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That time Karl Marx stole my baby

– Nick O’Connor, in Washington DC

“The thing that holds most copywriters back is simple…

“They just don’t want to admit it to themselves. So we have to push them. Make them realise where they’re going wrong.”

I’m in Berlin.

It’s the summer of 2018.

And I’m at a meeting of Agora Publishers. Once a year, give or take, we’d all get together and swap war stories/complain we couldn’t get stuff to work/cry into our gin and tonics. They were cool events.

This time around – for reasons I can’t quite remember – I’d decided to bring my wife and son along. He was maybe 7 months old then. I remember because he picked that trip to start sleeping through the night, which is more or less when you start feeling human again as a parent.

More on the young prince in a second.

Let’s get back to the meeting itself. Each one had a different guest speaker. This time around, it was a guy called Mike Ward, who at the time was running a big, successful publishing operation in the States.

He spoke for a while. But the part I remember best – and still think on today – was simple.

He said most copywriters – most businesses, in fact – stop at the first idea.

“Not the first crappy idea,” he said. “The first good one. Maybe half-good is a better way to put it. You find something that works ok. It fits. It seems like it might work.

So you pick it. You stop looking for a better idea. And that’s what kills you.”

As uncomfortable as it was to admit… I knew he was right, straight away.

I think we all do it.

It’s natural.

Searching for ideas is hard. Really hard. It’s horrible. Staring at your computer thinking “There just isn’t a way to make this work”… waiting for inspiration to strike… it’s awful.

I find it physically challenging. It makes me stressed. My jaw hurts from over-clenching it. I have to run and cycle more to burn off the surplus energy left over from the quest to find The Idea.

So when you finally find something that seems to work… that ticks some of the boxes you’re looking for… the first feeling is RELIEF.

You think: I’m glad I don’t have to go through THAT again any time soon.

So the idea that you might just have to do that… that you might need to keep searching… that the first decent idea might not be the best… it’s painful to contemplate.

But it has to be done.

The first good idea is your enemy. You want to keep pushing until you find the third, fourth, or even TENTH idea.

The one no one else will find. The one that’s out there, lurking, waiting for someone to persist long enough to find it.

Because let’s face it, most people stop at the first good idea. That’s why so much copywriting ends up rehashing the same tired concepts over and over. It’s evidence of Stopping At One.

To outcompete your competitors and outthink your rivals, you need to be willing to go beyond that – to push through the pain barrier and go to places no one else has been to yet. Because that’s where the truly original ideas are.

And those are the ones that’ll make the difference. Both to your clients and for you.

You’re thinking: yes, yes, yes. But what does this have to do with Karl Marx?

Don’t worry.

I wouldn’t leave a loop open like that…

…or would I?


I won’t.

Back to Berlin. In the downtime between the talks, Gemma and I found time to take our little boy for a walk in a park.

There, we found a huge statue of Karl Marx. I’ll admit, I found that odd. Berlin still bears the scars of its communist past. Whether he intended it or not, Marx helped bring into being an ideology that led to millions of deaths and incredible destruction in almost every place it touched.

It seemed odd to have a monument to that. Maybe that’s just me. Stranger still was the fact the statue was surrounded almost entirely by Chinese tourists.

It was mobbed. And not to pull it down! As we walked past, and Gemma ignored my chuntering about the body count associated with communism, several of them turned and started taking photos of us.

One person came right up and took a photo of my son in the pram. Right in front of us. Like he was a statue to be gawped at, too.

I blame Marx.

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