Direct Response Copywriter on The Art and Science of Finding Clients

It’s one of the great conundrums in the world of the freelance direct response copywriter … or the freelance copywriter. Either way, it's a conundrum and I like the word conundrum.

  • On the one hand, I routinely this plea … “I can’t find any clients.”
  • On the other hand, I hear this from the clients … “I’m finding it so hard to find copywriters … where are all the copywriters?”

I must surmise, therefore, that copy just simply never gets written and copywriters starve and become homeless or enter other fields of employ … when all this could so easily be avoided.

At the annual AWAI copywriting conference, I see the same dynamic on the Friday afternoon of the event. Over 40 companies are there to look for copywriters. Over 500 copywriters are looking for work. It should be one bang-up party yet after the music has stopped, here’s what I hear.

“I didn’t find any clients.” “I didn’t find any copywriters.”

Yes, I’ve made connections and got some work at the conference but it’s not the life-changing fandango it seems like it should be.

Nothing against AWAI and the event. I enjoy it very much and it’s fun to hang out with (most of) the copywriters there. Some mega-famous copywriters pitch up to speak, most notably Bob Bly and Clayton Makepeace, who are regulars and people I intensely admire.

Even John Carlton, “the most the most ripped-off writer on the Web” according to his website, showed up and set new standards for ornery-ness … if ornery-ness is a word. It is now.

The ultra-famous Ben Settle showed up and, with 20 minutes left in his presentation, if that’s what it was, simply said, “that’s all I’ve got.” Not true. I later saw “El Benbo” in a Delray Beach watering hole/hideout and he was with a young damsel I had to christen “El Bimbo” since I was never formally introduced, and El Benbo had a LOT to give; his verbosity was off the charts. Ben Settle seems to have mastered the art of making tons of cash while doing pretty much nothing, or at least that's what his copy says.

If I need respite from the conference, I head to the magnificent Blue Anchor, a hostelry that must surely win the award one day for “America’s Top Ersatz English Pub.”

But I digress. Where was I? Finding copywriting clients. The gap I just discussed.

Various companies have emerged trying to bridge the gap. There was elance, now Upwork. These "commodity sites" are unfailingly biased toward the people who need copy. They get a low bid. They get garbage. The copywriters work with garbage clients. Great.

These commodity sites come … and they go. Some stick, most fail. Bob Bly says don’t go there and I agree with Brother Bob. It’s a mess.

I also see Facebook sites and other sites on social media platforms where clients and copywriters can meet but I’m not swayed. I’ve ventured into these waters and the clients are fifth-rate at best. A friend once described the woman who had taken his bartending job as a “d-grade stripper.” These are d-grade stripper clients.

I see some opportunities through my Google Alerts settings but there’s not much to see. If there’s a spot where I believe I can get some traction, it’s Linked In. I need to try their new service that promises to place a surfeit of great matches right in front of my very eyes for just $75 a month. We’ll see what transpires.

In all of this, I’m a little biased and I’m a little fortunate, perhaps. My website ranks highly, organically, for many key search terms. I’m not an SEO expert and I’ve never hired one. I don’t know why my site ranks so well. Maybe it’s because I actually put some serious effort and resources into my site. It’s generated hundreds of leads, usually from solid prospects. I tell the clients who want a low price NOT to contact me and they don’t. So … if you’re a direct response copywriter or a copywriter of any ilk, how good is your website? I’ll be remarkably blunt, especially for me … I see a lot of copywriters with really bad websites. And by saying “really bad” I’m being super-generous.

I’ll get back to the copywriter side in a minute. But what if you’re a client and you’re looking for a top copywriter? Well … you’re a marketing company. This means you should be able to market yourself to copywriters by finding or building a list and then making yourself a sought-after client. David Ogilvy found the top copywriters and then serenaded them. He would visit their apartments unexpectedly just to check them out in person. Imagine a knock on the door.

“Who is it?” “David Ogilvy. Can I talk to you?”

Ogilvy built a whopping and super-successful agency replete with talent. To get this talent, he used direct marketing tactics: he had his list and then he sold to that list, in essence.

Until about six months ago, I ranked #1 organically for many key search terms. Then a firm of copywriters took away that spot and now I’m #2. I’ll battle against that firm’s so-called direct response copywriters any day of the week. But they’re #1 and I’m #2 in organic search. I could disappear tomorrow from all the rankings. Poof. No more free traffic to my website just with one minor re-organization of the algorithm, or something.

So I’m in a phase right now where I’m starting to go on the offensive. This does not mean I want to be rude. The only person in the direct marketing world who thinks I’m rude is John Carlton, “the most ripped-off writer on the Web,” according to the third-person copy on his website.

Let me explain. I was waiting for a flight a couple of years ago in the stark environs of Palm Beach International Airport and yon fair John was also waiting for a plane in the same departure lounge. I went up to the "great" John Carlton, in the words of a marketing expert I highly respect, and re-introduced myself. I had just seen him at the AWAI conference.

"Hi John," I said, "I'm Scott Martin and we met at the conference. Do you have a few minutes so I can ask you a few questions?" He reminded me we had met in the pub the night before. Then I got a "no" and a glare which said, “I’d rather repeatedly French kiss the plastic/vinyl seats in this airport departure lounge during a six-hour delay due to wind sheer in Dallas than even acknowledge your peon-like presence.” Oh well. Such is my level of import among the epochal giants of direct response copywriting. That’s what happens, I guess, when people think I’m offensive, or on the offensive. Oh well.

Listen, sports fans ... if I EVER become so well-known that other copywriters come up to me in the airport, ANY airport, and want to talk about direct marketing and/or direct response copywriting, I will sit down with them and happily chat away until the gate agents are saying, "FINAL" last call.

But, again, I digress.

Gary Bencivenga talked about getting what he wanted. What did he want? Success and cash, for starters. Nothing wrong with that. To reach his goals, he wanted to work with the world’s top direct marketers. They had the lists and the traffic. Plus they had the products people actually wanted. Plus these companies HAD to have copy because the entire company depends on selling stuff … and lots of it. No copy … no revenue.

Are you starting to figure out what I’m saying?

I have a couple of clients like this. But I want more. So I’m identifying these epic clients and going after them. It’s an exercise in direct marketing and sales and, the last time I checked, I’m in direct marketing and sales.

In fact, I have list of 2,000 potential clients I hand-crafted through months of research. One of these days, I might make this list available.

How did I create my list? That’s my secret and that’s where your nous and creativity and research must come into play. The more I think about creative ways to build my list, and the more I work on my list, guess what happens? My list of potential clients gets even stronger and deeper. Here's a hint when it comes to how I've researched my list. Let's say I get an email with a link to an event that's choc-full of big-time marketers. Guess who gets put on my list?

And, to use a hackneyed phrase, I leverage off my strengths. I’ve had success in some niches, niches where everyone knows my clients and wants to be like them. So I get the attention of people who will hire me.

Do have a sense of your ideal clients? I know who mine are. I can look at a crowd of 100 potential clients and spot THE ONE I might want to work with. I’m a one man band. I don’t need or want a lot of clients. Just 3-4 or maybe just one. Clayton Makepeace worked with just one client, Weiss, for about a decade.

Where’s your list of potential clients? Where’s your database of contacts with clients? How is your follow up? When was the last time you contacted 10 potential clients in a day? When did you last send 2,000 post cards to your database? When did you last improve a page on your website? Are you getting rejected a lot? Yes? Good. You’ll start to find that great client soon.

A lot of nascent copywriters ask me about finding first clients. I tell them to get their website together, create some samples, then ATTACK the digital marketing agencies. These agencies won’t pay a lot but they have huge needs for copy. How many of the young copywriters actually take my advice? Not many, I fear. I wrote over 200 projects for a digital agency in Australia when I went out on my own in 2010. I paid the mortgage and there was food on the table. And I got tons of great experience ... plus some valuable training from the guy who ran the agency, himself an excellent copywriter.

“What about referrals?” you ask. “Word of mouth. Best form of advertising.” I suppose that Gary Bencivenga was able to rely on referrals at one stage but I’m NEVER relying on this method. Why? The referrals haven’t been any good. I’m not “in” with the “in crowd” as evidenced by my experience with J. Carlton and the copywriting cabal that hangs out at events like the AWAI bootcamp and steadfastly refuses to talk to anyone but themselves … unless you’re perhaps attending one of their events or paying them huge sums for coaching. The raw snobbery is startling, especially when most of this cabal relies on past copywriting glories. I just helped a client sell over $750,000 worth of subscriptions at $2,000 a pop … to a cold list with a conversion rate north of 4%. A VSL I wrote was producing $1.5 million a month for a $19 ebook, despite scathing criticism of the copy expert that client hired. What have you lot done recently? Oh … show up at each other’s events so you can tell each other how great you are. Ah.

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I’ve rambled and ranted in this blog, much more than usual. I’m all over the place with my tenses. An especially anal copy editor would tell me to start gain. Apologies. I’m glad you’re reading this. I might have to take it down once I read it again. Or sanitize it. It’s getting a little late and I had an early start this morning. But if you’re a copywriter and you’re moping around thinking, “I’ve got to find clients or I’m bagging groceries soon” when all you’re hearing from potential clients is, “we’re desperate for copywriters,” then stop moping around. Get your website and your stuff together. Build a list. Define your ideal clients. Attack the clients you want with a barrage of communication. Be persistent. Follow up. Stay in front of them. Market. Sell.

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I'm a direct response copywriter working for clients around the world. Enter your information to the right for my free series: Seven Steps to High Converting Copy. Or [contact me here][1] when you have a project you'd like to discuss. I'm also a Dan Kennedy certified copywriter for information products.