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I Thought I Was the Next Robert Collier

Robert Collier

The tenth post in The Education of a Writer (TEW) series. 

The first office I had was the size of a hot tub.

To be honest, it was more foyer than office since I sat by the front door and you had to walk by my desk to get to the boss’ office. So I guess I should say my first foyer was the size of a hot tub.

The offices were in a shoddy building constructed by a company notorious for being drunk and building homes over known sink holes …

But because they owned the market they could get away with antics like this: when I tried to plug my printer in I discovered the outlets down an entire wall —  the wall extending across two offices — weren’t even wired …

The construction crew simply screwed the face plates on and called it a day.

My boss called to complain. Four days later a guy with saw dust for hair and Wild Turkey for deodorant poked around the outlets, complained about the work involved, then offered us extension cords and a reduction in rent.

We took the cords and reduction.

There was something casual about this time. Pastoral. Just my boss and me in the office. Surfing the web, making a phone call here, writing a piece of copy there, reading a book just about anywhere. A fat lamb or two would’ve made it perfect.

Around lunch time my boss left to hang out with his business partner. I then had the place to myself for about two hours. Just me and the thin plaster walls, the hollow doors, the tiny windows with foam insulation spilling out of the synthetic plastic frames.

I got to work.

This was the time I devoured countless direct-response copywriting books.

This was the time I negotiated a killer deal with Homestore on banner ads … when impressions were everything … and a good banner ad clickthrough rate was two percent.

I was nailing close to twenty-seven.

This was the time I managed an annual $250,000 Google AdWords budget. (One year we got a beach towel from Google. The next year a thumb drive. I still have the beach towel. It has a hole in it and is covered in grease. Not sure where the thumb drive is.)

This was the time I tested text ads, tested email subject lines.

And this was the time I thought I was the next Robert Collier.

Towards evening, when the sun was setting, my boss went home and so it was just me and the fluorescent lights. When I shut down the computer, stacked my papers, and locked the door behind me, the parking lot was always empty since none of the other offices was occupied. A quiet cul-de-sac off a busy road …

The perfect place to think I was a genius. Or a genius on the brink of discovery.

I felt powerful. Light. But I’d lose that feeling soon enough.

My boss had fifteen years on me. Thousands of pages of written copy. But I was convinced I could write better than him, and we would often butt heads on copy ideas …

He would ask me to write a sales letter. I would write it. He would read it, and then suggest he write something else. I’d fight back, urge that we test the copy. He suggested we didn’t, but relented when he saw I was serious (we’d certainly lost that pastoral quality of our relationship).

We slid it out to 5,000 people on our list. Twenty-five hundred got his letter, the other half got mine.

His copy crushed mine.

Something was wrong. The test didn’t go right. He gave me the fatigued half of the list or didn’t send my email out at all.

Eventually we tested more. Each time I lost. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Nothing made sense. I was a serious student. What could be the matter?

Here’s the thing … my boss did two things exceptionally well: he gave me room to learn, to study, to pursue trails of research and thought. He taught me to find out what a person loves … and then get out of their way.

He also taught me the humbling impact direct response testing could have on a writer. Slowly I stopped being so cocky. So … Robert Collier. I wasn’t Collier. I was Demian Farnworth. Some punk poet who let his mind write checks his writing skills couldn’t cash.

It was a brutal time of learning. Growing. I was at it for years and it went like this. Even my wife said my boss usually wrote better than me. That didn’t devastate me as much as frustrate me …

How could I be such a student and not get this right? When would I turn the corner? How many years would this apprenticeship take? Would I ever turn the corner? Was I fated to live under the shadow of someone better than me?

After three years it was beginning to look that way.

Then I wrote a fateful email to a living copywriting legend. Someone I’d studied and respected. I asked him for advice. I was desperate. He replied — quickly — but harshly. And his reply devastated me. I actually laid my head down on my desk, closed my eyes, and groaned.

I wanted to give up. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t possible. Because his reply did something to me. Something unpredictable.

Next up: “The Fight Club Method to Feedback.”

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Comments

  1. Great post Demian.

    Can’t pass up something with Robert Collier in the title ;)

    Fantastic writing…I’m fairly new to your blog, but really digging your style.

    Andrew

  2. Will Eifert says:

    Demian ever since I’ve started reading this series I’ve enjoyed it so much that I find myself checking back over and over to see if the next post is up yet.

    Thanks for the great reading.

    • Love it, Will. Thank you for your support. These are my favorite kinds of comments. I’m learning to stretch out the comments so it might last a little bit longer. ;)

  3. Aw, sorry, babe. Maybe I should have told you your writing was better than his all those years ago. It is better now, though, for real! Uh, sorry old-boss-who-is-still-a-friend…. ;)

  4. Now I want to read some of Collier’s books. Thanks for pointing out this legendary STL writing stud.

    This series seems to get stronger as you go along. Loving every minute of it.

    I need to get my wife to comment on my blog, like Angie…. adorable stuff.

  5. Nice, Demian, nice.

    This piece has kind of a noir edge to it. I can practically hear the smoky alto saxophone and smell the smoke.

    All the best, as ever,

    Peter

    • Funny that you mention that … I wasn’t going for that feel, but in the back of my mind I got that vibe yet couldn’t put a finger on what it was. Now I know. Thank you.

  6. Demian,

    You’re killing me:) I can relate so heavily to this post. Studying the greats is an awesome education, and something every copywriter should go through. But there’s also a time when you have to open to yourself. And it’s scary as shit. That said, I’m glad you went through the inner turmoil to turn that corner where Demian took the wheel.

    I can’t wait to read how (I won’t spoil the name here) “the copywriting legend” responded to you. On the edge of my seat. Love reading this series of your story as it’s sooooo inspirational to study someone who’s taken similar steps and succeeded. Onwards, my friend…

    Jonas

  7. Nick Fielden says:

    Dear DF,

    Only because you like to write compellingly: Para 17 should read, ‘…none of the other offices WAS occupied…’.

    Reading Robert Collier is a bit like reading Roget’s Thesaurus.

    By the way, I admire your work very much. There is something of Raymond Chandler’s bare-boned terseness about it. I can well imagine you writing, ‘She was blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole through a stained-glass window’. But then you don’t go in for hyperbole.

    When are you going to fit a seat-belt to the poor, frightened girl in the rear of your car? (‘The Dirt On Me’ below). Die young? – not her too.

    • My son actually does have a seat belt on. You just can’t see it. ;) Strangely, I’ve never read Chandler. Good intentions, too. Who I have read a lot of is Hemingway, equally brief. What do you mean reading Collier is like reading a Thesaurus? And I’ve made the edit you pointed out … I see the rule. Thank you, sir.

      • Nick Fielden says:

        You’re right about Hemingway. He introduced that economy of words as a writing style in contrast to other authors, and was criticised for it in his early books. Critics didn’t recognise that, carefully chosen, the fewer the words the greater the impression. They soon came round, though.

        My comment on Collier was tongue-in-cheek, as I don’t really know him. But an example of what I meant is as follows: ‘Very few persons, comparatively, know how to Desire with sufficient intensity. They do not know what it is to feel and manifest that intense, eager, longing, craving, insistent, demanding, ravenous Desire which is akin to the persistent, insistent, ardent, overwhelming desire of the drowning man for a breath of air…’ Unfair of me, no doubt, but here you can just imagine Collier flicking through a reference for as many synonyms as he could muster.

        Seat-belt or no seat-belt, your son looks as scared as Hell – perhaps he wanted a helmet too, judging by your apparent speed. I speak only as one who has escaped injury by a hair’s breadth on not a few occasions through his own youthful driving. I’ve now reached the age when I prefer public transport – especially with a senior’s card. (Hey, is this my blog or yours?).

        • I think my son was having fun … and I wasn’t going THAT fast. My daughter, whom is behind me and you can’t see, is also screaming … in delight. :D

          • Nick Fielden says:

            Well, if it was just a Sunday afternoon jaunt, that’s ok then. By the way, how was the photo taken? You have a wife as reckless as yourself, it appears.

            Would you like to look up the rule for when ‘who’ is correct, and when ‘whom’? :)

          • I’m looking up the difference between who and whom right now … (I took the photo … my wife wasn’t in the car at the time. :D)

  8. You had me at Robert Collier…so that’s great copy in itself! lol. Great cliffhanger too cause now I need to read your next entry to find out what the reply was! :)