People like you make it harder for people like me!, bellowed the so-called graphic designer.
He worked for Office Depot in the printing department and I had committed the unpardonable sin of asking that some of my larger portfolio pieces be copied.
These Direct Mail Packages and Print Ads were mighty fine looking with high branding and design. Some were from big names like Disney and Toyota.
I explained that I wanted to create some “leave behinds” for potential new clients.
He thought I was passing off someone else’s work as my own. (Kinda lets you know why he was working at Office Depot, doesn’t it?)
I showed him there were no copyright notices on any of my samples.
But he clung to his ignorance and I left empty-handed — while he (loudly) called me a “plagiarist” on my way out.
Truth is, I wrote every single word on the pages of those work samples, although I might have “stolen smart” in a few places.
Here’s what you need to know about this rarely discussed copywriting tactic.
Copywriters and plagiarism: When it’s ok to ‘steal smart’
In marketing, everybody watches everybody else. That’s why, in the early days of the Internet, the world’s largest brands had websites that all looked like corporate brochures.
They didn’t know what to do with a web page so they copied from their competitors and put the bios of their employees there…until poaching went rampant.
I wouldn’t call this stealing smart, but more like the blind leading the blind. It was funny to watch the corporate behemoths fumble around.
Closer to home, copywriters do the same thing. We scan the Internet for relevant data. We read books. And we collect advertising samples.
“Stealing smart” is a phrase we’ve had in the marketing world for at least three decades that gives copywriters (unofficial) permission to plagiarize.
Now let me make it crystal clear that I’m not advocating plagiarism… at least not at the”get sued” level.
But when we see successful campaigns or successful copy, it’s our job to figure out how to leverage this new knowledge into our clients’ work.
For instance, many if not most copywriters are aware of the wildly successful historical headline for Bottom Line Personals, “What Never to Eat on an Airplane.”
To use this headline in its entirety would be blatant plagiarism (and appalling laziness). But using the idea or concept and most of the words, would not.
Let’s say your client sells a health and wellness newsletter. A headline you might write for an article could be, “What Never to Eat in a Hospital Bed.”
This is “stealing smart.” You can also steal smart other aspects of a campaign, such as formats, offers, and concepts.
All marketing campaigns die out and when they do, there’s no reason not to adopt winning copy for your own use. Just be aware that stealing ongoing marketing work (like a company’s branding tagline), is dangerous and could constitute copyright infringement.
Headline generators help you steal smart
These days there are also more than a few free “headline generators” you can use to stimulate your thinking.
Here, you’re not really stealing anything. You’re simply plugging data into a field and the software spits out some historically successful direct response headlines or titles.
For instance, when I put in the phrase “life insurance,” the headline generator gave me nine headline ideas, some of them worth playing with.
This is the one I would work with:
“Why Life Insurance Is No Friend To Small Business”
It’s nearly impossible to plagiarize big chunks of copy
In printed marketing materials you’ll notice that a copyright notice is often missing. That’s because no two businesses are exactly alike. (Online is different for copyright notices because it’s so easy to copy and paste entire blocks of copy.)
Even with commodities or “cookie cutter businesses,” a good marketer will seek out a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) for their business, and that alone would force even the laziest copywriter to do proper work.
Off the top of my head, here are some of the variables that force unique copywriting:
• Target market
• Selling emotions
• Proof elements
• Marketing mix
• Branding elements
And the list goes on.
A painful event
For about 10 years I kept a folder of all of my concepts that didn’t make the cut at the agency I worked for. I thought that one day I would get a job where I could use one of the concepts and get paid for work that was already done.
But that day never came. Eventually I realized that I would never be able to apply a concept for one company to the needs of another. And into the trash can went my thick stockpile of concepts, along with a heavy dose of regret.
It’s tough to really truly plagiarize in direct response copywriting, but it’s often easy to adapt super short copy like headlines (hence the headline generators).
It’s also easy to copy unusual themes, like using black envelopes for a direct mail campaign. (Yes, a competitor copied my idea!)
Successful copywriters use their creativity to break new ground for their clients and themselves. And if stealing smart will help… well, now you know where to draw the line.
2017 © Chris Marlow, All Rights Reserved
P.S. — For just $35 per month, you can access modern swipe files and some classics in my membership for copywriters, the S.S Treasure Hunt.
Also, I’ll bet you have something to share about plagiarism or stealing smart. Please share in the comments section below!