Who was Glenn Fisher before he was a copywriter?
I was an accountant/auditor. I was going through life writing reports about the financial systems of places in the local council. And then something broke in my head and I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore.
I wanted to write in some form or another. Since I liked creative writing, I decided to do a degree locally. Flash forward, I needed a writing job and knew I didn’t want to be a journalist. So, I applied for every job that had the word ‘writer’ in it and by pure chance I applied for an Agora job in London. The role was for a junior copywriter and I didn’t know what copywriting was at the time. It seemed cool and I got to learn about direct-response copywriting.
I spent 10 years at Agora being mentored by people like Mark Ford and Bill Bonner. I was very lucky to do that and learned how to write, persuade and sell. After that, I went freelance and wrote a copywriting book called The Art Of The Click.
I’ve been freelancing for five years and started The Fix with Nick O’Connor, who I worked with at Agora. We used to talk about copy all the time and lived near each other too. Our discussions became what The Fix is now.
What I appreciate about your perspective on copywriting Glenn is that you’re philosophical in your approach.
I think there are a lot of practical benefits to bringing philosophy into copywriting and would love to hear your thoughts on that.
Yeah. I remember first meeting you in Manchester and you said you were a philosophical copywriter. I was like ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ I like that idea.
So, the way I think about that topic is starting with the schism in my mind when I realised I didn’t want to do auditing anymore. I started doing a lot of reading and really got into a lot of comedy stuff. I strongly believe in comedy and silliness without it undermining things. So, I had that strand.
I also had an artistic literature strand where I liked reading classics but never really connected with them. But that moved into modern literature from authors like Paul Auster. I like the art of experimental literature. The manipulation of structure and language.
The third arm I discovered was from writers like Alain de Botton who’d taken the core of original philosophical work that would be difficult to understand on its own. So taking works like Jean-Paul Satre’s Being and Nothingness and diluting them to be more digestible. Once I’d connected all these strands I started digging further.
It might sound like trite copywriting advice but when I read something I’m always looking for that intertextuality. What’s the thing that the author references that I don’t know so I can go and find out. When I read works from guys like Nietzche and Schopenhauer, I found them harder to understand.
But all those ideas apply to understanding people and ultimately that’s what your job as a copywriter is. It’s persuading people to do something. And to persuade them you have to understand what makes people do things. I think there’s such a close tie between the work that’s been done in philosophy to understand the mind and behaviour.
I see this in how we make decisions in life and the way we can’t help but do certain things. An example is Nietzche’s idea of eternally repeating the same mistakes and going the same route. I’m the same. But the difference is I understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
When it comes to copy, understanding the fact that the reader is thinking ‘Oh, I really don’t want to do that but I’m going to have to do that’ is a very helpful thought. It’s why I tend to go through a cycle of reading a funny book, a literary book and a philosophy book. Because if you just did philosophy you’d become a boring person very quickly. Those other elements make it good.
For anyone interested in a philosophy gateway drug, I’d recommend de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy.
I can always do with more philosophy gateway drugs. That’s great insight. And I do agree philosophy should be paired with other things like creativity and art to be able to understand people on a deeper level.
You’re also a big rhythm guy when it comes to writing. I remember you telling me a story in the pub about how your partner Ruth caught you doing specific motions when you write and you’re not always aware you’re doing it.
Let’s unpack that. What does rhythm mean to you in copywriting?
Yeah. Like I was telling you when we saw each other recently. Ruth told me ‘You’re doing that thing again when you’re writing!’ And I was like ‘Oh, Jesus. That again…’
I think there are two things that people would find interesting about rhythm in copywriting. First, it’s the sense of musicality in the act of writing. So, that’s when we’re talking about me bouncing along when I write. It’s an abstract concept but I believe there’s a vitality and energy that comes across in the written word when that person has written in an engaging way.
You can sense it if someone doesn’t want to write what they’re writing. I’ll use Ruth as an example. She was doing email marketing and she doesn’t like doing it. I could recognise it because her character wasn’t coming out in what she was writing. It was stayed copy.
So I said ‘Well, what do you want to say?’ She explained. I said ‘Write that.’ And then she was able to write it and do it in a more musical way that reflected her in the words that were on the page.
So, I think when you’re trying to write, you should imbue yourself with the excitement that you want your reader to have. By doing that, you should physically feel like ‘we’re all here and nodding. We’re trying to buy this thing. We’re excited by this thing.’
If you’ve got that, it’s going to naturally come across in your copy. You feel excited. You’re going to miss words. You’re going to write in a clipped way.
The second thing is the rhythm of language and the way words appear on the page. I’ve been convinced for a long time that good writing has a natural swing to it. And a swing can have lots of different rhythms.
If you just have 1,4,4 all the time it’s going to be boring. You want to have different rhythms that come out of genres like jazz. Or bands like Radiohead with weird timings. Johnny Greenwood is a genius and he’s doing all these little weird things in his music.
Going back to copy, let’s say you have an email sequence. The opening paragraph needs to be short and clipped to get your attention. But then if you just did that all the way through then it would be boring and staccato. So, you might then use a long-flowing Proustian sentence that leads you in and brings you out.
It’s not wrong or bad to use only one kind of rhythm. It’s just not for me personally. A great example is I’ve read a book recently by a popular author. And I’m not going to say who it actually was because that’s just being bitchy.
But it was all short, clipped sentences. And I was like ‘Hmm. I’m really struggling with this. But I’ll carry on anyway.’ Then I realised I couldn’t go on reading it because the writing felt overstylised.
Putting that back onto copy, if you’re persuading someone to take action and you stop the reader’s natural rhythm you’ve lost your prospect. They aren’t going to keep reading. It’s why Nick and I always read our copy reviews aloud on The Fix to test rhythm.
Getting rhythm right isn’t hard. You just need to read the copy aloud and follow the natural rhythms of your own voice. Then it’s being honest and saying to yourself ‘I’ve run over there. I can’t do that. That word doesn’t flow.’
And there you have it. The rhythm of rhythm in copywriting. So, I’d like to transition into the rhythm of ideas now.
I was watching a recent Fix video where you and Nick were explaining the write-and-delete method with headlines. And something that got my attention was your idea of Mr Frinzinky.
Where did that idea come from and what’re your thoughts about idea generation in general?
Aha. Well, that idea is going deep within the indulgent mind space of Glenn Fisher, which Nick would tell me off for. But it might be interesting to see where my mind is when I came up with that character.
I’ve got an idea for a novel about the small town I grew up in. Basically, the main premise is that elephants start appearing in the town, causing some kind of disruption. But everyone learns to live with it because it’s the elephant in the room metaphor blown up massively.
Then I was thinking about how the council would react and they’d blame the circus on the edge of town. Maybe they think the elephants are coming from that circus. Then I imagined the circus master. So, I need someone who is like the foreign outsider. The name Frinzinky came to mind.
But actually, he’ll just be called something really boring like Paul. He wants to give the illusion that he’s interesting.
I guess the lesson here is that it’s okay to let your imagination flow without worrying about how stupid it sounds. Most of my ideas are stupid. But it’s having the confidence to like the ones that stick. I like the idea of Frinzinky because I’ve kept it in my head enough times and written it down so I don’t forget.
But when ideas fail, that’s okay too. I attribute that perspective to being taught by the old-school Agora elite like Bill Bonner and Mark Ford. It’s about failing fast and not being worried when it happens. It’s good life and good idea generation advice.
Great stuff. So, transitioning into your book The Art Of The Click, I found the interviews in it to be really useful copywriting advice. The one you did with Mark resonated in particular.
I was struck by your discussion with him about the paradox of authentic copy. That the idea of writing in someone else’s voice sounds like the most inauthentic thing ever but copywriters have to make it authentic.
What’re your thoughts on what makes authentic copy?
When I think of authenticity and writing in the same sentence I think of Hemmingway. He said something like you have to write one true sentence.
For most of my life, I’ve been like ‘What’re you on about?’ I didn’t get what Hemmingway was saying. And then I was writing some fiction a few years back and something clicked in my head about writing a sentence that was true. Not in the made-up sense of a character like Mr Frinzinky.
It’s not the same in copy either if you’re writing a sales letter about a topic like being a gold mining expert. I’ve never mined an ounce of gold in my life. So, I’m not going to be writing the truth in the sense that it’s my personal truth.
But I realised that the one true sentence in copywriting comes from having all the information, research and idea generation behind what you’re writing. There’s a feeling of authenticity down to the sentence level. There are certain words that follow on from each other and there are certain rhythms.
I think you have to be able to write those kind of sentences in an honest way. There’s a natural flow that works on the page. I’m aware this sounds all very amorphous. If we could recreate the feeling of authenticity, then we’d all be millionaires.
That’s probably what AI is trying to do and what it fails to do. You need that unknown human element and the rhythm will always change. You can’t just add adjectives and superlatives. Every sentence has its own inherent natural syntax and structure. So, an authentic voice to me is being able to understand what you really want to say and express that with the most clarity you can.
I think you expressed the concept of authenticity in copy really well. Now, seeing as AI is one of the biggest topics in copywriting right now what’s your opinion on it?
On a philosophical level, I think AI will be here forever. There are ways to use it for good and for bad. But in regards to things like ChatGPT, I’m not interested to the extent that I’ve got too much on my plate to worry about it.
While ChatGPT is interesting I can see through the flaws and limitations. And on the question of whether it’ll replace copywriters, I think the bigger problem is what the definition of a copywriter is. Because if all someone did was write then ChatGPT could definitely replace that. But that’s not what copywriters do.
We’re ideas people and ChatGPT may be able to come up with original ideas one day. But not right now. I think in our industry it’s a distraction and another reason not to focus on the stuff you should do like work on copy and use principles that have been around for decades.
An example that comes to mind is Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins which came out in 1923. 100 years later and most of the advice is still exactly the same. Advice that people are now selling at an incredibly high price when you can get a PDF version of Hopkin’s principles for free.
What’re your future plans for The Fix and the personal goals you’d like to achieve? Maybe join Nick in his idea to open a craft beer brewery?
I’ll follow the man as far as I can so we’ll see if we can make that happen eventually. When we started The Fix it was us just talking about copy and it’s quickly become something that’s expanding around us.
There’s Fix Fest happening in London and next year we’d like to hold it in America. We’d like to run writer’s retreats and provide more career opportunities within The Fix for other copywriters. In an ideal world, we’d eventually have our own office and maybe have the craft brewery on-site.
Ultimately, we’re focusing on cutting through the noise about the amount of nonsense out there about copywriting. Not in a holier-than-thou crusader kind of way. But where we can have a laugh and be a bit frivolous like I said in the beginning.
Awesome. My last question is what does waffy mean?
I think it came out of my peer group when someone missaid Daffy Duck. I used to say Waffy Duck. (I don’t know if I invented it but it’s possible I said it first). I like to use it to describe weird, silly things.
My editor for The Art Of The Click saw waffy in the book and I was adamant that it was the only word that needs to stick. It’s become my personal philosophy – Get comfortable with being waffy.
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