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Success Leaves Clues with Brian Kurtz

by | Brian Kurtz, In the Magazine

Copywriting is not a commodity.

That is one of the first points I made at Genius Network.

Although if you sit where I sit, you might think that hiring a copywriter should be as easy as putting a listing on craigslist because I get this question showing up many times per week in my In Box:

“Do you know a good copywriter?” 

Of course, the answer is “yes”…I actually know hundreds…and I’m proud to say that I had the privilege to work with some of the best ever.

(And I am not arrogant…see #3 and #6 below).

However, just knowing great (and not-so-great) copywriters is not enough…and asking the question like there is a one-size-fits-all copywriter for any business is the worst way to begin the inquiry.

Ask a novice who has tried writing promotion copy and failed miserably if they think it’s easy.

In fact, ask some of the best copywriters who have ever lived the same thing.

Not only is it not easy, all copywriters know that the secret to success is to master a niche before presenting themselves as the solution to all assignments in all categories.

Copywriters who have been at it for any length of time also know that what they do is not a talent they learned in school.

They also know that it is not a skill they picked up by accident by simply reading some books on the subject, which miraculously led them to write successful copy and then make millions in royalties.

The faster things move in the online marketing world—as media gets cheaper and the barrier to entry gets lower, the more worried I get that short term success online with mediocre creative and a copy has been interpreted as “copy is not that important” and also that “finding a copywriter” is not worth an extensive search.

In certain marketing circles, even though it’s clear that adding great copy (from skilled copywriters) working in conjunction with precise list selection and an irresistible offer has been game-changing for so many, there still seem to be too many marketers who look at copywriting as a necessary evil, rather than a core competency (to do or to buy intelligently) that can change the trajectory of their business.

As I talked about in my short video, “When 41% is a majority,” if you have the list and offer dialed in, you will probably make some money with workmanlike creative and copy.

But that is not a reason to make a copy and creative the “anyhow portion” of your marketing mix.

It’s just the opposite: The biggest breakthroughs throughout my career happened when we found the right copywriter on the right project, and the new copy approach by someone who had the chops and had done it before for many others is how we got 30% lifts in response (and more).

Four years ago, I began digging deeper into why copywriting was being viewed as a commodity by too many entrepreneurs and business owners for my taste…so I got my shovel out and identified the characteristics that were prevalent in every world-class copywriter I had the privilege of working with in my career.

When I was asked on the Genius Network panel, “What should entrepreneurs know about hiring a good copywriter?” I wanted to go over these 7 characteristics below, but I didn’t have the time, so I will share those with you below.

I originally titled that first crack at this analysis, “You May Not Know It When You See It,”—or how to identify if a copywriter has that “it factor” that all of the greats possessed (and possess today).

I believe that the 7 traits below are what makes the great ones great…and even though most people don’t ask me for this information (they just want a copywriter!), I send them some version of this, tell them they are asking the wrong question, and that we can have a much better discussion of their needs once they understand the complexity of what it takes to be an “A list copywriter.”

I’m hoping this post can be a guide for you to follow if you are a copywriter; and also a guide to asking the right questions when looking for a copywriter.

I also hope that I make the case that hiring this asset correctly might be one of the most important things you will ever do in business.

You’ll see that “knowing it when you see it” is a lot more than just spotting writing talent…although there is no substitute for command of the language.

Here are the 7 traits that go beyond just writing:


This is similar to one of my favorite concepts, which I have shared with you before–the notion of “outworking everyone.”

It’s not only working more hours, but it is also showing your dedication to your occupation.

I’m a believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” (despite it being debunked in some circles which I discussed in “10,000 hours or 33 minutes?”).

If you are not familiar with the rule, it states that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in just about anything.

Read the post if you want another spin on it, but whether it is 10,000 hours or something less than that, it’s safe to say that world-class copywriters are not achieving greatness from an online course or working at it with only a few hours of study.

Another angle on “hunger” and “outworking everyone” is that it is not about stepping on everyone else’s head during your rise to the top.

It is instead about “generosity” and showing by example how it’s done–which raises the bar for everyone who comes after you.

Insatiable Curiosity

Readers of this weekly e-mail have heard me on this one before, too…nothing replaces curiosity when it comes to being a great copywriter.

Copywriters I have profiled in the past have shown us why curiosity is the driver to making them the best of the best: Gene Schwartz through “the power of reading”; Arthur Johnson through “the power of specialization”; Parris Lampropoulos through “the power of immersion.”

If you would like to read what I wrote about these three great copywriters previously (and others too on why insatiable curiosity matters most), click on any of their names above.

This may the number one characteristic that makes a great copywriter great…and in fact, I think it also makes a great marketer great too.

Confidence Without Arrogance /Feedback Loops

Who do you hang out with, and why?

How do you stay accountable (and not just responsible) to your craft?

The communities you align with to become excellent at anything may be the most important career decision you will ever make (e.g., Genius Network) …and there is not one copywriter who “goes it alone.”

Although I always say, “you can’t write copy by committee,” the top writers run their copy past others once they complete the draftspeople they trust to tell them the truth about what works and what doesn’t—based on their vast experience.

And of course, they reciprocate.

Also: Like any other field where you are learning and growing, being an apprentice to mentors who can show you the way is critical; and then, later on, you pay it forward by surrounding yourself with peers with equal or more talent than yourself.

And then, you become a mentor and begin the cycle all over again.

One of the greats, David Deutsch, is a perfect example of this: When I met him, he was an apprentice to the one and only Jim Rutz, and now he has become one of the top coaches for up-and-coming copywriters–and a colleague of other writers who are his equals so they can continuously compare notes…and copy.

He never stops improving.


If you start by writing with a purpose rather than for the money, you are on the right track.

If you have to call it “work,” why not start by creating magic in something you are passionate about first, if at all possible? Then your work is your play.

My post “Direct Marketers Saving Lives” talked about this at length.

We should want to hire copywriters who talk about “10X” in terms of impact way before they talk about money.

As a marketer, don’t you want to start there too?

Another angle on passion which I alluded to in my intro:

Going narrow to wide is almost always the better path the best copywriters follow.

That is, going deep in one area or category and becoming proficient there first is the preferred way to eventually learn to go wider and write in multiple categories later on.

I also went deep on this in “Sharks, aliens, and dinosaurs.” With an assist to Steven Spielberg.

Being A Student Of Direct Response Marketing

When I speak about this to copywriters, the feedback I sometimes get is that it seems somewhat “intimidating”- talking about concepts like “RFM,”  “LTV,” and the “40/40/20 rule” as necessary for them to know about.

They often ask, “Why do I need to know that stuff if I only want to write?”

I explain that I am trying to give them an unfair advantage over other copywriters competing for the same assignments.

Going from “copywriter writing for food’ to “trusted adviser being part of a company or enterprise or mission” feels so much better and will be much more profitable—and it is easier to get there being a student of marketing and not just a student of writing.

Yes, I am seeding my new book!

All of those concepts are covered (and a whole lot more in the book and in the thousands of dollars’ worth of bonuses that come with it).

Go to (and I am wondering why you don’t have it yet!) 🙂


I strive for humility, and I love humanity…and as a writer (or marketer), I believe this is a good place for all of us to originate…and I can safely say that it has served me well when I stay true to this (and you usually call me out on this when I violate this principle).

And it is plain to see in every top gun copywriter I have ever worked with.

Confidence in your message and how you choose to teach it is not arrogance if expressed properly and conveyed powerfully.

I talked a lot about the lesson in grace and humility I learned from Gary Bencivenga and Greg Renker after “The Titans of Direct Response” event in 2014–one of the most powerful things that happened to me as a result of that event.

I wrote about that in detail here.

Pride/Showing Your Work

Having a portfolio is always important…but I purposely put this last when I speak about these traits to copywriters so they can see the other more important attributes they should strive for well before showing all of their previous winners.

(And if you don’t have any winners yet, having numbers 1-6 can still get you hired.)

Knowing who the writer is as important as the writer’s work.

Clearly, the more you write, the more lessons you will learn on the field of play–and the larger your “portfolio” will be.

But hunger, curiosity, confidence without arrogance, passion, direct marketing knowledge, and humility all come before that beautiful website showing off your samples.

One more thing I want to share now that you have read this post to the end:

Look at each of the 7 traits, and you will see what I discovered (hinted at earlier):

They are also prevalent in all of the best marketers you will ever meet too.

  • Hunger (and generosity) to make your products the best they can be
  • Curiosity to explore all media and to study successes and failures from others (e.g., swipe files)
  • Feedback loops to ensure your product is best-in-class, and it is easy to differentiate.
  • Passion that what you are selling fits with your life’s mission
  • Knowing the fundamentals of measurable (direct) marketing
  • Humility to know what messaging and positioning is congruent with who you are and all you represent
  • Pride that you can’t wait to show the world what you have created


Brian Kurtz

 About Brian Kurtz

Brian Kurtz has overseen the mailing of approximately 1.3 billion pieces of third-class mail over the past 20 years…and over 2 billion pieces of promotions in all media over his career which spans almost 4 decades. He has marketed and sold newsletters and books via direct response television (infomercials) and using e-mail and the Internet in huge numbers. He has never met a medium he didn’t like and he has learned the ins and outs of every possible medium where direct marketing lives and thrives. He’s proud to have cut his teeth in the offline world of direct marketing and he is finding that the principles he’s followed over the past 40 years all apply online as well. He has written two books based on all of his experiences and study: Overdeliver: Build a business for a lifetime playing the long game in direct response marketing ( The Advertising Solution

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