Talking Salesmanship: John Carlton on the (Un)Importance of Design & Crime Fiction

by Adam Kreitman

Last updated on February 16th, 2018

Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with marketing legend John Carlton.

In the first installment, John discussed the importance of salesmanship in marketing.

Here in Part 2, John talks about the single element that trumps even great salesmanship when it comes to successful selling.

Plus — you’ll discover the relationship between design and copy, and why all top copywriters read crime novels.

Let’s begin…



Adam: You’ve gotten a behind-the-scenes look at hundreds (maybe thousands?) of websites from colleagues, internet marketing gurus and others seeking your advice.

Is the difference between the sites that successfully rake in the cash and the ones that don’t simply a matter of strong salesmanship?

Or, are there other key factors at play? If there are, what are they?

John: There’s an old direct response formula… from the days when direct marketing was dominated by snail mail, print ads and broadcast media like television and radio… that tried to describe the importance of each element in the sales mix.

That formula wasn’t set in stone (testing back then was slow and not very scientific) but it was approximately this:

“The success of a campaign is proportionally due 70% to the list… 20% to the offer… and 10% to the copy.”

That means that, while copy is important, it’s not the most critical factor in the overall results.

A great piece of copy cannot overcome a bad offer (say, of lower quality merchandise being sold at a premium with no guarantees or customer support)… and even great copy and a great offer, sent to a sorry-ass list, won’t generate sales.

However, a mediocre offer, explained with barely-coherent copy, to a super-hot list can still do very well.

This is the essence of Gary Halbert’s infamous “Starving Crowd” story.

He said he would give any advantage to a competitor selling hamburgers, including better copy, better quality food, nicer digs, better location, sterling service, any advantage at all…

… and he would get better results by demanding just one single element: A starving crowd.

It’s the same with every market on the planet, no matter what media is used.

The closer your offer comes to fulfilling what your prospects are hungry for… the better your results will be.

Selling the best hamburger ever cooked to an audience who isn’t hungry will get you nowhere.

Selling the worst excuse for a burger, outrageously priced and sloppily served, can bring in major moolah to a salivating crowd with no other options.

It’s a metaphor.

If you’re selling “me, too” products or services, in a niche crammed with competitors who are already undercutting, low-balling, and over-promising above each other, then your outlook is dismal… unless you can come up with a truly unique hook or angle or deal.

And when your competition consists of experienced sharks, that option gets very remote.

The savvy marketers look for underserved, hungry markets populated by people with the means to pay for what they want.

The market comes first, THEN the product or service. Only rookies create a product in a vacuum, and then go looking for a market to sell it in.


Adam: Since there are a lot of designers in our audience, I wanted to ask you about the role of design and graphics in marketing.

How do you see design fitting into the mix of salesmanship in print/on the web?

How can graphic elements enhance a sales message? How can they get in the way? As a copywriter, do you believe a picture can truly be worth 1000 words?

John: Design can be very important, when design is part of the credibility of your marketing, whether online or in the non-digital world.

Let me illustrate this with a few examples from the main areas of marketing:

In direct mail, for most marketers, fancy packages routinely lose out to plainer “letters in an unmarked envelope”…

These have been carefully “non-designed” to look exactly like a personal letter your Aunt Mary might mail to you.

This is to get your mail out of the “junk” pile — where everything that isn’t a bill, or a personal-looking letter ends up — and at least get the envelope opened (so your headline could start the magic).

In my corner of the direct mail biz, we even use real first class stamps, never automated indicia or anything else (like bar codes) that Aunt Mary wouldn’t use.

In print advertising, we strive to have our ads look as much like an organic part of the magazine or newspaper as possible, right down to the format and typeface.

The idea is to not stand out as an ad, but rather blend in with the surrounding content.

We don’t mind having an “advertisement” slug on the top of our full-page ads, because we’re not trying to trick anyone into reading. We’re clearly an ad, selling something.

We just don’t want that one-second moment of decision (“Do I read this, or skip it?”) sabotaged by announcing through glaring design that we’re an ad.

Our copy is tailored to solve specific problems, just as regular articles are tailored to address a specific topic.

We want that same mindset to remain unmolested in our prospect’s head — “Oh, here’s something on that problem I have…”.

So design in classic direct response has always been minimal. But it’s still “design,” in that it’s intentional even when we make our packages or ads look down-home, grubby or slapped-together.

There are often highly-paid designers behind the effort to look home-made… but they’re marketing-savvy designers.

In my career, I’ve often run into designers who were more interested in “art” than advertising, who hated long copy (they wanted small bits of gray text to “float” within their gorgeous designs like an art element), and who operated under the hazy concept of “selling” by presenting a clever visual.

I got a lot of those designers fired, because I could sell with minimal design (or no design at all, having some of my letters go straight from a word-processor to finished piece).

But some of my more infamous ads had the benefit of a marketing-savvy designer tweak things.

There were still misspellings intentionally left in the subhead, still bad grammar expertly dropped into the body copy, still poorly positioned photos purposely slapped in with long captions in very small type.

There are solid psychological reasons for all of this — people tend to trust folks like themselves, who make mistakes and aren’t perfect… and they tend to distrust fancy corporations that put on airs with eloquent ads that actually say nothing important.

Online, the issue is more complicated.

Most of the big-result-getting video sales letters I’m privy to are in the “ghetto” mindset, with spelling errors and home-made looks.

But in some cases, a slicker look, obviously from the edit bay of a professional, works better.

It all depends on the target audience, the product, and the positioning of the marketing.

You might not want to sell new cars with home-made ads, but you can sell a ton of used cars by being a fallible human, for example

As well, I’ve seen high-end financial advice sold with “I’m just a brilliant schmuck who doesn’t spell very well” plain old letters, beat out glossy, Madison Avenue-type ads from the same client.

It’s classic message-to-market-match. But copy is still king, no matter what kind of design you use.

I’ve had slang-heavy, irreverent headlines used in fancy designs… which caused a bit of disconnect at first in some readers, but eventually did the job of getting attention and building desire as it brought prospects into the pitch.

I can overcome too-fancy design with copy. But why struggle, when the best design is so often no obvious design at all?

Bottom line: Designers need to be salesmen first, artists second.

The rule is simple — an ad with no design but great copy can sell like crazy… while the best possible, artistically-brilliant ad with no copy whatsoever, can’t sell a single unit.

Of course, Apple has famously complicated things with minimalist ads for decades, and Coca-Cola’s images of their bottle does a great job of Pavlovian desire-building.

But these campaigns are funded by gazillions of bucks over decades, plus massive support-marketing in other areas.

An entrepreneur looking to those companies for inspiration, without having an equal war chest or decades-deep marketing plan, is an idiot.

Your best advertising will always be the simplest way to start an honest human-to-human conversation with your prospect… one at a time.

The more your copy AND design can support the notion that you’re just chatting with your prospect (whether it’s in print, video or audio) and target the needs and desires they, as individuals, have… the more you will sell.


Adam: In your ebook, “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Getting Your Shit Together,” you mention that when you write an ad, you often start with the bullets.

One of the example bullets in the book is:

  • “The little-known reason all great sales-producing-masters love to read crime novels”

Well, that bullet did its job on me because I’m terribly curious whether that’s really true.

Do the top copywriters read crime novels? And if so, what’s the reason?

John: Gary Halbert and I (along with “A List” writers like David Deutsch and Scott Haines) were always avid devourers of detective, spy and crime novels.

Gary turned me onto the John D. MacDonald “Travis McGee” series.

I got him into Elmore Leonard, and we both read the James Bond library multiple times. (In fact, he named his son Bond after 007.)

We also loved “true crime” stuff, like “What Cops Know” by Connie Fletcher and Ann Rule’s books on tabloid-level investigations.

Plus, everything by Joseph Wambaugh, Thomas Harris, and the odd “comic crime” tome by the likes of Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen.

The greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid, as a copywriter, was that I wrote story-heavy ads as compelling as Dashiell Hammett’s best.

The reason we like this stuff is pretty simple.

First, it’s a deep look into the stranger (and more dangerous) part of human behavior, and all great copywriters are psychology junkies.

Understanding buyer motivations may not necessarily include knowing how serial killers operate… but the more insight you have into every facet of how weird folks can be, the better prepared you are for grokking persuasion tactics.

Diving into the reality of the world cannot be cleanly removed from swimming past the murkier parts.

Second, great copywriting is all about breaking down problems and explaining solutions.

In fact, great marketing is too — we look at situations (prospect pools, competition, history of the niche, etc) and deconstruct what has been done, what can be done, and what we actually will do to create a new successful campaign.

And detective novels are all about that same process. The author knows where they’re going, works backward to the front of the book, and creates a compelling storyline to take us on a raucous, thrilling ride.

When done right, it’s some of the best storytelling you’ll ever come across.

Copywriters are storytellers.

Great storytellers understand the world at a deeper level than most folks, and are fearless about exploring life no matter where it takes them.

People crave stories, react to stories, and appreciate the truth that can appear from a tale, well-told.

And that’s how great ads are conceived and written.

Questions or comments about this interview? Please share them in the comment section below and, you never know… you may just get a response from John himself!

For more from John Carlton, check out his blog, The Rant, where there’s 10 YEARS of posts with deeper insights on marketing, entrepreneurship and consumer psychology than you’ll find anywhere else online. (Seriously, the guy could easily charge $1000s for the material on his blog, but it’s out there for free!)



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Adam Kreitman

Adam Kreitman coaches business owners on how to make their websites more compelling to their prospects.. and to Google. He owns Words That Click, a firm specializing in Conversion Optimization and managing Google AdWords campaigns for small businesses.Follow him on


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  1. Vinay says:
    July 19, 2013 at 4:51 am

    Nice post. Salesmanship is the oldest and most common form of promotion. It is a face to face and oral communication with the potential customer for the purpose of persuading the buyer to buy a particular product or service. Here, importance of Design & Crime Fiction is described clearly. Very useful information and thanks for sharing.

  2. Simon says:
    July 18, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    So do you think all good marketers have to have face-to-face real world sales experience or can they get good by taking training courses, reading the right books, and other similar methods?

    • July 18, 2013 at 8:20 pm

      Experience trumps reading, IF you know how to pull the lessons from your adventures (which most folks do not). Best answer is a combination — read up, but test what you learn in the real world as soon as possible. And most important: Take notes.

      Critically examining results, both good and bad, is how you move forward.

  3. Burt Campbell says:
    July 17, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Hey John,

    (I may get some flack for this, but that’s ok)

    The vast majority of “designers” I’ve come across or have had to work with are actually artists. Not sure who said it, but this summary has always stuck in my head:

    “In design, aesthetics are a means to a better end. In art, aesthetics are the end.”

    (Whereas the better end is the end goal and what the business wants to accomplish – getting someone to buy, sign up, etc. and the art is beautiful to look at/appealing to the eye)

    How do you bridge the gap, communicate and work together between what you want to accomplish (getting someone to take action) and what the designer wants to accomplish (a aesthetically pleasing site)?

    Thanks for the great insight. I’ve definitely bookmarked for future reference.


    • July 18, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      Yeah, no easy answer there. You can get all caught up in “design follows function… or vice versa”, and in the end only testing provides the kind of answer that satisfied anyone.

      I don’t hate artists. I tried to be one myself, as a young offbeat cartoonist and fiction writer. I have a lot of good pals who are professional artists with works represented by galleries. But biz is a different animal, and the rules are different.

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