My good friend @MercureCopy introduced me to former Agora staff copywriter Thom Benny last week. We met up for lunch, coffee, and vermouth in Berlin. Over 3 glorious hours, we dug into his experience at the direct response behemoth, the creator economy, and how pole dancing made it into his portfolio . . .
There are “A-list” copywriters and there are shadow men. Who’s your favorite shadow man?
That would be one of my mentors at Agora. I had access to everything there. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of research, and training I could access because I was on staff. But when Mike would write a new sales letter, I wanted access to that more than anything else. Not the product. I wanted to read his copy. I could see the magic that was being performed. His copy had such a spell over the reader. I’d read it from start to finish and learn something new every time.
Why do you think he’s never wanted to do his own thing?
There’s an objection out there with copy camps and copy coaching: “If you’re so good, why are you teaching this stuff instead of doing it?” It’s not an objection I have, but I get why it exists. This mentor was what we call ‘a copywriter’s copywriter’… He’s old school, one of those institutional guys who just knows more than anyone about the direct-response game. He loves it. He’s so stimulated and engaged by the subject matter that he has an alignment between what he’s good at and what makes him money.
What else can you tell us about him?
He’s highly literate in the business and marketing machine that surrounds sales copywriting. But he’s also an interested, interesting, articulate, unpretentious person. The guy just likes to write. He’d converted his garage to a writing room and installed a time lock so he could seal himself away. Agora realized, ‘If we leave this guy alone, he’s going to relentlessly produce material that generates fantastic results.’ I straight up would not be doing what I’m doing today if I hadn’t encountered him and had the privilege of learning from him.
Which lesser-known writers do you admire?
John Bejakovic, who I’ve encountered in recent weeks through his email list. To be honest, I don’t know what his background is, but instantly there’s a mystery and a quality to his writing. There are people who say, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m a copywriter!’ But for obvious reasons that angle’s not interesting to me.
What’s your assessment of the level of copywriting on X?
There’s a spectrum. I can tell straight away if someone has worked in-house or not. I hate the phrase “real recognizes real” but it’s true. You see some guys barking about $50k days but the real ones know you can get humbled any time, no matter how good you think you are. They prefer to talk about the work. Sometimes you see young copywriters saying they’ve “cracked the code.” They haven’t cracked shit.
Have you ever trained anyone as a copywriter?
A couple of people at Agora. And I’ve mentored people in various ways in the creator economy. That could be talking to people for a couple of hours. Or it could be jumping in someone’s cohort and doing an explainer session on a sales page. I like people who want to see the whole picture. Not the ones who want me to do a “quick fix” on their sales page. The ones who want to understand where their product sits in the market. And to do that you can’t give them the answers. It’s more like playing a game of hot and cold. It’s about training people to develop instinct.
What is the worst piece of copywriting advice you see?
You can go from zero to expert in a few weeks if you buy someone’s course. That pisses me off. If that’s true then why does the Agora training take two years? There’s a gap. When low-cost airlines like Ryanair appeared, a friend of mine said, “The great thing is, now everyone can fly. The terrible thing is, now everyone can fly.” It’s the same with Formula One. I’ve been in love with Formula One since before the internet. And now we’re living in a post-Netflix era, everyone’s a fan. I often think of the battlefield analogy. You’re sitting back behind the frontline ordering legions of people to their deaths. Maybe you’ve got authority, maybe you’ve earned that place. But if you don’t know what it’s like if you haven’t felt that fear, you don’t have any business telling other people how to do it.
Is writing e-com emails a good place to start a copywriting career?
Yes and no. It’s a bit like going out as the opening act for a huge band that already has a screaming audience. This is a person who by the time they get to your copy, just wants to party. All you have to do is put an offer in front of them. It’s an order form. It’s not a sales pitch. I’ve done some of that stuff before. It was fun to run. And not the worst place in the world to start. It’s still copywriting, but it’s a different category.
What are you enjoying about X?
I call myself a seven-figure copywriter but there is a risk with any project that my work could bomb. I did a project with a creator recently and it was quite humbling. It wasn’t consulting, it was a straight fee for a sales page. So I had to feel that fear again. And that would have been a very public failure. If you fail, particularly within the creator economy, people are going to know about it. There’s something very healthy about that.
Which copywriting resource would you save in a fire?
Ogilvy on Advertising. Classic answer. But for a good reason. You learn a lot about the craft. When I was planning to leave Agora I read the sales page for John Carlton’s freelancing course a bunch of times. I didn’t buy it in the end because work fell in my lap, but I remember admiring that sales page. It transmitted a great sense of adventure. I’m working on an article in which I pull a bunch of core principles from various places for people to learn the craft.
How did they train you at Agora?
We had a lot of stuff to read. It was all a bit of a blur. The traineeship was two years. There was a bit of theory, and there was structured work. But the main thing was the level of scrutiny. Every word I wrote. Every thought I had got pulled apart and criticized and discussed and reworked in a very specific way. Sometimes it felt like sanctioned bullying. When I got to the end of those two years, they said, “You’re, ready. You can come into the office, you can work, we don’t give a shit. It’s time to sell. You will be judged by your results.” Two years is a long time. But I was lucky because I got paid to do that.
What was the hardest thing for you to learn?
One thing that I got stuck on was email subject lines. Drove me nuts. I couldn’t get it and they told me quite bluntly I needed to make a breakthrough but we can’t tell you exactly what to do. So it went on for weeks back and forth. I wasn’t allowed to leave the office until I’d written the right line. It drove me crazy. And then at some point, it clicked and that was no longer a conversation. Open rates shot up. And no one ever said well done. That level of scrutiny at that level of detail for that amount of time was intense.
If you were to train someone for three months to write a promo, what would that look like?
The first two weeks would be just reading promos and making notes. What did you notice? What would you steal from this? Then I’d say, “Now here’s some control copy that’s worked well. How is it different from what I’ve already shown you? Do you think it’s better or worse? Why?” I’d want to form a picture of their natural inclinations and instincts. It’s important to compare stuff that bombed with stuff that did well. In a perfect world, there are five reasons why copy works and another five when it doesn’t. But if it were that easy you and I wouldn’t be here drinking coffee and talking about the ins and outs of copywriting.
So two weeks reading, two weeks discussing good and bad . . .
Then we’d start to talk about the promo they need to write. Just talking about the idea, sketching out headlines, and researching at the same time. Everyone’s research process is different. That’s not something Agora ever tried to standardize. You’ve told me about your research process for freelance gigs, but if you are trying to write a big-money home run it’s more like being an investigative journalist or a private detective. You’ve got to become a hound dog for information. You’ve got to amass maybe 500% more than you need. Go really deep. Write some more headlines, and talk about them for a week. Write a few leads, and talk about those. That would be the first two months.
If you can get the headline and the lead in a fantastic place, you know what you need to write. I wouldn’t say “the rest is easy” but you know what the customer needs to hear. The headline and the lead are the protein of the meal. It’s got to be intellectually dense enough for you to stretch the conversation to the right place. The short version is you spend two months preparing to write and one month writing.
What’s your take on AI?
My stepbrother just today said to me, “Oh, God, ChatGPT went down for two hours yesterday.” He couldn’t operate. He couldn’t do anything. That was eye-opening to me. I’m generally optimistic about AI but if everyone is using it the fact remains you need a differentiator. It’s kind of cool if you’re a complete beginner because there’s never been an easier time to get into copywriting. But that’s not the same as there’s never been a better time to get into copywriting. We’re in the middle of the middle of the bell curve. It’s never been easier to be average.
What’s attracted you to the creator economy?
On one level it’s nothing new. It’s info products. It’s guru education. It’s biz ops and financial freedom. These aren’t new tropes. But two things have changed. One is the openness of the platforms and the appetite to buy. People have built enthusiastic audiences. The other is the level of talent involved. So when Justin Welsh comes into social media after many years in a hardcore high-level sales role, that’s a tide that raises all boats. It’s a counterweight to low-quality AI content.
How does a freelance copywriter measure their progress?
When you’re a direct response copywriter, your reputation and results are the same thing. We spoke about this a bit before we started recording, but it’s very easy to drift as a freelancer. It’s very easy to let others dictate your career if you’re not intentional enough. Everyone’s got a baseline number they need to survive. The first question is how much time do you have to trade to do that? The next question is how much work do you have to do to stay in people’s minds? And the next is on what level do you want to test yourself?
How can someone get better at copy outside of writing copy?
There was a beautiful game we used to play at Agora called “Fly or Die.” I’m working on my own version of it to play with my email list. They used to put promos in front of us. Quickfire style. Some of them had done $10million and others had struggled to crack $100k. You had to vote. Did it fly or die? What it comes down to is, “How quickly can you spot a good idea?”
What does a good project look like to you?
You should be moving on from those wham, bam, one-and-done projects, where you couldn’t care less. You want to get to the point where people start to value your work on a different level. They want you in their business. That’s a measure for me because it indicates that I’ve got more to contribute than just some killer landing page. This question touches on the existential because what you’re asking yourself is what do you want to spend your time doing and what do you want to get back out of it?
When you started freelancing, did you pick a niche?
My case was a bit weird. The day after I left my job I got an email out of the blue from the CEO of Australia’s biggest direct response marketing agency. He asked me if I’d like to do some stuff for them. Overnight I went from writing exclusively financial copy to writing for pilates franchises, pole dancing schools, home builders, and everything in between. And then I started doing some well-paid technical writing for an IT consultant. All these jobs came to me. I didn’t need to do anything. But as I said, the other side of that coin is I wasn’t very intentional about things. Picking a niche can help but in the long term, it helps to read – and ideally write – widely too.
What advice would you give to beginner copywriters?
Right at the beginning, understanding it helps to explore a bit. You see people deciding right out the gate they want to be the “email fitness master” because someone told them to pick a niche. But at the same time, they’ve never written a fitness email. So how’s that going to work?
What’s the best way to market yourself as a freelancer?
You’re asking the wrong guy! I’ve been doing this shit for 15 years and I’ve never even asked for a testimonial. For the first three or four years I had nothing. Not even a website. No proof that I did any of the things I claimed to do. Not because I’m special but because I don’t find that stuff easy or comfortable. It’s a weakness. But I’m working on it.