Meet Michel Fortin, marketing strategist, business advisor, certified digital-marketing expert, and always a copywriter. Today, he helps entrepreneurial professionals with his unique combination of branding, positioning, copywriting, SEO, UX, and CRO. Strap in for a cathartic, rollercoaster ride.
These interviews are about copywriting and I know you’ve moved on. We’ll diverge, but can you first tell me what got you into the crazy copywriting game initially?
After college, I became an insurance salesperson working on strict commissions. Back then, I had an excruciating fear of rejection. Whether it was determination or idiocy, I thought that selling would help me overcome my fear.
For years, I blamed my alcoholic father. But I was recently diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 52. The surprise was when I learned that a common issue is something called RSD, or ‘Rejection-sensitive Dysphoria’.
This explained so much.
Nevertheless, at the time, I had a young family to support. But I avoided cold-calling like the plague and slept in more days than I care to remember. The fear of rejection was so debilitating that it paralysed me. I was living off of multiple credit cards to survive. As a result of doing so poorly and having no income at all, I eventually declared bankruptcy at 21 years old.
A few months later, the company I worked for had just released a new product, and it was a perfect opportunity to reassess people’s policies. So this time, I decided to write letters to people within my territory offering them a free reassessment.
It didn’t hit me yet, but after I became one of the top salespeople for this insurance company for several months in a row, that’s when I realised that maybe copywriting was my way out of having to do any cold-calling.
A few years later, I became a marketing consultant in the cosmetic surgery industry. Part of my job was lead generation. So my work included writing direct mail pieces, newspaper display ads, and late-night TV infomercials. I even wrote copy for their first website, which was back in 1992 when the web was a baby. That’s when my career took off.
You had well-documented struggles with your father. How do you think that shaped you?
My father was an alcoholic. For years I blamed his abuse as the reason for my fear of rejection. But my ADHD diagnosis explained not only my fear of rejection but also my father’s addiction. Reason is, ADHD is often inherited. And people with ADHD often struggle with addictions.
Luckily, I’m only addicted to coffee. But my father wasn’t so lucky. His decades of alcoholism led to Korsakov’s disease, a degenerative mental illness for which he was institutionalised. It’s a form of dementia caused by years of alcohol abuse and for which there is no cure.
After my mother died from cancer, I wanted to see my father before it was too late. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years since his institutionalisation. When we met for the first time, he didn’t recognise me. But I’m grateful that I took that chance, for a few months later he passed away in his sleep as a result of his disease. Less than a month later, my wife died from cancer, too.
While that may all sound a bit gloomy, here’s a story that might add some positivity.
When I was a child in the early 70s, ADHD wasn’t on any medical radar yet — much less during my father’s childhood. In fact, ADHD wasn’t formally recognised until the late 60s. Abusive as he was, to my father’s credit he did try to get help. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Though he slipped from time to time, it was getting worse largely due to the progression of his disease.
I blamed my father a lot for my struggles. But I wanted to work with mine, too. So I followed in his footsteps and joined a local group of people that met weekly. It was part of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), which is related to AA. But little did I know that this group would also become another “springboard in disguise” for my career.
Group meetings usually started off with a discussion of something that happened during the week for which we were thankful. One particular week, I generated the biggest commission check in my life. I was so incredibly proud that I couldn’t wait to share it with my group.
Remember, I feared rejection, so this was a big deal. But something else I learned when I was diagnosed with ADHD is that RSD has a twin — something called RRE, or ‘Recognition Responsive Euphoria’. It’s the reason why I deeply craved other people’s approval.
So that week, when my turn came to speak, I was eager to share the good news. But instead of compliments and congratulations, the group reacted with contempt and disdain. I was shocked. And devastated. In fact, after I spoke, my own sponsor added this, and I’m paraphrasing from memory as it was 30 years ago:
“I hate it when people make that kind of money. I’m so thankful that I don’t because it enrages me to see how an NBA star can dribble a ball down a court and make millions, while there are starving children in underdeveloped countries.”
Here I was, a person who feared rejection immensely, desperately seeking other people’s approval, being scolded by my group — including by my own sponsor who was like a father figure to me — for having a successful week. I felt so downtrodden and reviled by my vituperators that I decided to leave the group.
That moment changed my life.
And you became a father yourself at a young age. Did you have to grow up fast?
Yes, but it was my choice. When I was 19, I met my first wife who also had a two-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. Her daughter later adopted me as her dad and, after her mother and I divorced, she chose to stay with me. She still calls me dad to this day.
When I met my wife, I saw it as an opportunity for me to leave home and away from my abusive father. But at the same time, it was a chance for me to redeem myself and become a father, too. I may have entered that relationship for all the wrong reasons, but I don’t regret it. If I hadn’t married my first wife, I would have never become my daughter’s father.
You were bankrupt by 21. What does that do to you?
My father often called me a failure throughout my childhood. He called me worse things but that’s when he was sober, which fortunately was a rare occurrence. After I filed for bankruptcy, I was starting to feel that he was right. I was humiliated and ashamed. The humiliation was compounded the day when bailiffs came to evict us from our home and repossess my car.
However, I also remember the incredible relief I felt. A huge weight had been taken off my shoulders. It stopped creditors from harassing me, and I was able to focus on finding clients rather than avoiding debt collectors. I would have kept on struggling and never felt the need to find a workaround, which was writing sales copy, if I hadn’t reached rock bottom the way I did.
So I guess you can say that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
But then you found out you could sell. I’ve always said that sales and copywriting don’t speak to each other enough. How did your ability to sell inform your copywriting?
It had everything to do with it.
When I dropped out of a French-Canadian college to pursue a career in sales, I didn’t know any copywriting. I never took a course or had any training on how to write copy. But I spoke English reasonably well and I was learning how to sell.
I had a young family to feed. So in my determination (which was more like desperation), I had taken every sales course and sales training I could get my hands on. I bought every tapeset from Nightingale-Conant, which likely contributed to my debt-load and eventual bankruptcy.
I turned my car into a ‘university on wheels’, as Zig Ziglar often suggested. Which was also a perfect excuse, too. I remember parking my car on the side of the road, trying to psych myself up to go knock on doors, and listened to hours upon hours of Tom Hopkins, Brian Tracy, Tony Alessandra, Robert Cialdini, Og Mandino, Dan Kennedy, Joe Girard, Roger Dawson, Earl Nightingale, and of course, Zig Ziglar.
All that sales training didn’t help me sell.
But it did help me know how to sell.
So when I decided to write letters to my clients offering a free assessment, I took a chance. I didn’t know if it would work, and I certainly didn’t know if what I wrote was good enough. But it did. A few months later, I became the top salesperson in the company.
John E. Kennedy was right: it was the perfect example of ‘salesmanship in print’.
You wrote copy for the web before it was even a thing. How did that come about?
One of my favourite memories as a young child was spending most of my free time on bulletin board services (BBSes). I was not only learning how to code but also playing online role-playing games using a monochrome text-based browser and an agonizingly slow 300-baud dialup modem. Little did I know that this would eventually become the Internet.
Fast-forward to my job as a marketing consultant in the cosmetic surgery industry around 1992. My job at the time involved consulting patients, selling hair restoration services, and generating leads for the clinic. Part of the process included writing all the clinic’s collateral materials and advertisements, including ads in the Yellow Pages.
When I heard about this thing called the ‘World Wide Web’, I persuaded my boss to get on it. I sold him on the idea by calling it a digital form of ‘Yellow Pages’. I eventually convinced other clients to do the same. After I designed my first website in 1995 (ah yes, good old Microsoft FrontPage), writing copy for the web became my primary service offering.
You coined the phrase ‘copy designer’. Can you explain that?
When I wrote web copy for my clients, I initially handed it to them in the form of a document. That was standard practice at the time. Either my clients would send my copy to their designers who would add it to their websites, or they would take my copy and try to put it up themselves.
I didn’t think of it much at first, but once in a while I would get a complaint that my copy didn’t perform well. So I visited their websites to investigate. To my shock and horror, my salesletters looked absolutely dreadful. I was so disheartened, especially if they blamed me for the flop. I was also frustrated because, in many cases, I was earning royalties from the sales.
The worst part of being blamed was not just that it bruised my ego but also that my fear of rejection was kicked into high gear. My ADHD was having a conniption fit. So I took it upon myself to show my clients what I wanted the copy to look like, and I refused any client who didn’t want my input on how my salesletters should look like.
Consequently, when I wrote copy I also designed the look and feel of it. I would add formatting, Johnson boxes, images, screenshots, and more. Sometimes, I would create wireframes so my clients knew exactly what I wanted it to look like. Other times, they would give me full access to their website where I would be able to integrate the copy myself.
Personally, I always hated the word ‘writing’ because most people think of it as just putting words down on paper. But they tend to neglect the creative and strategic aspect. They tend to forget that, online, people consume information differently than when they do on paper.
I strongly believe in something Dan Kennedy often taught, which was ‘copy cosmetics’. Even Clayton Makepeace was a huge proponent of good copy design, stating that stronger design produced peak response for his promotions, bumping up response by 20% or more.
Nevertheless, over time I realised that I was spending just as much time on the formatting, layout, design, and structure of the salesletter as I was on writing the copy. That’s when I started to reposition myself as a copy ‘designer’ as opposed to being just a copy ‘writer’.
What do you think your finest hour was as a copywriter?
When John Reese hired me to write the salesletter for his Traffic Secrets course, I was honoured for many reasons — the most important of which is the fact that John was a brilliant marketer, a pioneer, and an amazing copywriter in his own right. This project alone taught me so much.
For example, Traffic Secrets was a set of recordings from a seminar John gave in 2003, which in itself was completely different from anything anyone has ever seen. That seminar taught new approaches that literally defined the Internet marketing industry.
More importantly, John wanted to try new things, which excited me. For one, he wanted to create anticipation before the launch and applied an email campaign teasing subscribers about the upcoming launch — a technique he learned from Jeff Walker, which later became known as ‘The Product Launch Formula’.
Second, John had asked me to add videos to the salesletter — snippets taken from the seminar and placed near each DVD’s description. The issue was that broadband wasn’t fully adopted yet. YouTube came out only in late 2005.
So having that many videos on a webpage was risky but revolutionary, too. We had to use so many compression tools that the resulting videos weren’t the best quality. But they were fine enough for John.
As for me, the experience was a roller-coaster ride. Just three days before the launch, John didn’t like my copy and forced me to rewrite it. Again, my rejection-sensitive ego was bruised. So I didn’t sleep a wink for three days and rewrote the letter completely. The result was a 75-page letter, the longest I’ve ever written to that point.
On launch day, I was exhausted but nervous, too. John wanted me to stay up with him to tweak the copy throughout the day. With every sale and pot of coffee coursing through my veins, my heart was pounding a little faster. John would keep me excited by emailing me photos of his whiteboard where he tallied the sales. By the end of the day, we sold over $1.08 million.
So John decided to call it his ‘Million-Dollar Day’.
Now, I want to add this because it’s important.
I don’t really consider myself to be a great copywriter. Maybe a good one. But because I wrote the copy for the first known product launch that made over a million dollars in one day, people often refer to me as the Internet’s ‘top copywriter’. And that’s misleading.
In marketing and positioning, there is something called ‘the law of leadership’. You become known as the best, not because you are the best, but because you are the first.
After that million-dollar day, others broke that record numerous times — some with numbers that overshadowed mine and by copywriters who I believe were far better than me. But that’s also why one podcaster introduced me as ‘The Roger Bannister of Online Copy’.
Bannister was the first runner who broke the four-minute mile barrier — an elusive goal that was long thought to be impossible. But after Bannister broke it, countless others have since followed suit.
So being the first sticks in many people’s minds. This achievement is almost always mentioned in interviews that I give or as part of my introduction by seminar promoters. That’s why I’ll be forever grateful to John Reese as this was a career-defining moment for me.
You famously wrote in 2004 that the salesletter had died. Do you think that’s still the case? Or has it just changed form?
After John Reese’s launch, I started to see more aggressive, FOMO-laden, over-the-top salesletters. They seemed to be getting longer and louder. Some were so hyperbolic that they were misleading and bordering on fraud. In fact, some marketers copied my salesletters verbatim, including the images and testimonials — with only the names changed.
The long-form salesletter was becoming increasingly commoditised. But while most marketers were using the same endlessly scrolling salesletter with increasingly lacklustre results (forcing them to become more aggressive), others were starting to see incredible results with more conversational, relationship-driven sales approaches. These made more sense to me.
I strongly believed that this was where the web was heading. So what started out as a set of New Year’s predictions turned into a full-on manifesto called ‘The Death of The Salesletter’.
Was the salesletter really dying? No. But I did feel that the salesletter was evolving. I only chose the title because there was a trend among marketers at the time to release ‘death’ reports, like ‘The Death of Affiliate Marketing’. I thought it was catchy.
Anyway, here’s the thing.
In 2004, I believed that salesletters were getting shorter but more spread out. That they would be delivered in various formats instead of just one, long-scrolling piece of text. That the message would be more personalised and segmented, rather than presented as a one-stop, one-size-fits-all letter. And that they would be more conversation-driven than conversion-driven.
Today, those things are standard practice. We see things like email drip campaigns, remarketing ads, personalised web apps, video salesletters, marketing funnels, marketing automation tools, customer journeys, buyer personas, experience optimisation, and so on.
So yes, it has changed and continues to do so.
Here’s a big one. Who do you consider to be the greatest copywriters of all time?
When I think of copywriters, I think of people in the business of copy. So my answer would be your typical giants in the copywriting space, like Gary Halbert (whom I had the pleasure of working with), Clayton Makepeace, Gary Bencivenga, Dan Kennedy, and so on.
When I think of teachers, I think of copywriting trailblazers, authors who have defined the world of copywriting and advertising. For example, Robert Collier, Claude Hopkins, David Ogilvy, Eugene Schwartz, and so on.
But when I think of the greatest copywriters of all time, they’re not copywriters. They’re various experts who have helped me understand people better and how to communicate better. They include people like mythicist Dr Joseph Campbell, linguist Dr John McWorther, consultant David C. Baker, author Seth Godin, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, etc.
How would you describe yourself these days? You take a more-holistic approach to helping clients, right?
Throughout my 30-year career, most of my work involved copywriting to some degree. But I always provided a number of marketing services along with it, including branding, marketing research, SEO, CRO, web design and development, marketing strategy, etc. Today, I mostly advise business owners and provide fractional CMO services.
After I met my second wife, who happened to be in the same industry, we decided to merge our businesses. We coached clients, launched products, and spoke on stage together. But when her cancer took a turn for the worse, the business took a backseat.
When she passed, I decided to leave the business entirely. I didn’t have the headspace to work. After I had a chance to grieve, I decided to take a job with a digital marketing agency as their Director of Marketing Communications and SEO Manager. While there, I supervised a team of about eight people and managed 35 client accounts.
When I joined the agency, I still had a handful of clients who stayed with me. I consider them to be more friends than clients. But they are the reasons I eventually decided to jump back into my own business. My side hustle was making more money than my main one. So I left the agency and, just like when I first started out, I hung my shingle as a ‘marketing consultant’.
Who’s a typical client? What are they looking to achieve?
When I started out, my clients were mostly doctors. Specifically, they were cosmetic surgeons. That’s because I’m a big believer in specialisation and niching down. My ideal clients are and have always been entrepreneurial experts, either solo professionals or expert firms. So other than doctors, they include expert practitioners such as dentists, chiropractors, lawyers, engineers, management consultants, therapists, coaches, and so on.
My clients hire me mainly for one of three reasons: they want more visibility, more traffic, or more sales. Everything else revolves around those three. Some want more clients while others want better clients. Some want to fix their websites while others want to open new clinics.
I don’t do any implementation work. I only offer advisory, coaching, and fractional CMO services. I do provide auditing and roadmapping services where I analyse my client’s current marketing and website, and then I create a strategic plan for them. I can also provide oversight and direction in the execution of that plan, from vetting suppliers to reviewing their deliverables.
But I don’t do any hands-on work anymore.
Do you think some part of you will always be a copywriter?
I started out as a salesperson. When I became a freelance marketing consultant, my job was mainly to increase sales. Same gig, different instrument. Copywriting was part of the job, but I didn’t consider myself to be a copywriter until much later.
In trying to get clients as a freelancer, I wrote a booklet. It contained my top 10 marketing tips, which I mailed out to potential clients in the hope that they would recognise my expertise and hire me. A brochure in disguise, if you will. I was simply repeating the process I discovered as an insurance salesperson — writing as a way to attract clients rather than face rejection.
Over time, I decided to split the book into standalone articles, which I offered to a variety of online magazines that wanted to publish them. My articles captured the attention of a software company that was also publishing its own magazine, ‘The Internet Marketing Chronicles’, with over 120,000 subscribers. I was hired as their editor.
I wrote near-daily editorials for a few years, then the magazine was acquired by the late Corey Rudl. Luckily, Corey kept me on as the editor and later asked me to continue writing for him, including marketing materials, web copy, and slide decks for his seminars. I even ghostwrote his autobiography, ‘How I Created a Fortune on The Internet in Just Four Simple Steps’.
Working with Corey led to a string of projects with other marketers and businesses, ranging from writing sales copy and developing websites, to managing and improving marketing campaigns. Even though I was advising on other aspects of marketing, it always included copywriting.
So yes, a part of me will always be a copywriter.
How do you think copywriting is changing?
In ‘The Death of The Salesletter’, I expressed how I felt about how copywriting was changing, which will continue to change. But the fundamentals, however, will never change. Human nature will never change. Selling is selling.
However, there are two things to consider.
First, one change that is constant is the medium. It’s the part of copywriting that continues to evolve. Consequently, the way we consume content will keep changing. For example, we went from reading print mail, to listening to the radio, to watching TV, to surfing the Internet. Now that we’re armed with a keyboard and a mouse, we went from reading content to interacting with it.
Today, mobile devices are ubiquitous. The majority of all traffic on the Internet is mobile. Since 2018, Google has favoured mobile versions of its search results and has completely dropped all desktop versions from its database. We now have tinier screens that we read with our fingers.
Copywriting, therefore, has to change to fit within that context.
Which brings me to my second point.
Machine learning and eventually artificial intelligence (AI) will slowly start creeping into our work, like it or not. When I learned that GPT-3 was able to write human-like blog posts, I imagined that copywriting won’t be too far behind. In fact, we’ve already seen it with a tool called ‘Persado’, which wrote ad headlines that outpulled human-written headlines in split-tests.
Will that make copywriting obsolete? Eventually, but not entirely. It will likely force copywriting to evolve, too. For one, machines need programmers and they need data. So the realm of copywriting might evolve to be more data-driven and strategy-based.
For example, some say that robots are replacing workers and eradicating jobs, while others say that they will present new job opportunities such as in the field of robotics. After all, robots need to come from somewhere. I believe copywriting will be the same.
In other words, shifting to higher-value work, such as marketing strategy and planning (what I do now, for example) will bring more to the table for copywriters and for their clients. I don’t think artificial intelligence is going to kill copywriters soon. But it makes sense for them to start looking at deepening their skills in more upstream work, such as creative and strategic thinking.
Needless to say, machine-learning has already crept into the copywriting world through software-assisted tools, such as grammar-checking, headline generation, idea brainstorming, fact-checking, split-testing, and so on. These tools don’t replace writers. But the day when they will be able to is going to come soon, I’m certain. Better be prepared.
What advice would you give a young copywriter today?
To be a good copywriter, you only need a few key skills. It’s not about copywriting. It’s not about writing anything, either. Take my background, for example. I was a failing salesperson who didn’t know anything about writing letters, much less copywriting.
Copywriting is only a tool. But just like building a house, you can’t use a tool if you don’t know how to build one. So learn how to sell. Learn how to tell stories. Learn human psychology. Learn communication and persuasion skills. But above all, learn about your solution and your market, the people you’re writing to and the problem you’re solving.
The more you do, the easier it will be to write and the better your copy will be.
Great stuff. Finally, what do you do for breakfast?
Sounds like a trick question. I’m not sure you want to know what I have or what I do. So to be safe, let me answer both. What I typically have is muёsli cereal with oat milk, and a cold brew Sumatran dark roast coffee.
What I do is three things:
1. First, I block my mornings off. I never do any client work. This allows me to ease into the day. I usually start by writing my daily email for my newsletter subscribers.
2. Second, my ‘mental breakfast’ is going through a regular serving of newsletters and blog posts from marketing experts I admire and follow.
3. Finally, I read and respond to my emails.
Thank you for allowing me to be part of this!