My Life in Advertising

My book of the week is an autobiography by Claude C. Hopkins, My Life in Advertising, written in 1927.

Walter Weir once praised this book: There are few pages in My Life in Advertising which do not repay careful study – and which do not merit rereading. Before your eyes, a successful advertising life is lived – with all that went to make it successful. The lessons taught are taught exactly as they were learned. They are dished up dripping with life. It is not a book, it is an experience – and experience has always been the great teacher.

When I was reading some books about entrepreneurship, a recurring message seems to be that many startup founders are excellent at exercising their visions and building great products, but are not good at selling these products. I pondered about this for a while. Multiple questions came to my mind:

  • Why is this the case?
  • What can be done about it?
  • What skills are required for salesmanship?
  • Could we learn it if we do not have that natural talent?
  • If so, how to learn and practice?

This led me to search for a book on salesmanship and I came across this book by Claude C. Hopkins. Among many titles, I chose this one for two reasons. First, I hoped a retrospective reflection of one’s life time work on advertising would be more interesting and have greater depth than books that focus on teaching methods rather than principles and likely filled with buzzwords. Second, I was curious about how advertising was done in the beginning of 20th century with very different media channels from those of today and whether the practices and principles learned back then would still be valuable for us.

This book certainly did not disappoint me. It not only served well in terms of answering my questions and opening up my mind to advertising, but also offered me a rich experience of going through many advertising missions together with the author such that the principles and insights presented in the book come naturally to me. Furthermore, through those real-world examples, I, as a reader, am free to draw my own conclusion and form thoughts other than those the author presented. I share with you here a few thoughts derived from the book that resonate with me most.

In my view, Hopkins credited much of his success in advertising to poverty. Poverty led Claude to live among the common people, to know them, to understand their wants and impulses, their struggles and economies, their simplicity. His early years were full of hardship. Subsequently the very down-to-earth style that he developed offered him a window into ordinary people’s lives and to stay connected with them. Here in Claude’s own words: I am sure I would fail if I tried to advertise the Rolls-Royce, Tiffany&Co, or Steinway pianos. I do not know the reactions of the rich. But I do know the common people. I love to talk to laboring-men, to study housewives who must count their pennies, to gain the confidence and learn the ambitions of the poor boys and girls. Give me something which they want and I will strike the responsive chord. My words will be simple, my sentences short. Scholars may ridicule my style. The rich and vain may laugh at the factors which I feature. But in millions of humble homes the common people will read and buy. They will feel that the writer knows them. And they, in advertising, form 95 percent of our customers.

Hardworking is an attribute shared among people who are successful in their endeavors. But, how many could match Claude’s level of industry? “I have supported myself since the age of nine. Other boys, when they went to school as I did, counted their school work a day. It was an incident to me. Before school, I opened two school houses, built the fires, and dusted the seats. After school I swept those school houses. Then I distributed the Detroit Evening News to sixty-five homes before supper. On Saturdays I scrubbed the two school houses and distributed bills. On Sundays I was a church janitor, which kept me occupied from early morning until ten at night. In vacations I went to the farm, where the working time was sixteen hours a day. When the doctor pronounced me too sickly for school, I went to the cedar swamp. There work started at 4:30 in the morning….Yet it never occurred to me that I was working hard. In after years I did the same in business. I had no working hours. When I ceased before midnight, that was a holiday for me. I often left my office at two in the morning. Sundays were my best working days, because there were no interruptions. For sixteen years after entering business I rarely had an evening or a Sunday not occupied by work….The man who works twice as long as his fellows is bound to go twice as far, especially in advertising…There is some difference in brains, of course, but it is not so important as the difference in industry. The man who does two or three times the work of another learns two or three times as much. He makes more mistakes and more successes, and he learns from both. If I have gone higher than others in advertising, or done more, the fact is not due to exceptional ability, but to exceptional hours….Frugality and caution kept me from disaster, but industry taught me advertising and made me what I am.”

Industry alone is not sufficient for great success, if one does not love his work while ploughing the field of his choice. “What others call work I call play, and vice versa. We do best what we like best.

On distributing credit and being fair, there are a few stories told in this book and a few lessons that we could draw from that. One key message that echoes what the lecturer of my Stanford leadership class repeated: I for responsibility, we for credit. One example passage from the book: About the only disagreements I had with Mr. Lasker referred to his desire to overpay me. That attitude I consider a vital factor in success. An absolutely fair division. One on the crest of the wave may over-play his hand for a little time, but not for long. Business is money-making, and associates will find a way to eliminate anyone who claims too large a share.

One great lesson about advertising is to start small, test and gather data, learn from the data, improve and iterate. This book was written in 1920s about salesmanship, but the concept presented here is the same as lean startup and agile development. This reaffirms my view that reading or getting to know the fields other than the one we mostly practice in can tremendously broaden our view and improve how we practice in our own field. On the importance of experimenting, Hopkins wrote “but we find that some methods which succeed in one line cannot be applied to another. We find that some methods which are profitable are not one-fourth so effective as others. So, regardless of principles, we must always experiment.

There are many great principles that Hopkins summarised from his decades of experience in advertising. I can not enumerate all here, but include a few that were most refreshing for me when I read them the first time.

  • Brilliant writing has no place in advertising. A unique style takes attention from the subject. Any apparent effort to sell creates corresponding resistance. Persuasive ability arouses the fear of over-influence.
  • Never try to show off. You are selling your product, not yourself. Do nothing to cloud your objective. Use the shortest words possible. Let every phrase ring with sincerity.
  • Aim to get action.
  • Ads should tell the full story. People do not read ads in series. The advertiser who today attracts them may not again get attention for months. So, when you get a reading, present all your arguments. In an advertising campaign, we find facts which appeal, and we retain them. We find facts which don’t appeal, and we drop them. We find these things out by featuring our various claims in headlines. We find that one lead brings a great deal of interest, while another brings little or none. So we gauge our appeals accordingly.
  • When we say such things as, “The best product in existence,” “The supreme creation of its kind,” we may arouse only a smile at our frailties. No resentment may be engendered. But whatever else we say is discounted…..On the other hand, when you state actual figures, definite facts, they accept them at par.
  • All experience in advertising proves that people will do little to prevent troubles. They do not cross bridges in advance. They will do anything to cure troubles which exist, but legitimate advertising has little scope there. All are seeking advantages, improvements, new ways to satisfy desires.

I applied what I learned by reading this book on two occasions this week. One was to make a maiden “sales pitch” about the roses I grow and my floral arrangements. The other was a discussion about acquiring a large customer base for a product currently under development. Based on the feedback received, both have gone well, with lots of space for further improvement on my part, which I always expect to be the case.