(True Story!) How I Resurrected a Dying Newspaper Ad

When it comes to buying a newspaper ad, you gotta know this:

All submissions are FINAL.

Change your mind about the something in the creative? Too bad. Live with the results.

Yes, that’s still the norm. It doesn’t matter that digital has decimated the newspaper industry. The assembly line mechanics of print make real-time changes prohibitive.

There is one workaround… if you know WHO to speak to and WHAT to say. In fact, you could change just about the entire ad without additional costs.

More about that in a minute. But first a story…

No truth in advertising

An early client was the one who opened my eyes to the rigidity of newspaper ads.

She barely spoke English.

Which makes it funny that she hired me. “Copywriter” just isn’t one of the first 10,000 words immigrants learn!

“Copy who?”

Anyway, this client knew enough English to explain her problem. It wasn’t about copy. It was bigger. Traditional advertising wasn’t working for her.

No, worse than that, it was eating a hole in her pocketbook!

Forced to run a newspaper ad?

Prior to placing a newspaper ad, she had kept all marketing activities in-house. Literally. Her referral network consisted of fellow compatriots. They’d get together for a meal and swap business favors.

That was enough to keep her service business — a senior care home — running at full capacity.

One day the referral pipeline dried up. She was forced to come up with another way to generate leads.

Buying an ad in the local paper is what everyone told her to do. It seemed like a straightforward proposition.

What could go wrong?

Only this. She let the newspaper folks create the ad for her…

… then place it!


They were like a creative and media-buying agency rolled into one. It was good for them, not so much for her.

Two problems: creative and location

The ad itself wasn’t… awful. But it was missing a call-to-action, a glaring omission for a small business.

The bigger problem was where they placed the ad. It wasn’t in the logical section of the tabloid (i.e., “Seniors”). It was buried somewhere near the centerfold, close to nothing of interest.

Worse, it was on the left-hand side of the paper, an even-numbered page.

In other words, No Man’s Land. Readers of the paper never look at these pages.

It’d be one thing if she only paid a few pennies for the ad. That wasn’t the case. She paid full retail for crappy placement.

To top it off, the nice ol’ sales rep locked her into a 6-month contract!

I ask you, is that any way to treat a customer?

As an aside, should a sales rep ever try this on you, be warned. He or she will tell you about the cumulative benefits of showing the same ad repeatedly. Other copywriters, particularly those who work for advertising agencies, might agree with the logic.

However, I think it’s incorrect. An ad that doesn’t entice action on the first sighting, won’t do it on the 2nd, 3rd, or 15th either.

A sales rep who sells a long-term contract to inexperienced business owners by stressing cumulative benefits is an unscrupulous lowlife!

Lightning quick fixes

Where were we? Oh yes… when she told me about the contract, I hit the roof. I was LIVID.

Being the chivalrous, heroic, (and humble) guy that I am, I rang the newspaper.

And while I didn’t threaten to break his kneecaps, I did let the rep know what it would take to “buy” my satisfaction.

Fortunately, for him, it wasn’t a pound of flesh.

In fact, what I was asking for required almost no work on his part.

Cosmetically, he had to add a call-to-action… which I provided.

And then, this was the BIG one, he had to place the ad on an odd-numbered page, preferably towards the back of the paper.

The reasoning was simple: more eyeballs look at the right hand pages of a tabloid.

Did you know that?

Anyway, the sales rep protested lightly but gave in. Maybe I pricked his conscience?

In his defense, educating customers is probably not required. No. His job is to take the customer’s order and… that’s it.

Really now, when was the last time you spoke to a chatty newspaper employee? Most of them sound like they’re doing hard time… which is maybe what it feels like selling ad space?

Moving on, here’s the essential point:

If you’re going to pay for a newspaper ad, first establish where in the newspaper the ad will show. Get it in the contract.

Too many advertisers focus their energy on the creative, while neglecting placement. Doing that is like bottling the manuscript of a great play and tossing it in a cave, for the benefit of an archaeologist who might discover it 1500 years from now!

Last word about copy​

If you plan on hiring a copywriter, even the newspaper’s in-house copywriter, for your ad, be warned…

Results will vary.

That is, any number of factors contribute to the success or failure of an ad. For example, if a freak snowstorm hits the day your ad runs, response rates will suffer.

That’s why direct response copywriters never make guarantees about their work. How could they? Too many moving parts.

Steer clear of any copywriter who promises you results based solely on his or her contribution. He or she is full of beans!

​However, if you’re interested in working with a copywriter who knows how to partner with other specialists in your marketing department, then by all means...


No Pressure, Commitment, or Obligation.

P.S. One more thing about that first client. She gave me a wonderful testimony when the new, highly-visible ad I arranged for her, delivered a resident.

Here’s what she said (sans Russian accent)…

“I think you really know what you’re talking about!"

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