R.A.P. Interview: Susanna K. Hutcheson

Susanna K. Hutcheson, Copywriter, Wichita, Kansas

407-Susanna-HutchesonBy Jerry Vigil

We talk about “creative” ads and “theatre of the mind” commercials on a regular basis in these pages. But if you think about it, you’ve probably heard a very straight-forward ad on the radio, for a product you had an interest in, and you responded to that ad, by visiting the client’s website, going to his store, and/or buying his product. In short, the straightforward commercial worked, and they continue to work for advertisers every day. As veteran copywriter Susanna Hutcheson would say, it’s not about the creativity in the spot, it’s about the salesmanship in the copy. It’s about selling with words. Susanna has been doing this successfully for 15 years, writing everything from sales letters and radio commercials, to website copy and direct e-mail, for such clients as Bell Atlantic/NYNEX, Direct Mobile, The National Enquirer, the American Red Cross, Sears Automotive, Remax Realty, and a host of others. She is written about in numerous books and publications, including Marketing Online by Marcia Yudkin and in some of the famous Jay Conrad Levinson Guerrilla marketing books. She also appears on a number of radio and television programs to discuss advertising, marketing and public relations. This month’s RAP Interview takes a look at this “other” side of writing radio copy as Susanna shares her methods and explains what makes her commercial copy work for her clients. Be sure to check out this month’s RAP CD for a few samples of radio spots written by Susanna.

JV: How did you get started in the business of copywriting?
Susanna: Well, I have been in writing pretty much all of my life — not copywriting but writing. I come from a journalism background. That is to say, my father owned a newspaper and my mother was a writer, and I took journalism in college and went into journalism as my first and main career. But even before that I was writing feature articles for magazines. I had my first article published in a magazine back in 1967. So I started out basically in journalism, in straight nonfiction writing, for magazines and newspapers. I’ve also owned a couple of newspapers, I’ve been the editor of a couple newspapers, and I’ve been on the staff of several newspapers all over the country.

So that’s kind of my background, and I decided to get into copywriting somewhat gradually. When I was living out in California back in the ‘70s, I decided to try my hand at copywriting, so I ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal. That was way before the internet obviously, so you had to get the business in the best way that you could. At the time, I thought the Wall Street Journal would be the quickest and best. I got some clients back then and kind of worked into it. But it didn’t really develop, so I went back into journalism and pretty much stayed in the journalism field until I was fortunate enough to get acquainted with the internet back in the early 1990s. This was back before it was really called the internet; it was back in the old CompuServe days.

I got a phone call one day from a man by the name of Cecil Hoge, who is deceased now, but he was a very well known author and advertising man. He owned Harrison Hoge Industries, which I guess is still in business, and he owned an advertising agency in New York. He worked with some of the greats like Eugene Schwartz and some of the really great copywriters back in the early days of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and on in that period. Anyway he called me, and he told me that he had liked what he saw. This was back on CompuServe again, back in the very early ‘90s. He kind of became my mentor so to speak and gave me a lot of guidance, which I really appreciated, and which really made a difference in my career. It gave me some direction, and that’s when I really got started in advertising copywriting.

Now having said that, in relationship to radio, back in 1980 and 1981 I worked at a radio station here in Wichita, KFDI radio, which is a major country-western station. I wrote copy for them. After that I was the advertising manager of a small weekly newspaper in Mulvane, Kansas, for several years. But as well as being the advertising manager — which basically meant I sold advertising — I also wrote a weekly column and features and covered news stories. There were only me and the editor and a secretary in the shop, so we did everything. But it was after this that I really started pursuing copywriting. My main background was in journalism and in magazine writing — with the exception of that period back in the ‘70s when I did do some copywriting — but it just didn’t pan out because it was so difficult back in those days to get clients if you weren’t with an agency.

JV: You’ve touched on one of my other questions, which is, do you need a talent agent to be a successful freelance copywriter?
Susanna: Well, no. You don’t. Of course it always helps to have someone to do that for you. I think Bob Bly perhaps does have an agent. He writes books too, so it makes sense that he would have an agent. I believe he has an agent to handle his copywriting assignments, and it’s a good idea, but it’s really unnecessary for most copywriters. And very few copywriters do have an agent. I kind of enjoy handling the business portion of my copywriting because at heart I am a business person. I enjoy the negotiation and the contract writing and the contract development and working with the clients on that issue. But a lot of copywriters probably don’t like that particular area of their business. But nonetheless, it’s something that has to be mastered if you’re going to be a copywriter. You’ve got to be a business person as well.

JV: Are you still involved in newspapers?
Susanna: No. I haven’t been involved in newspapers for quite a long time.

JV: How long have you been full-time copywriter?
Susanna: I’ve been doing this full-time since 1991, and I think I can safely say that I was the first, or certainly one of the first copywriters on the internet as we know it today. Of course we didn’t have browsers as you know in those days. It was just text on the screen.

JV: Yes. Those were the days of 300 baud modems and BBS boards, and CompuServe was a service that I think you had to pay for, right?
Susanna: Yes it was. I believe you paid $9.95 a month or something like that. That’s how I met Cecil, and I also met a lot of other pretty well known writers and copywriters through CompuServe and built some wonderful contacts back in those days. There were some really serious people on there, both in journalism and in copywriting. At the time, I was frequenting the Journalism Board, I believe it was called. When I met Cecil online, he called me and told me that he was this author and had this book, The Electronic Marketing Manual by McMillan and Brothers or whoever published it. I really didn’t believe him, but it turned out it was true.

He suggested that I put articles in what we called at that time libraries on CompuServe, and that I put my name and address on there, and when people needed a copywriter they would contact me. Well it sounded like a workable thing because my specialty was feature articles back in those days, and so I wrote feature articles explaining to people how to grow their business through marketing. And I wrote them on various subjects, some of which are still on my current website. And sure enough, I started getting calls — pretty frequently actually. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know how to price myself. It was all new to everybody, and I was kind flying by the seat of my pants.

JV: Well, the copywriting must have taken off very well for you.
Susanna: Actually it did. I was amazed. I was able to devote myself full-time to it and make a very comfortable income. And every year since, my income has grown. I have been able to make a very, very comfortable income with my freelance copywriting.

JV: Several years ago we interviewed another professional free-lance copywriter, and I remember her saying that her copywriting fees were anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars per script. Is that about right?
Susanna: Yeah, exactly. Now you’re talking specifically about radio. Of course, I do many other things besides radio, and one of my last assignments paid me $50,000, for about a month and a half’s work. And when I say a month and a half of work, it was not eight hour days. That’s just how long it took.

But the average fee that my clients pay for my average job is anywhere from $3,000 to about sixty-five hundred. And with regards to copy for the radio spots, I generally charge a minimum of $650 to write a spot regardless of the length, up to about 60 seconds of course, and then I can get it professionally produced with a professional voice talent and any sound effects and that type of thing. I charge an additional $300 for that. So a fully produced spot right now is running $950. Now if we’re talking about a major market like New York or Chicago, I may charge even more.

JV: Your website talks about “Persuasion Dynamics” as your method of writing. Tell us a little bit about that and how it applies to radio commercial copy.
Susanna: Well Persuasion Dynamics to me means that you use the method to get to the individual that will apply to him or her. In other words, you have to think about the person for whom you’re writing the copy, rather than think about writing well. You want to sell. That’s the key. And so persuasion dynamics is really no more than writing persuasive copy and using the motivator that will get to the target audience that you’re shooting for.

JV: I listened to some of the demo spots that you have on your website and they’re very good, but they’re also very straightforward. They’re not loaded with a lot of humor or sound effects and all this “theatre of the mind” type stuff that we talk about so much in this magazine. What are your thoughts on these perhaps overly-creative types of commercials where it’s 55 seconds of craziness and then the sponsor’s plug is at the end?
Susanna: Well I dislike those immensely. In fact, I wrote about that very subject on my blog recently. I do not like, and most professional copywriters have never liked, humor in advertising. If it’s used at all, it has to be used exceptionally carefully, because what’s humorous to one person may be very offensive to another.

In addition, using your little 60 seconds to entertain is not good. People do not want to be entertained. People are too busy to want to be entertained in the course of a radio commercial or any type of marketing, whether it’s a sales letter, a brochure or whatever. I do not believe in it. I believe in using that brief time to sell the client’s product or service directly to the listener. I want to tell the listener in 60 seconds why he should call my client, and I want to make it very straightforward and very effective. I don’t have enough time to entertain or to write a sitcom. I don’t think that that’s the place for it. If you want to be that kind of a writer, you should go to Hollywood.

I believe that a radio spot should be very straightforward. And it’s okay to use sound effects; it’s okay to use music. I do sometimes, but I do not believe in trying to be humorous or in trying to write a story. I just don’t believe in that.

JV: Yet, you write very successful commercials for many satisfied clients. Straightforward announcer copy on local radio is typically very boring. The announcer just reads some boring copy. Come by Joe’s Furniture store. We’ve got this and that on sale. Our courteous staff and all that stuff. When we’re writing just basic announcer copy like that, what are some tips you can offer to radio writers to help them at least create some persuasive copy that’s going to make the listener move?
Susanna: Well, there’s a template that I use for my copy. It’s very, very quick and very effective. First of all I create a headline. And of course, the shorter the headline the better, but it needs to be effective. So you start with your headline. Then you write your USP, Unique Selling Proposition. Now, you have to dig for that. I mean a client always thinks he knows his USP, but seldom does he really know it. So that’s something that you have to really get, and you have to find out. Courteous assistance. Fast results. That’s not a USP. Because if anybody can say it, it’s not a USP. If anybody can say, “we’re courteous” or, “Our plumbers are certified,” then that’s not a USP. A USP has to be unique. So you have to dig that out, and it takes some doing. You just can’t come up with it instantly.

Then you have to make an offer. I think all spots should have an offer, whether it’s a free report, a free analysis... going to the home and measuring the home for siding, doing that free... giving them a free consultation... anything like that that’s an offer. And then you should have a call to action. Too many people fail to do that. They don’t’ say, “Call us now.” Or they don’t say, “Come by” or whatever it is that they want them to do.

And then you have what’s called a closing callback. So what you do with the closing callback is you kind of reiterate the highlights of what you’ve said. You want to say the phone number at least three times. You want to make it clear what the phone number is. And don’t use “oh”; use “zero,” and you do things like that. Nine times out of ten, the last thing I give is the phone number, and I’ll give it at least three times.

That’s the template that I use. I call it my five step copywriting template for my radio spots.

JV: Your website also mentions a “creative brief” that you use to develop copy. What is that exactly?
Susanna: I send that to clients and have them fill that out. That’s a four page creative brief which, 9 times out of 10, gives me all the information that I need to understand the client and his needs and what it is that he has to offer. It has some basic questions, and then it has some more explicit questions. But the client has to understand that he has to give me a lot of information. I think that that’s where most copywriters go wrong. They do not get a lot of information from the client. That happens many times because copywriters, so many of them, do not get paid well. And when you don’t get paid well you don’t feel like putting a lot of work into something — especially if you’re working at a radio station where they don’t pay anything. At least they didn’t when I was there. So anyway, when you don’t get paid well, you don’t feel like putting a lot of effort into it. I understand that. I don’t either. But since I do get paid reasonably well, I like to take the time to get enough information from the client to really do a good job for him.

JV: Back to what you said about phone numbers, putting them in there two or three times and at the end of the spot. Are you referring just to the phone numbers that are easy to remember, like 1-800 BUY A CAR?
Susanna: No, any phone number. Of course, obviously it’s best to have a phone number that’s easy to remember. By the same token, I think that you should always put the website address, and if you want clients to come by, your street address. Now in some cases you don’t want them to come by, or that’s not important. But nowadays of course we like to put the URL in there. Sometimes that’s all we need. Some clients don’t want calls; they want you to go to their website. So in that case, we want to give the website address. Most of my clients today are trying to drive traffic to their website. So a lot of times I don’t even use their phone number.

JV: It’s been argued so many times that phone numbers, particularly phone numbers that are not easy to remember, are a waste of time on a radio commercial because people are driving or whatever.
Susanna: Well here’s what I do. When a phone number is not particularly easy to remember – and this is really a smart thing to do — just say that you will find us in the white pages. Don’t say the yellow pages, or they will go to your competitor. They’ll see too many of your competitors there. Say, “You’ll find us in the white pages of the telephone directory.” And then say your name real clearly again. “This is Dave’s Appliance Center. You’ll find our phone number in the white pages of the telephone directory.”

JV: What are some of the bigger challenges you face when you set out to write copy for a client?
Susanna: I suppose one of the biggest challenges is to get the client to open up and to give me a lot of information. Clients tend to be secretive about themselves, and they cannot be secretive when they’re trying to talk to the person that’s going to be making them money. So I’ve got to get them to open up about their business. I mean, it’s strictly confidential, but I’ve got to get them to open up enough to give me the information that I need to find out what their USP is especially, because that’s very important. You’re dealing with too many competitors, and your spot has to stand out. So that USP is very important. And it’s very difficult to find. That’s one of the reasons that a good copywriter charges so much money, because they spend so much time doing research and finding what the USP is. Once you know that, the commercial will pretty much write itself. But until you know that, you’re just looking at a blank screen.

JV: Copywriting by this method sounds rather formulaic as opposed to some of the more free-style methods out there.
Susanna: Well it is a formula. And once you learn the formula, it’s very easy really to write good scripts... consistently.

JV: So when you get this creative brief back from the client and you find the USP, it pretty much flows at that point. It doesn’t sound like you have to go off somewhere and find inspiration for some kind of creative angle on the commercial.
Susanna: No, I really don’t, because writing a radio commercial is a business proposition. It’s not a matter of being particularly creative or brilliant or anything like that. It’s a matter of selling. And any good salesman knows that you have to find the unique selling proposition. So once you’ve found that, it’s just a matter of being straightforward with the listener and saying, “Look, here’s the deal. And here’s the reason why you should call Joe’s Appliance Service. And when you do you’ll get this free blah, blah, blah. And you’ll find us in the white pages, so give us a call now and pick up your free blah, blah, blah...,” and so forth and so on. And that’s all there is to it.

I mean trying to make it difficult is just ridiculous because it doesn’t have to be difficult. That doesn’t mean you don’t work a lot at it, because if you do it well you do work hard at it. But you don’t have to spend a lot of time writing the spot once you have that USP. It just kind of writes itself if you use this formula.

JV: You’ve done so much writing, and not just commercials but in your journalism career as well. When you’re writing radio commercials, how much does selection of the words play a part of what you’re doing? Do you try to use very simple laymen’s terms, or do you take another approach?
Susanna: Oh absolutely laymen’s terms. Too many writers try to make themselves sound important by using big words. You have to remember that the average American public, including the educated public, reads on a sixth to an eighth grade level. You have to use very simple words. So I never try to use words that a child can’t understand, unless I’m writing to a very specific audience that uses specific terminology, which is very seldom. I like to write very simply and use the simplest words possible. If a three letter word or a five letter word will work instead of a six or an eight, I’ll use it.

JV: How involved do you get with the production of your radio scripts?
Susanna: I direct the scripts. I want to make sure that the voice talent reads them the way that I intend for them to be read, so I get pretty involved. I make sure that the announcer pronounces the words correctly, puts the right emphasis on the words. Of course, I write it so that he does that, but he or she doesn’t always do it. Announcers, voice talent, like anybody else, like to go off and do things their way. Well I don’t like them to do it their way because I’m paying them to do it my way, and the way that I know that the client wants it. And of course the client has to sign off on it. The client has the final say so on the deal. So after the client has signed off on my copy, then I turn it over to the voice talent and I direct him in the way that it should be read. Most of the time a good talent will read it exactly as I have directed it right off the bat, but once in a while you’ll have to do several takes before it’s done just exactly right.

JV: A lot of people have left radio and have gotten into the voiceover business full-time. But copywriting is something that we haven’t’ really talked a lot about with respect to people leaving radio for. It doesn’t sound like that’s a very easy thing to do. I mean if somebody were talented enough to make it in the copywriting world, it still doesn’t sound like it’s as easy as perhaps the voiceover business might be. What are your thoughts? Is it an easy area to get into?
Susanna: Well frankly, no. In fact it’s very difficult. Of course there are training schools that have popped up. I don’t know how good they are. But you have to be a combination of a very good salesperson and a writer. Above all, even before being a good writer, you have to be a good salesperson, and most people simply can’t sell. That’s just something that unfortunately a lot of people can’t do, and copywriting is nothing more than selling on paper, or on the air or whatever you want to call it. So you have to be a salesman, a writer and a business person. Those are the three things that you have to be, and you have to be pretty good at all three. But above all, you have to be a good salesperson, and you have to understand what motivates people. That means you have to be part psychologist as well.

It helps to have a good background in all these things, and it also helps to have a good background and understanding of a lot of things. For example, I subscribe to a lot of magazines that I’m not a bit interested in. I take Vogue for example, and I wear blue jeans all the time. But I take Vogue because I want to keep up with the fashion industry. I want to keep up with what’s current in fashion and design. I take Architectural Digest for the same reason. I want to keep up with all these things. I take a lot of magazines that help me to keep up with things that I otherwise probably wouldn’t pay any attention to. This is something that as a copywriter you have to do or you should do.

JV: And even then, it probably could still be very hard to make a living.
Susanna: Well, it is hard to make a living. It’s hard in any business to make a living on your own. I don’t know what the percentage of failures are in my business. I don’t know what the percentage of successes are. But I know that in my bracket of what I charge, as far as those of us on the internet, there’s probably only seven of us or eight of us out there that charge the type of fees that we should charge. There are a lot of copywriters on the internet that charge nickels and dimes. I don’t know how good they are, but they tend to make it a little difficult for those of us, that really are professionals, to get some of the clients. But by the same token, I would rather have one or two really good clients that pay well and that I can give really good service to, than to have eight or nine clients that I just really don’t have the time for and that don’t pay well.

JV: Are there any books that you’d recommend to help some of us become better copywriters?
Susanna: Anybody just starting out should read all of Bob Bly’s books. His books are basically for novices, and they’re very good books, especially his earlier books. Eugene Schwartz’s book, Breakthrough Advertising, is a must for any copywriter. It’s an old, old book, but it’s something they should read, and it’s still available. In fact, it’s been reissued. It was reissued in 2004 by Bottomline Books, and as far as I know, it’s still available. And people specifically into radio copywriting should read Dan O’Day’s e-books. They’re the best books available as far as I’m concerned on copy forradio. I have a couple other books on radio copywriting that I bought online, but I can’t remember the names of them now. There really are not that many written specifically for radio. I know I had a hard time finding them. But I know that Dan O’Day’s material is above average. It’s just excellent, and if you study Dan O’Day’s material, you cannot help but become a much better radio copywriter.

JV: Any final thoughts for our readers?
Susanna: The thing about it is that advertising is the backbone of any business, especially radio. You’ve got to get out and get those advertisers. And of course the advertisers need radio. But now it’s even harder to sell airtime than it used to be. So if you want to keep your advertisers you’ve got to get them business. And if you’re going to get them business you’ve got to make those spots really good, really creative, really unique. So read Dan O’Day’s books, and follow the formula. Once you do that, you’ll be writing better spots, which means that you will be making more money for the station’s clients, which means that the station will keep more clients and get more clients and make more money.

But too many stations don’t spend enough time teaching copywriters how to sell in an ad and how to write an ad. I think that that’s where management really needs to say, “Look, it’s important. It’s critical that whoever writes this ad writes it properly.” And if you follow the formula that I’ve outlined in this interview, they’ll start writing some good ads. But they’ve got to take a little more time with each ad. I remember when I was up at that station, I was just knocking those things out just one right after another, and I’m sure they probably still do. You cannot write a really good spot that way. You’ll write a spot that sounds okay on the air, but you want to do more than sound okay. You want to get people going out to that client and spending money with that client. Because when you do that, that client is going to keep buying from you, and he’s probably going to buy more each time. And then he’s going to tell his friends and business associates, “Look, you need to be running ads up at this radio station. They’ve got a copywriter up there that’s just a killer.”

If you are knocking those spots out one after the other, a copywriter that learns this formula could in a pinch knock out a good spot, if they dig up a USP quickly enough. But whether or not they could dig up the USP that quickly, I don’t know. I think that the salespeople should say to the client, “Look, we want to do this right for you...” — and this would help the salesman by making him sound better – “…we want to get your business. And so to do that, we’re gonna need four or five days at least so that we can talk to you in depth about what we’re going to do for you.” That would make all the difference in the world.

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