“Victor Schwab – The Mad Man Who Taught The Mad Men” by Andy Owen

“Hello, is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me, is there anyone home?

Come on now. I hear you’re feeling down. I can ease your pain and get you on your feet again.

There is no pain, you are receding – a distant ship’s smoke on the horizon.

You are only coming through in waves – your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying.

When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look but it was gone.

I cannot put my finger on it now, the child is grown. But the dream is gone.

I have become comfortably numb…”

When David Gilmour and Roger Waters of The Pink Floyd wrote that magnificent piece of art in 1979, little did they know how prophetic those words would become.

32 years ago, they were writing about the marketing business in 2011.

It’s almost spot on. I would only change one thing. ‘Comfortably brain dead’ instead of ‘numb’. Numb suggests a heartbeat. The vast majority of the marketing collateral I see today doesn’t have one.

I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up to the back teeth of crap in our business…

It’s everywhere. All the time. Just like a nagging toothache…

So, this month, I’m going to try and keep sane and warm by talking about greatness.

Problem is, bar for Drayton, there is little to none in our business anymore.

So, I’m going to go back in time to share some greatness with you. I’m going to talk about Victor Schwab. And, if you write and create ads for a living, this article will be 100% pure education for you. And fun too, I hope…

Victor Schwab was one of the greatest ad copywriters of all time.

He was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1898.

At the age of 19, Schwab enrolled at Columbia University as a night student. Whilst there, he met Maxwell Sackheim, who at that time, was copy chief with Ruthrauff and Ryan, a leading mail-order advertising agency of the day.

Schwab impressed Sackheim and was given a job. He started slowly, as most geniuses do. Because Schwab could take shorthand, he was used by Sackheim in 1917 mainly as his private secretary.

Sackheim was highly skilled in writing mail-order copy. Yet Schwab continually improved Sackheim’s copy. So much so, he was promoted to copywriter and then went from strength to strength.

Victor was 21 years old when he wrote this timeless ad.

It represents an astonishing amount of direct response prowess from an individual in 1919. The results it generated were amazing and identified Schwab as someone with really exceptional talents.

Incidentally, $100 in 1919, translates to about £1,000 today.

In 1928, Schwab and his partner Robert Beatty bought out the agency when Scherman and Sackheim decided to give it up. The agency later was renamed Schwab and Beatty.

Victor Schwab went on to be hailed by a lot of people as “the greatest ad copywriter of all time.”

Personally, I think it’s a triple dead heat. Victor Schwab, Claude Hopkins and John Caples. Followed very closely later, by the great Joe Sugarman. All of them were geniuses in that culture, at slightly different times…

Anyway, Victor became a copy research pioneer. He would use his coded coupon ads to test headlines, copy appeals, length, layouts, action closings and split runs of ads.

A lot of what we have learned in our business, relating to ad creative and copy, originated from the Schwab, Hopkins and Caples era.

Victor was a trailblazer. He created Sunday comic ads for Dale Carnegie, body-builder Charles Atlas and Sherwin Cody’s English Classics Course. Those ads are still revered today.

In his series of five articles titled How to Write a Good Advertisement, which appeared in the 1941 Printers’ Ink magazine, Schwab introduced a five-step copywriting formula.

These rules still hold good today. Yes, even though they are now over 70 years old.


Simple. Because, as I’ve shared with you numerous times in this column, times change, but people don’t. The reasons people are attracted by, respond to, or act upon sales messages – is exactly the same today as it was then.

It will be exactly the same, on the day the world stops turning.

Yet marketers today seem to be oblivious to this fact. They continually ignore proven communication rules and techniques. That’s why the work we see is so awful.

So, if it’s your responsibility to write effective ads, stop trying to reinvent the wheel.

You won’t do it – and you’ll waste an awful lot of valuable budget trying…

May I suggest you learn from the greats. And Victor Schwab was certainly one of those.

Victor’s five-step formula will help you enormously when you are writing ads. It’s pure gold dust and you can apply it straight away.

Here it is…

1. Get Attention
2. Show People An Advantage
3. Prove It
4. Persuade People To Grasp This Advantage
5. Ask For Action

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

It’s logical too. What’s more, it’s structured and sequential. And that’s something that every sales message should be.

Remember this. Good ad writers create work that controls the selling process. They are in charge. The reader is taken down the path the writer wants them to go. And the reader has no idea this is happening.

That’s the value and unique skill of a knowledgeable, professional writer.

Now, just as an exercise, open up that magazine you have on your desk or in your briefcase and look at the ads inside. You’ll see that most of the ads in there, do not adhere to the above disciplines and structure. You’ll find the same in the newspaper.

As a result, they will underperform. Not an opinion. A cast-iron certainty.

Most will disappear without trace. Meaning a vital selling opportunity lost and valuable budget wasted. Poor work, created by charlatans and signed off by buffoons.

Individuals that don’t understand the copy process – and don’t study the business. So they waste money. Every hour. Every day.

A good ad is so rare these days. Yet Victor told the world how to do it, a generation before. Caples and Hopkins too. Many others since. But, despite this, most current marketers and creatives still refuse to listen.

Anyway, in this breathtaking piece of work, Schwab elaborated on each of the above five principles.

Here’s what he said about each important element. His words, verbatim.

1. Get Attention
The most reliable way to get attention is by using a powerful headline.

Good headlines use specific place names and numbers, they’re highly targeted to a specific prospect and they draw a reader into the body copy.

A headline should be as long as it needs to be to grab the attention of your prospect. (Many of Schwab’s most successful headlines were quite long.)

Don’t get “arty” in your ads.

Advertisements (and online sales letters) that look too much like highly produced ads can often decrease your sales response.

You want your ads to closely resemble what your prospects would normally read.

Large, simple photographs of people, children and animals get more attention.

Having a picture of your product IN USE – doing something or accomplishing something that appeals to the reader – is more likely to get attention.

2. Show People An Advantage
There is one question prospects have, above all others when they’re reading an ad for your product or service…”What Will It Do For Me?”

You need to put yourself in your prospect’s shoes when you’re writing an ad and work out what THEY want…what major hidden motivators will drive them to buy your product.

You don’t try to sell the powerful stain removing power of a new kitchen cleaner.

You sell the “admiring looks on the faces of your friends when they see your kitchen sparkling like it was brand new and never used”.

Give people a real reason to keep reading your ad in the first paragraph.

My own tests have shown that rewriting that key opening line can dramatically increase your sales.

3. Prove It
Most people will not believe what you tell them in an ad, unless you prove it with facts, figures, testimonials, scientific proof and any other method you can devise.

Here’s a huge secret. Whilst most prospects will buy for deeper emotional reasons, they want to justify their purchase with hard facts.

That’s where proof becomes especially valuable.

Proof also helps build belief in your prospect fuelling those emotional desires to buy.

Whilst we might believe that we buy on logic – the truth is, the heart dictates to the head when it comes to most of our buying decisions.

4. Persuade People To Grasp This Advantage
One of the key methods is to sum up the emotional and logical reasons your prospect should buy, then help them picture themselves already enjoying the benefits of your product or service.

Once your prospect is already imagining himself – and the life he’ll have when he has your product – he’ll be especially eager to buy it. And that leads to:

5. Ask For Action
In his book Advertising For Immediate Sales, John Caples once wrote:

“There are a lot of good advertisements that are weak in the final urge to act. They are like salesmen who are charming talkers but weak closing men. If they had the right stuff they would pick the reader up by the collar of his coat and the seat of his trousers and stiff-arm him into a showroom.”

You need to tell your prospect exactly what to do to buy your product. And you need to make it simple, easy and specific.

Most important of all, the call to action in your sales copy needs to get your prospect to act NOW. Any delay and the chances are, you’ll lose the sale altogether.

So, there you are. The advice of a genius.

The work of a Mad Man who taught the Mad Men all they knew.

The difference was, they listened.

Victor Schwab left Schwab and Beatty in 1962 and retired to Spain. He died in 1980 from the effects of a stroke.

Keep the faith…

Andy Owen

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