (Imagine that.) The implied secondary notion is that — yet again — these changes will affect us all in profound ways. (Ooooh, don’t be scared.)

And — yet again — the reality simply doesn’t live up to the hype.

I’ve coined a phrase that, for me, helps explain why the “experts” get so preoccupied with announcing the latest revolutionary upheaval in human development through technology.

The term is “Paleo-Tech”… and it means, simply, “ancient technology”. We are (according to Professor Carlton) in the Paleo-Tech Age, which mimics the Paleolithic age, when Man (with a capital “M”) was just beginning to use technology.

Back then, it was fire and stone and metals… and for the next ten thousand years or so, we played around with better ways to cook, melt, forge and build stuff.

Today, it’s Java script, XML and the “semantic Web”… and because the development of new technologies is so super-condensed, by the time most people catch on, it’s already ancient history.

Thus, we are living in a time when all newly-developed technology is instantly on the way out. Almost, anyway.

Paleo-Tech. It’s driving Hollywood nuts, because no matter how much they try to make the technology in their scripts brand-spanking-new, they risk looking like dorks by the time the movie comes out six months later. (I recently saw a two-year old flick that might as well have been made last century, because the meant-to-be-hip cell phones used were embarrassingly out-of-style.)

But this is what I find interesting: Entrepreneurs are almost always on the cutting edge of the newest and flashiest tech. (The military drives most of the coolest advances, but they’re trying to kill people, not earn an honest living.)

And this creates an ongoing “situation” that requires the direct intervention of grizzled old veterans like me.

The situation is this: People are easily dazzled by shiny new objects. And lots of the new online technology is VERY pretty and seductive.

But here’s the mantra I want you to repeat, often: Technology doesn’t sell stuff. Salesmanship sells stuff.

I’ve seen a LOT of sci-fi quality technology in my career. I started my advertising career in Silicon Valley back when the Internet was just a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye… I had inside connections with the Stanford Artificial Intelligence labs… played the very FIRST online games ever invented… began working on a PC (sorry, Woz) back when I had to load DOS on a 5-1/4″ floppy each time I booted up… wrote one of the very first online ads… and on and on.

I also worked on some of the very first modern infomercials, helped clients create prototypes that begat e-books, had one of the first ad-related podcasts posted to iTunes, participated in the earliest e-mail blasts ever done, and have tended this blog for a very, very long time (making good use of functions like RSS and tags before most marketers had even heard of them).

The Tooster and his application-drunk buddies 3.0 and 4.0 don’t scare me even a tiny bit.

I will make full use of every blip of technology I discover… and learn the stuff I need to learn, and pay other people to stoke the fires of the crap I suspect will soon blend into the woodwork.

Because every bit of tech that matters to entrepreneurs is just another way to communicate with other humans. From smoke signals to cuneiform tablets to the Guttenberg press to radio and TV and now the ever-wondrous Web… it’s still just one creature with a cerebral cortex talking to another one.

It’s fun. It’s like living out a sci-fi fantasy.

But the foundations are still the same as they were back when our ancestors were incinerating each other trying to find new uses for fire.

Humans want to get the basics of suvival settled… so they can use new technology to entertain themselves, kill each other… and buy shit.

As a business owner or entrepreneur… you want to sell shit for other people to buy. So you need to separate out the hyped tech that is mostly about entertainment (and for God’s sake, keep your hands off the evil lethal stuff).

And learn the simple secrets of using all new technology as a way to channel your salesmanship.

The technology, all by itself, will not magically generate profits for you. (In the still-current Paleo-Tech Age model, the only people who are supposed to get rich from new tech are the creators and share-holders. As Google proved with its profit-murdering “slap” at sites trying to use pay-per-click to build lists, entrepreneurs are seen as suspicious usurpers of technology, and must be thwarted whenever possible.)

I know people who are ecstatic about getting massive numbers of hits for their funny video on YouTube… who spend days figuring out how to use Slingbox to catch TV shows on their cell phones while they travel… and who prefer texting to talking.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that.

But a million hits for your video of Farquar falling off his skateboard won’t put a nickel into your pocket.

And why are you still wasting so much time watching TV? There’s a brave new world spinning out there, wondering when you’re gonna show up.

If you’re gonna be an effective entrepreneur, you gotta brush the stars out of your eyes and see all the technology tumbling down the chute ONLY in terms of how you can use it in conjunction with your salesmanship skills.

I’ll post more on this soon.

It’s fun, I gotta admit. I LOVE all the new tech gadgetry. The X-Box bored me, mostly (it really was just a small step up from playing Pac-Man drunk in a loud bar), but I’m excited about the Wii’s potential for truly gnarly gaming.

And all the career adventures I’d craved in my youth are now available again, thanks to technology advancing faster than The Man can censor it. (I can now have my own pirate radio station, publish and distribute my own books, and produce any type of late-night-quality TV show I like… all from my cluttered little office, digitally, online. I get shivers just considering all the possibilities.)

I’ve got some pretty valuable insights to share with you, too.

But I’m tired. I wanna surf the Web a bit, buy some more oldies on iTunes, enjoy a microbrew (another modern invention courtesy of the harnessing of fire long ago), and get a good night’s sleep on my Tempurpedic. (Space-age sleeping technology!)

Let’s pick this up later.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton


Tuesday, 9:20pm
Reno, NV
Yep, nothin’ gets by me, cuz I’m a real fart smeller… uh, I mean smart feller.” (Cousin Donald)


It took me an awful long time to figure out that — to get anywhere in life — I would have to buckle down and actually get good at something.

That was a painful realization. I was thirty-two at the time, no longer young, no longer having fun doing the things that had pleased me so thoroughly just a year or so earlier.

I was done with having potential.

Screw potential.

Potential can murder your life.

All through my formative years, I was given special attention because I could draw well (I had weekly cartoon stips in both my high school and college newspapers) (even won a Quill & Scroll award)… had some musical ability (my ragged bands played for friends’ parties and at school dances)… and evidenced a little precociousness with my fiction writing.

Relax. I sucked at fiction. I wrote complete stories, was all. On my own time. This amazed teachers, but it wasn’t anything all that great. Any early signs of authorship had absolutely no correlation to copywriting. In fact, it probably set me back a couple of years.

As I’ve often said, it’s easier to teach a near-illiterate salesman to write good copy, than it is to teach salesmanship to someone with a Ph.D in English literature.

But back then, I was just good enough at several creative skills to suffer the curse of potential.

You know what potential does? It gets you credit for not actually doing anything difficult. You get used to the easy accolades… and never develop good work habits, cuz it’s no big deal for you.

During my days hanging with the “D” list Hollywood crowd, I saw the ravages of potential up close and personal. Most of the folks who’d ever been praised for a small acting gig, or had a bad TV screenplay optioned, or had scored a “meeting with John Candy’s people”… coasted on that cloud for as long as possible.

For many, their brush with success became a standing joke. We’d make bets on how long they’d wait before bringing it up to someone new. (Average time: About three minutes.)

If I was in charge of the world, I’d take every kid with potential aside… and clap them all into a boot camp, where we’d wipe that smirk off their face. And make ’em earn some real kudos.

It’s the only way to save most of them.

The most vivid example of potential versus reality I ever saw was down in Miami Beach, after it’d become a hotbed of the fashion world. Every day, several buses would arrive, crammed with young women who were the best-looking creatures who’d ever graced the small town they’d just come from.

And it took about an hour for them to realize that, as god-like as they were treated back home, here in the center of the model universe, they weren’t even on the map.

It isn’t fair.

But it’s the way it is.

So the person with a little “natural” talent at something may have a tiny advantage over the raw rookie who never heard the term “potential” tossed their way.

But that tiny advantage is irrelevant… unless it gets honed into a big advantage.

And guess what? It takes just about the same amount of hard work to hone a little talent, as it does to go from zero to hero.

Never let your perceived lack of natural ability stop you from trying something.

I’m thinking about this, after seeing Bela Fleck, Stanley Clarke and Jean Luc Ponte at the Hawkins outdoor amphitheater tonight. Stunning expertise there — on violin, gut bass, and jazz banjo.

They were dressed casually, they didn’t require any formal introductions, they joked and were at ease with each other and the crowd while they played.

And it was exquisite.

These guys are experts. And if you listen closely, you can catch pieces of Bach, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Coltrane and Weather Report licks thrown in, as teasing references.

Nice stuff. I’ve been following these musicians, separately, for thirty years. They were damn good back then. They are transcendental now.

Earlier today, I hung out in the kitchen while a new repairman took apart the built-in microwave, found hidden ice blocking the fan in the freezer, and showed me the right Allen wrench to use on the locked-up garbage disposal.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching him work. In another life, I could have happily been an odd-jobs artist… going deep into the mechanical flotsam of our lives.

He had a complaint — he’d hired, and fired, almost twenty different guys in the past year, trying to find someone who could handle some of the repair work for his thriving business.

The problem was best illustrated by the last guy — who wasted forty-five minutes trying to remove a plastic cover inside a broken dishwasher door… and finally brought the entire door back to the shop. He insisted it was permanently welded shut. The boss took it apart in twenty seconds.

“The thing is,” he told me, “that guy should have been humiliated. But he wasn’t. These rookie repairmen all want me to teach them the specifics of doing each job… but it ain’t like that.”

“It’s the process they need to learn,” I said.

“That’s right. Not the details of just that one job. They need to fall in love with figuring this stuff out.”

“It’s the same with advertising,” I said. “Great ads are the result of great sales detective work. And few want to put in the sweat.”

“Damn straight,” he said. And refused payment for fixing the fridge. Said it was his pleasure, because he enjoyed talking to me as he worked.

So… I’ve been thinking about expertise. What it is, what it takes to attain it. And what it means, after you have it.

And while I’m thinking… I get an email from someone that says: “Hey John. I want to be a world-class copywriter. What do I do to get started?”


And it dawns on me. Finally.

There’s a great quote I like: Learn your craft first. It won’t stop you from being a genius later.

The musicians tonight displayed genius, yes… but they expressed it through a master craftman’s skill level.

The repairman seemed to be working magic, listening to the freezer and finding the exact problem as if by divining the source. But really, he was just using the skills of his craft — figuring things out.

I’ve argued before that Picasso ruined painting. Not on purpose, of course. He went off on a totally bitchin’ tangent that riveted the world.

But everyone who learned painting after that, started with Picasso’s abstracts. They completely ignored the fact he was an accomplished realist, first. Knew his craft.

He broke the rules, only after showing he was a master of those rules.

The minions who followed, showed little consciousness of any rules at all. They want credit for being creative… “like Picasso.”

They want you to gaze at their crap, and fathom the potential there.

Because, you know, it’s abstract.

But they lack real craftmanship.

Pisses me off.

You can get away with it, of course, in “art”.

But not in marketing.

All the top guys are super-skilled craftsmen at their job. They learned to write well, and they learned the essentials of great marketing… sometimes painfully, taking however long it required.

Draft after draft after draft. Job by job. Client by client.

There are shortcuts to the gig… but you still have to patiently learn the craft first. This is the thing so many rookies can’t quite get a handle on. You don’t just become world-class because you really, really, really want it.

Be a craftsman. There’s some transcendental joy in knowing you’ve mastered something beyond the smirk of potential.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

1 10 11 12