Expert Guidance?

Yet again, there's no substitute for thinking, doing, and executing both well.

Jon Allen
30th Apr 2019

Publicity shot for Crocodile Dundee. 

Experts. I’ve always been very wary of them.

Especially the self-proclaimed sort.

Probably my favourite quote about writing to make money is William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything”. The great Hollywood screenwriter, script doctor and undeniable expert is not saying no one in LA has a clue about film making – only that if they all knew for sure which stories would do great box office, no duds would ever be produced.

It was only a few years ago that I finally heard the old joke defining an expert as “a has-been drip under pressure”. Proper dictionaries almost all say it’s someone “very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area”.

Knowledge or skill. Not both, you notice. Critics and pundits who have never practised at the highest level of what they’re talking about will like that. 

This musing was prompted by a self-proclaimed charity copywriting ‘expert’ slagging off my mailing concept a mutual client wanted to use. In trying to add gravitas to his opinion he made great play of his experience. I’m always sceptical of those who boast, “I’ve been doing this for 15 years”. Doing something badly for a long time only makes you expert in getting away with it.

And if almost anyone wants to play the vintage card adversarially, I’ve got the Crocodile Dundee in New York response. I’m thinking “That’s not a knife, this is a knife”  when I casually mention working on my first charity account coming up to 40 years ago! (I don’t mention it was Help the Aged. Why hand out ammunition for obvious ripostes?)

Between then and now, I remember most of my howlers – remarkably few, thankfully – and quite a lot of things I could have done better. Reassuringly, the success stories far outnumber the failures.

All of it informs what I produce today.

Returning to our expert's protests... the client got their way and I wrote the copy. When the results were in, the client asked the expert why he thought my copy had pulled a response rate over 50 times better than his last effort.

I’ve got a few ideas about what could account for some of the difference (the concept for a start – that was suggested by the client, list quality, timing, production budgets…) but not all of it. The main reason is simply that his letter copy was amongst the worst I’ve ever read. Self-indulgent and trying to be way too clever. And visually, his mailing practically ignored what makes the charity appealing.

But, for once, he didn’t bother to give his expert opinion. Instead, he resigned the business – criticising the client as he did so.

That might very well be the reaction of “a has-been drip under pressure”. But I’m no expert.

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