This is the story of how I was able to “weasel my way” into John Carlton’s world.
All the way from a guy he’d barely noticed writing about him on marketing forums — to eventually becoming a friend, trusted insider and podcasting partner.
There’s a huge lesson in here anyone can use to skip several rungs up the ladder of marketing hierarchy and claim your seat at the royal feast of the clued in and well connected.
(This is extra powerful if you’re a freelance service provider struggling to score big fish clients.)
There’s an old philosophy that says: In order to achieve your goals, choose someone who has already achieved those goals and model their thinking.
This story backs up that theory, with two small addendums:
1. Modeling your subject’s thinking isn’t as simple as reading a biography or daydreaming about how they might react in a certain situation… but rather, getting into a room with them to find out what truly makes them tick.
2. When it comes to scoring a meeting your subject… it’s perfectly fine to lie your ass off to make it happen.
A couple years into my freelance copywriting career, I was suffering from serious input overload.
You know, that nagging feeling that even though you’re doing pretty good you’re constantly aware of how much better you could be doing…. and you really want to be there RIGHT NOW.
It was messing up my mojo pretty bad, too…
… because every time I’d read a great blog post or forum thread about some killer sales writing tactic, I felt like I HAD to incorporate it into the project I was working on at the time.
Even if I had finished the writing and was ready to send it off to the client, I’d stay up all night rewriting to infuse the copy with new magic potion I’d just discovered.
Not sure if that qualifies as passion, dedication or OCD (or maybe all three), but looking back I’m sure it hurt some letters as much as it helped others.
(It wasn’t making life any easier for my wife, who had her hands full with our two preschoolers while I worked 8 hours at my “real” job and spent another 8-10 in the back room tapping out an escape route one sales letter at a time.)
Regardless, I had no choice. I was officially obsessed with mastering this craft. The same way every successful freelancer copywriter I’ve met since became obsessed with it.
So, to tame my habit of chasing down and applying new tactics, I decided I’d pick just ONE master copywriter and obsess exclusively on him.
My philosophy was, if I truly can model the patterns of just one master copywriter so intensely that ultimately I’d gain the ability to call on them at will — as if the guru were sitting next to me, eager to assist — then I’d be able to minimize my learning curve and fast track my career.
I chose to focus exclusively on Carlton because his style resonated with me best and we seemed to have a lot of similar personal interests (blues guitar, beat culture, Travis McGee novels)…
Plus, it goes without saying that if I could become half the copywriter John is, I could manage a very long and prosperous career.
So, along with pouring over his exceedingly rich blog archives, I began seeking out and snatching up everything the man ever produced…
(Not an easy task because back then because there was no Simple Writing System which would later hand me his formula on a silver platter… and much of John’s best stuff was long off the market.)
… and I cut myself off from every other resource.
No more hours spent trolling Facebook, no more subscribing to marketing blogs. I became a hermit in the religion of JC.
(John gets spooked when I talk about this obsession, btw, which makes it all the more fun to write about here.)
By the time I’d finally drained all the knowledge I could from all the resources I could find… I still wasn’t satisfied.
The next logical step was to reach out to the man himself.
I joined his Insider’s Club and quickly messaged him to ask if he offered private coaching.
He didn’t at the time. “Freelancers need a lot of coddling, I just don’t have the time,” John explained in his reply.
Turns out the last time he offered coaching to freelancers, Harlan Kilstein had ruined a good thing for all of us by nagging John almost daily with questions.
(Probably no coincidence though that Kilstein became the first of John’s students to surpass the millionaire mark as a freelancer.)
He also hadn’t hosted a seminar since back in the Halbert days. So there was no direct access.
So I hung around and soaked up what I could from John’s forum.
Soon I found myself helping other members as much as I was seeking help. All that dedicated study had made me a pretty useful savant, and before long John was requesting that I chime in on threads.
Finally, I saw an opening.
“I see you’re going to be in Chicago doing a Hot Seat the same time I’ll be there, “ I emailed him. “I might have a day to kill, any chance I could hide and watch from the back of the room?”
I had absolutely no plans to be in Chicago, but I had lived there for years and was eager for a trip back. Other than that I had only one purpose there; to meet John.
Shockingly, John accepted my offer. Even inviting me to join everyone for a dinner they were hosting that night.
I couldn’t believe that in two weeks I’d be in the room with the man I’d been studying relentlessly (John likes to call it “stalking”) for months.
Part of me worried that I’d made a huge mistake. It’s never the smartest idea to get in a room with people you deify.
That’s why I’m never up for meeting my favorite musicians… what if they turn out to be a major asshole in person? The songs will never sound the same after that. (Thank you very much, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes.)
Oh well. Too late now.
I told my wife the news. She’d heard every Carlton story ten times by then and was excited about the meeting, but she had a different concern: “What are you going to say when he asks what you’re doing in Chicago?”
I laughed, “He’ll never remember me saying that! Why would he give a shit what I’m doing there?”
I arrived at the Hard Rock Hotel about 15 minutes before the first Hot Seat was scheduled. The small “Gretsch” boardroom was filling up with attendees. Stan Dahl, John’s longtime biz partner, was in the front making notes. I introduced myself. He shook my hand and quickly returned to his notebook.
“Anything I can do to make myself useful?” I asked.
“Nope. All under control. John’s dealing with an issue at the front desk, should back in a minute,” Stan said with a hint of tension.
Christ, maybe this was a bad idea.
The room was tight. I took the chair in back with a blank name card in front of it. It was the ninth place at an eight-seat conference table. No hiding in here. I scribbled “KEVIN” onto my placard and pulled out a notebook.
At 8:57 John walked in. He grabbed a pen and tried to write something. Dead. He chucked it across the room into a trashcan. Stan rolled his eyes.
Yep, definite tension.
John surveyed the room, “OK… we’re ready to get started. I guess Kevin never made it.”
“He’s right there in front of the tag that says ‘KEVIN’,” Stan quipped.
“Oh… Kevin. There you are. You look different than I pictured,” John said, taking on an easy tone.
I stood up to shake his hand, “Thanks for having me John, it’s a real honor.”
“Yeah, it worked out well I guess…” he replied. “So… what is it you said you were doing here in Chicago?”
Time froze. Everyone waited for my answer. All I could picture was my wife whooping with laughter at her victory.
“Oh… well, uhhh,” there was no use. “Just visiting old friends and ya know… this.”
“Uh… OK,” he said. “Well, let’s get started then…”
Fortunately, the rest of the morning went more smoothly. I laid low for the most part, but John called on me a few times and I was able to provide some coherent content.
“Great input,” he said before lunch. “Don’t be afraid to speak up.”
I felt like a made man.
Later that night we had steaks and I drug John and Stan to Buddy Guy’s “Legends” Blues club on Wabash where Buddy himself sat perched near the front door. A steady procession of awestruck fans lined up for a chance to shake that supernatural right hand.
Turned out to be Buddy’s 51st anniversary in Chicago. After some rally from the crowd and prodding from the band, Buddy Guy made his way to the mic and sang an impromptu medley of “Hoodoo Man Blues” and “Love Her With A Feeling.” The room was electric. We all knew we were witnessing something special – and rare.
For me it was the perfect capper to an amazing journey… and the beginning of a brand new one. It’s not often you can look back on a specific day as a major turning point in your life, but that day changed my path as clear as a line on a map.
I’ve been absurdly privileged in developing a friendship and business relationship with John over the last 7 years. I’ve learned more about running a business and, of course, copywriting than any Ivy covered university could teach in that span.
Plus, to get paid well while learning all this, instead of going deep into student loan debt…. that’s rare fortune.
And all it took was some blind ambition, a little white lie and one plane ride to Chicago.
I still scroll around the marketing forums occasionally. Every time I do there’s at least one new thread from someone asking for help “getting started” as a freelance copywriter.
They always receive heaps of mockingbird advice about the long list of “must read” books to buy and courses to take, how they should write sales letters by hand a hundred times each, get a job selling door to door or try promoting affiliate links on ClickBank…
… all valid.
But for me and the other copywriters I know who are living the ultimate freelance lifestyle (commanding high fees, working with Big Dog clients, making their own rules)…
… it ultimately came down to 3 simple steps:
1. Turn off the noise and focus on learning from one source at a time.
2. Write every day with the goal of beating your own best results.
3. Get out and meet the people who’ve figured out the secrets to achieving the same things you want.
If you have any designs on accelerating your freelance copywriting career this year…
… whether that means taking your existing skill and your clientele to the next level…
… or simply making this the year that you stop “working on” becoming a freelancer and finally make it happen…
… then you seriously MUST check out Copy Chief Insider.
I won’t belabor the benefits of joining because they should be obvious by now… it’s a all-too-rare chance to be among the people who have achieved your same goals.
And instead of doing the obsessive mind stalker thing I did with John…. you can simply ask them how they do it, what it takes and what they would do if they were you — starting from where you are right now.
And guess what? They’re happy to tell you! Because we all remember the struggle and we all had people help us out along the way.
You might be amazed at how much a small effort on your part will do to bolster support for your career.
Doers love to help doers.
It’s the dreamers and the whiners who get left behind.
Of course, what I’ve shared with you here is just my story. What happens to you depends on what you do with the attention you gain. But I can promise that none of it would be possible if I hadn’t gotten into that room in Chicago.
You don’t have to spend a year in reclusive study and then lie your way into a meeting. Or like the blues… or even care who Travis McGee is. All you have to do is show up and be yourself.
If this really is your time, I’m excited to meet you inside.