Ever since I stopped accepting copywriting clients over a decade ago, it’s a question that seems to come up again and again. It’s understandable as I was quite prominent in that world throughout the 90s and in the early 2000s.
I really didn’t stop writing copy, but I left the business of copywriting and now focus on SEO, particularly after years of being a “top copywriter” — a label my peers often give me, although I never really considered myself to be one.
But the question about my departure has once again resurfaced, particularly after I appeared on a YouTube show talking about the shady side of the world of copywriting. I realize I should probably write something to explain it. So I’m going to answer that question once and for all in here.
To do this, I need to give you some background to put things in context.
If you don’t know my story, here’s a quick summary.
I got married at 19. My wife had a two-year-old daughter whom I’ve virtually adopted. (She’s now in her late thirties and still calls me Dad.)
Being a father was redemptive somewhat, as my alcoholic father abused me when I was young. After my mother left, the state institutionalized him; he had Korsakov’s Syndrome (also known as Korsakoff’s Psychosis), a mentally degenerative disease caused by years of alcohol abuse.
But because of my childhood (or so I thought), I had a tremendous fear of rejection. When I learned that I have ADHD at 52, I discovered that a common symptom among people with ADHD is “rejection sensitive dysphoria” (RSD).
It explains the tremendous fear of rejection and my many childhood struggles. So my father wasn’t to blame. Not entirely, anyway. In fact, ADHD is genetic. My father likely had it, and he turned to alcohol to deal with it.
(People with ADHD are highly susceptible to addiction. Luckily, mine is coffee.)
Around the time I got married, I wanted to fight my fears of rejection and dove into sales to fight them. After all, as Emerson said, “Do what you fear and the death of that fear is certain,” right? You get rejected a ton in sales!
But of course, I failed. And failed miserably.
Working on straight commission, I accumulated a mountain of debt, bought groceries on eight different credit cards to survive, and declared bankruptcy at the tender age of 21. It was a big mistake; I know. But I was young, foolish, trying to be a good father (unlike mine), and desperate to “succeed.”
Back in the 80s, the common practice in the insurance business was selling door to door. I moved to the countryside in a tiny little town where my wife grew up in. So I inherited a sales territory in which I knew absolutely no one.
Naturally, referrals were non-existent. I had to find a better way to get leads.
I tried something different. Fueled by anxiety, desperation, or both, I wrote and mailed salesletters offering a free policy audit. Only a few people called to book an appointment with me. But I was ecstatic. I also had an open door to follow-up to see if they received my letter. So no more cold-calling!
The best part was, I also no longer had to face rejection.
That year, I became the top salesperson in my district and then in all of Canada. It was short-lived as many salespeople in my company crushed my results later on. But for a fleeting moment in my life, it felt as if a door opened up and success was possible. Plus, copywriting piqued my interest.
But insurance was tough. In the late 80s, there was an increasing outcry against whole life insurance policies as more people switched to term insurance.
So a year later, I took a job as a consultant for a hair replacement company that also offered surgeries through a partnership with a hair transplant surgeon. I also worked on commission there, too. But it was a growing industry, and I knew about it as my first wife was a hairdresser.
By applying the same tactics from my insurance job, I wrote direct mail letters, created full-page display ads in newspapers, and even produced 30-minute late-night infomercials on TV. Bookings and sales were skyrocketing. My employer was a happy camper, as was I.
At 22, I made more money than I ever made in my life!
I eventually became a “marketing consultant” for other cosmetic surgeons, which became my preferred niche. (The reason I say “marketing consultant” is that copywriting wasn’t the only thing I did, and medical doctors would never hire a “copywriter” much less a “sales consultant” back then.)
In the early 90s, I convinced clients to create a “web page” on this newfangled thing called the “world wide web.” I told them it was like an electronic version of the yellow pages, and it was becoming increasingly popular. Since most of them had invested in yellow pages before, this was an easy sell.
So I wrote copy for the web. This was circa ‘92 to ’94.
A few years later, I designed my first website in ‘95 and incorporated myself as “The Success Doctor” in ‘97. The name came about because I helped doctors become successful. (I also had aspirations of becoming a motivational speaker. But marketing and copywriting was more fun, I later found.)
I eventually became quite busy as word got around. Other doctors hired me, too, including chiropractors, weightloss doctors, nutritionists, acupuncturists, etc. I expanded to include lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and other service providers. But cosmetic surgeons remained my largest clientele.
Over time, more and more clients hired me to write copy for the web, including landing pages, websites, and email marketing campaigns. I guess you can say that this was when I was becoming more well-known as an online copywriter and Internet marketer than a mere copywriter.
But there was a problem.
I love copywriting. But I remember clients messing things up.
Once I gave them my copy, they would put it up on their websites. And it would look awful! The formatting was completely wrong, the layout was atrocious, and the selection of graphics and images didn’t fit what I had in mind.
So naturally, conversions sucked. Particularly with projects that paid me with royalties. I was usually the one to blame, even though I believed my copy was good. But my ADHD and fear of failure compelled me to do something.
That’s when I included formatting, web design, even landing page development along with copywriting so that my salesletters would look the way I wanted.
So I repositioned myself as a copy “designer.”
I always hated the word “writing,” anyway, because most people think of writing as putting words down on paper. But they have a tendency to neglect the sales and creative aspects of writing. They ignore that it’s about strategy. I spent just as much time on the look-and-feel of the copy as I did on writing it.
I became obsessed with the copy’s performance. For me, getting the right audience to read the copy — one with the right level of awareness and intent — was important. Also, the cosmetics that drive the eyes into the copy, or the copy cosmetics, were just as important as the words themselves.
That’s where my work evolved to include other aspects of online marketing.
I consulted clients on their traffic and demand generation tactics because I wanted some level of control over the quality of the traffic that hit the copy. The market is just as important as the message. So I did a lot of traffic generation, affiliate marketing, email campaign management, and so forth.
Clients increasingly hired me to do SEO (search engine optimization), including SEO copywriting, to help increase their conversions. I also did CRO (conversion rate optimization), which people often refer to as “conversion copywriting.”
So, what does SEO have to do with conversions?
Attracting audiences with the right search intent at the right awareness stage can skyrocket conversion rates. It’s about matching the right message with the right market, or “message-to-market match,” as Dan Kennedy would say.
This thinking, along with the way the Internet was evolving, became the impetus behind my writing “The Death of The Salesletter.” Back in 2005, I knew that this is where Internet marketing and copywriting were heading. It was also the beginning of my disillusionment with the industry. (I’ll come back to this.)
In my manifesto, I talked about personalization, dynamic content, behavioral targeting, sales funnels (before funnels were a thing), micro-conversions, etc — things that are commonplace today in the world of digital marketing — replacing the long-form, direct sales-driven copy.
I wrote code since I was 11 and designed websites since I was 22, so technology and how marketing was evolving online always fascinated me. Besides writing copy, I also loved developing websites, designing them, doing SEO, and making sure the user experience (UX) was as optimal as it could be.
Let me backup a little.
In 2003, as my copywriting career was exploding, I met my second wife who was in the customer support industry. I initially hired her to provide support for my copywriting business. When we realized we shared many of the same clients, we slowly merged our businesses. And eventually, our lives.
But from the news of her cancer diagnosis right before our wedding in 2006 until her passing in early 2015, my wife’s disease grew to become, over the course of our marriage, the center of attention instead of our client work.
I was kind of lucky in that, in 2008, my mother had the same disease as my wife (i.e., breast cancer). It gave me a glimpse into what was to come. In other words, the experience showed me what I was getting into with my wife and helped me to prepare and to grieve before I knew I had to.
In 2011, my mother’s cancer became terminal, and we set up a hospice in our home. She passed away later that year on the morning after my birthday.
And sure enough, my wife’s health took a turn for the worse a year later. Her cancer came back with a vengeance, spreading to every major organ.
However, shortly before she passed in early 2015 (in fact, it was just a month prior), my father, while still in the institution, passed away, too. His heart stopped during his sleep. The weakening of the heart muscles is one of the many comorbid issues caused by Korsakov’s disease.
So you can say that 2015 was probably the worst year of my life.
But it didn’t stop there.
My sister who was my only sibling struggled all her life with multiple ailments, including diabetes. My parents’ passing, let alone years of my father’s abuse, affected her deeply and I cannot imagine what she went through. In 2017, she, too, passed away in her sleep. Just like my dad.
I didn’t have the headspace or motivation to return to freelancing. So I took a job in a digital marketing agency as an SEO manager and director of marketing communications. We were a Google Premier Partner agency, and I supervised an amazing team of content writers and web developers.
While grief played a role, another reason I didn’t want to go back was that I became increasingly disenchanted with the copywriting business. Specifically, I’m referring to the business of writing copy for the Internet marketing and business opportunity (or “bizopp”) industries.
It started many years before then. But it culminated around the time my wife was undergoing her final chemotherapy treatments for her cancer.
I wrote about the scummy side of the business and the reason I left. But long story short, my late wife and I had to deal with a growing number of clients whose business practices were becoming questionable, unethical, and borderline illegal. Even the FTC sued some of them for deceptive practices.
The reason is, they were selling “business-in-a-box” programs.
It’s no different from a chain-letter, envelope-stuffing scheme.
They would sell a course teaching people how to make money by creating a business. Sounds legit at first. But they would use the very course people bought to create a business and make money with. When I learned they included my salesletters with their “businesses,” that’s when I decided I had enough.
After a few years and being in a much better place, I got remarried, left the agency world, and started freelancing again. But this time, I was doing more SEO work. Sure, copywriting is still a part of what I do to an extent. But now it’s about how it can help attract and convert targeted traffic.
I also returned to my roots by working with plastic and cosmetic surgeons. I did it for several reasons. It’s an industry I love and have a lot of experience with.
Creating phenomenal user experiences that lead to sales starts with how qualified the user is. SEO is key for that reason. A user’s search intent hugely determines their level of awareness and attention prior to hitting your website.
The quality of your conversions is directly proportional to the quality of your traffic, the quality of your content, and the quality of the user experience.
That’s where SEO comes in.
Also, being a geek who loves coding and web design, SEO satisfies my dual nature, i.e., both “sides’ of my brain — the creative and analytical aspects of marketing. Today, I do 360-degree SEO audits, with technical SEO (coding and hosting), on-page SEO (HTML and content), and off-page SEO (external signals).
All these components work hand-in-hand.
Yes, my work still includes writing copy. But it mostly includes helping my clients generate the right kinds of traffic. In other words, it’s about having the right message for the right market — or in this case, the market with the right intent.