Interview with a Barefoot Writer: Clayton Makepeace
“Getting over fear is easy and also difficult. It’s easy in that the solution is simple. You just feel the fear and you do the thing anyway, that’s what courage is. Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the commitment to do what’s required regardless of the fear.”
— Clayton Makepeace, Million-Dollar Direct-Response Copywriter
Clayton Makepeace holds mind-boggling titles that range from “World’s Highest-Paid Copywriter” to the “Jedi Master of Copywriting.” He’s been known to make over a million dollars a year in royalties alone, and that’s on top of skyhigh fees.
Yet he’s the most easy-going guy you’ll meet — the kind you’d want to have a drink with, who loves his mom, and who makes you feel valued and at ease no matter where you stand on the success ladder.
Though Clayton has been a high-earning writer for over four decades, that’s not what he set out to be. He originally pursued a career in television and films, but found himself out of work following the oil embargo. His next leap was to try his hand as a copywriter. Five years after that, he went freelance.
You can bet he hasn’t looked back since. Clayton has written award-winning content for all kinds of products with most of his work focused on investment, finance, and health. He’s also developed his own speed-writing process that helps him pump out on-target copy in record time.
When I spoke to Clayton from his home in Virginia, he shared the secret behind his speed-writing process along with so much more. Read on for Clayton’s mind-opening advice on how to run a successful writing business and the most effective thing you can do to get started. Plus, learn how he once stayed out of prison by writing a simple letter.
You took an unusual route to the writer’s life … how so?
There are two stories. The first one started when I was 18 years old and I was working in a print shop and running a fold machine all night long. I had nothing else to do but read the stuff I was printing and I happened to print a lot of direct mail, so at one point I went to the organization that we were printing for and asked the guy that ran it if I could try my hand at writing a direct-mail letter. He said, “Sure.” So I did, and I asked him if he would tell me what he thought of it. I didn’t expect him to mail it.
I gave him the copy and it was a 4-page letter. I remember I wrote it in long-hand because I didn’t have a typewriter. I gave it to him and didn’t hear anything back for about a month. Finally out of curiosity, I went to him and asked if he had a chance to look at my letter. He said “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you, it was good enough we actually mailed it and tested it and it won the test.” So I thought “Wow, that’s pretty cool.”
But then, I had applied for some work in television and film work as a trainee. I was really passionate about that and wanted to do it, so it never really occurred to me to try to turn this writing thing into a permanent gig or a way to make money. Even though the direct-mail guy I knew made about $350,000 a year — and this was in 1970, so it was a lot of money.
Anyway, I continued just pursuing television and film work and moved to Los Angeles and was working out there in ’73-’74. We had a major recession in this country and there was just no film work to be done. My wife at the time found an ad in the paper for an ad agency copywriter at this little ad agency in Palos Verdes. So I went over there, got interviewed, they gave me a spec assignment, and I got a job at the grand salary of $15,000 a year. That’s how I got started. I figured I could write scripts for films and TV, so why not try my hand at writing direct-response copy?
Impressive — especially the way you just dove in. That’s definitely a hang-up that too many people have.
I think people are so afraid of failure they never get a chance to succeed.
What’s your tip for writers who are afraid of failure?
I’ve had to get over fear many times in my career. Getting over fear is easy and also difficult. It’s easy in that the solution is simple: You just feel the fear and you do the thing anyway, that’s what courage is. Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the commitment to do what’s required regardless of the fear.
If you want something badly enough in your life, if you have a very vivid picture in your mind of what it is you want and you use that picture every single day as the thing that motivates you and gets you to work and keeps you at your desk when other people would be quitting, that will help you get through because that’s more important than any fear of failure you could have.
I had a person tell me once that nothing tastes as good as thin feels. They tell that to people who are trying to lose weight. So I say, nothing feels as good as working through failure, working through fear, and achieving your goals. If it was easy, there wouldn’t be any satisfaction in that. It’s the old thing, the “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” You’ve just got to do it, you’ve just got to take that step.
Here’s an example: I’ve always been terrified of speaking in public. Back in 2006, I agreed to do a power marketing summit. It was me and 100 people who paid to come and I had to talk to them for two days and make sure they felt they got their money’s worth. I was terrified. But I made the commitment to do it despite my fear and it was one of the greatest triumphs of my life. So it’s just a matter of doing it. You’ll never get to success until you take the risk of failure. The failures are never as bad as you imagine them. And the success always feels many times better than you imagined.
You come across as extremely relaxed despite so much success. How you do it?
When I speak, I have a real kicked-back, relaxed presentation style. Basically, I’m not there to impress anybody, I’m just there to try and help. So I think the people who have only heard me speak and never worked with me may have a bit of a mistaken impression of me. At work, I’m quite intense. And it takes intensity. In the early days, it takes intensity to learn, to practice, to work through your failures. And later on, where I am now, 40 years down the road of doing this, it takes intensity because I’m doing more than just copywriting. I’m involved in designing products and designing acquisition campaigns and all kinds of other stuff and even personnel issues.
So from 4 o’clock in the morning until noon every day I am one intense guy, and if you walk into my office, I would hardly notice because I am so into the work.
You started copywriting before the advent of training e-books, webinars, and teleconferences. What’s one technique that worked for you that you would still recommend today?
I have a course on copywriting that I created and, even though I’m not selling it anymore, people write me almost every day to ask if they can get a copy. Many ask, “Is this the best way to get started? Is this the first thing I should do?” And I always tell them, “No.”
The first thing you should do is read Claude Hopkins and Gene Schwartz. That will give you a fundamental understanding of whatever it is you’re about to do. And in a matter of two or three weeks, literally, you can progress quite far — just by reading those books. That was the first thing I did when I got the job at the ad agency. They basically brought me a stack of books and said, “Don’t bother coming to work for a couple of weeks, just read these books.” So I did and I made heavy notes and I marked the books up like crazy and I still try to read those books every year to two years. And every time I do, I learn something new.
The second thing: I was never one for transcribing copy as a way of internalizing. I know a lot of people have done that and a lot of successful writers attribute their success to that. For me though, it was more important to outline.
How did you put together your outlines?
Back when I started, everything was sales letters in envelopes. I would sit there and outline the sales letters and say, “Okay, the first thing the writer did was he stated his big thing,” whatever it was — it was either a promise or a warning or an intrigue opening or whatever. So he started with his big thing, and then his second thing was usually just who he was, and the third thing was about what he wanted to do or give me, and three or four paragraphs down he would return to his theme.
I would outline everything going down through the offer or the description of the product that was offered, the guarantee, everything, and I would outline it. And that taught me really to write. To this day, I’m very big on outlines, so when people ask me how I write so fast it’s because I use outlines. If you have an outline for your piece, then it’s simply a matter of sitting there, closing your eyes, and letting the words flow through your fingers. You’re talking to your prospects and you know the order in which you’re going to say things to them. If what you’re doing is really complex, then you want to start with the outline — I’m going to say this first and this second and this third and so forth and then move from that to research and hang some meat on the bones. Ask yourself, “What do I need to prove here? What do I need to prove there? What kind of data and third-party statement do I need to put there to make this believable?” And then move from that to the writing stage.
What do you like to do outside of copywriting?
My great passion is music, so I read a lot of biographies about musicians. It’s not very instructive for copywriters, but I tell you what … you learn a lot. For example, the Beatles are obviously the band of my generation, right? I was 10 when they came to the United States and I’ve always really loved their music. And I like reading biographies about them. One of the biographies I read was about what happened just before they got their big break in England. They had been to Germany twice and played in seedy clubs there and slept in cots behind the screens in porno theaters with no heat and all of this crazy stuff. And they were going back to England to do this tour where they’d go from town to town and play in high school gymnasiums. One night in England, in the very far north where it’s extremely cold in the winter, they were driving all night to get to their next gig. They had this little white van with their gear in the back. Their friend Mel Evans was their driver — he was kind of their roadie. So they’re driving along and their windshield froze up and he couldn’t see out the windshield. The only way for him to keep going was for him to kick the windshield out of the van. So while he’s driving, he lifts his foot up and kicks the windshield out of the van. Now it’s 60-below in the car and they’re going along the highway and the snow is coming in and the four guys, the Beatles, are in the seat behind the driver, stacked up like cordwood trying to keep each other warm. And the one on the bottom every once in a while would rotate out and get on top. They did that until they got to the gig.
That means that just a couple of weeks before “Please Please Me” came out and they became the biggest hit in Europe and ended up playing for the Queen, they were freezing to death in the back of a white delivery van. How inspiring is that?
It’s a known fact that your clients remain successful even when the economy is down. What is it you bring to the table on top of your ability to write that brings your clients such great results?
Remember that stack of books that I said those guys gave me when I first started working at the agency? Well, one of them was a book by Bob Stone called Successful Direct Marketing Methods. And that book was like a doorstop. I forget how many, maybe a couple thousand pages, I don’t know. It was huge. But that book wasn’t about copywriting, it was about understanding the nuts and bolts of direct response. I already understood how the printing process worked because I worked in a print shop. I understood how the lettershop process worked because I worked in a lettershop. So with that book, I was able to understand exactly what marketing managers wanted when they looked at results from mailings and I was able to really kind of crawl inside their skin a little bit. That meant my clients were getting more than just a copywriter with me. They were getting somebody who could step up and understand what the challenges were when the going got tough and was able to provide suggestions and ideas to break through the challenge. Plus, having the ability to do this kind of consulting provided a different stream of income for me because I was able to charge for consulting as well as copywriting. So not only did it help the clients to do better in tough times and in good times, it also generated a second stream of income for my family.
So be the “idea person,” and get involved in learning about marketing and everything else related to the business of writing.
Sure. You know, back in the ‘80s, I made probably a quarter of a million a year and one of my clients came to me and said, “We’d like to put you on retainer as a consultant as well as a copywriter” and they increased my income by 50%. They paid me $10,000 a month just to consult with them. So all of a sudden, I had 50% more money and all it took was one day a month I had to fly up to Washington D.C.
Can you tell us who has been the biggest influence on your life?
It would have to be my mom. She was a very smart lady. She had a Master’s in Theology. My dad was a preacher and she got the degree anyway. A very brilliant lady, fantastic values. There were a couple of things she taught me early on. Number one — never quit. She would tell me over and over again that winners never quit and quitters never win. We all know that, but how many of us really live that? I look back at my career and I go “In the 42 years I’ve been doing this, I can pick probably 100 different points in my career where I was discouraged or down and it occurred to me that I should just go get into another business. But I never did, I always stuck with it. If I had given up at any one of those times, I would never have gotten to a $1 million a year in royalties and beyond.” That’s one of the main lessons The other thing she taught me was to “Always realize that doing the right thing is difficult, but do it anyway.” And that kept me out of prison at one point. I discovered a client I had was cheating people and so I immediately resigned the account and wrote a letter to him that started out, “My mama raised me better than this …” It was the best piece of copywriting I ever did, by the way, because when the State Attorney General came in and put this guy in prison for 20 years on fraud charges, they didn’t even so much as call me to testify, let alone include me in the indictment because I had written this scorching resignation letter.
How has life as a freelance writer affected your family life?
Several things: Obviously more time with the family, which is great. Another was more money to be able to give them opportunities.
There are other things too — the work ethic. Because I worked from home, those kids grew up seeing what it takes. They saw the times I was frustrated. They saw the times I put in 16- hour days. They saw the times that we got the big checks in the mail. All of that was a part of their life. They also saw the times I had to cut a check to the IRS for $1 million. So they saw what it takes. I’ve got to say, I’m really proud of these kids. I have four by the way, two from my first marriage, and two from my second. The ones from my first marriage are pushing 40 now and the ones from the second are both juniors in college and I couldn’t be prouder of them. They learned the lessons without me ever having to teach it, just by watching.
Let’s talk superpowers. Which would you want and why?
X-ray vision. I mean, I’m a guy — what kind of question is that, right? Kidding. I don’t know, probably the power to read minds. So much of what we do turns on our understanding of how people think and react to different stimulus. So developing a sensitivity to how other people are feeling is a skill that can make any writer better. I think of a lot us sleep-walk through our lives. We’re just experiencing life, we’re not really thinking about what we’re experiencing to the degree that we can just sit back and watch ourselves in relationships with other people and really focus on their reaction. Things like how does their face change, how does their body language change, how does their tone of voice change in response to things that are said in a conversation? That sensitivity goes a long way in writing copy because later on as you’re sitting down to write, and you’re saying certain things in your copy, you can almost predict how your reader is going to respond.
Are Video Sales Letters still the next big thing in Internet Marketing or is there a new marketing technique on the horizon?
Video is emotional media and we make our purchase decisions based on emotion, not intellect. I like to quote this ad agency exec, I forget her name but she was right on with this: “Nobody needs the products we sell.” They’ll almost be better off taking their money and putting it in a retirement fund. All we really need is a cave and a fire and recently deceased squirrel. You don’t need a Rolls Royce, you don’t need a Rolex, you don’t need nice clothes, you don’t need any of that stuff, so why do we want them? Because we want them for emotional reasons. We want the prestigious items because we want people to see us as successful and intelligent. We want the comfort items because we want to be comfortable. So these are emotional reasons to buy, they’re not practical, logical reasons to buy.
What kinds of Glicken — aka, perks beyond money and freedom — have you gotten over the years?
A lot of the perks tie back to money. Going to see Paul McCartney and sitting 10 feet away from him — that’s pretty cool, right? We’re going to see The Eagles soon, too. The last time we saw The Eagles, we sat next to Glenn Frey’s mom and it was her birthday. That kind of stuff’s cool. A lot of it does tie back to money, but there’s also the respect side of it. It’s very gratifying. I talked to Gary Bencivenga about this, he has had exactly the same experiences as me. He says the money is great. He once collected a royalty for one month’s work for $3.5 million. My best ever was about $1.8 million for a month’s work. So the money’s great, I love it. But when he starts writing a package, he closes his eyes and sees himself getting a phone call from the client who’s totally blown away and absolutely in awe of him because the response was so huge. It’s vindication, an ego boost. It’s the same adrenaline rush you get when your team wins the Super Bowl. That emotional gratification never gets old. You get a big paycheck, and it’s always nice, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t give you the thrill, the rush that you get from the joy of winning.
What’s your number one piece of advice for anyone just starting out as a freelance writer?
Read the masters. There are no shortcuts. When I got started, there was nobody willing to teach me how to write copy so all I could do was teach myself. And as I said earlier, I read the masters, and then I studied Gary Bencivenga and the other guys who were writing really great packages at the time. There was nobody who could tell me whether what I was doing was good or bad; the market was essentially what told me. So the programs that AWAI offers and that I’ve offered I think are quite frankly outstanding. They’re wonderful, and if I’d had them, I’d have gotten to $1 million a year a lot quicker than I did. In fact, I told people when I first did my course, the first thing I did was tell people they can get there in a fraction of the time that it took me. And I see people do that all the time. In fact, my protégés have all gotten to that level in a matter of a few years instead of the decades it took me, so that’s really good.
But you’ve got to start with a good solid foundation. Read the masters, do the courses, and do the work. Don’t allow your fears to block you and don’t quit.
This interview was previously published in the December, 2013 issue of Barefoot Writer. To read more interviews from fellow Barefoot Writers be sure to check out The Barefoot Writer's Club.
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