The Recipe for Writing Winning Ads

by Charlie Cook

“Ads don’t work.”
“Advertising is a waste of money.”
“You might as well throw your money out the window as waste it on advertising.”

I’ve heard these complaints a hundred times, and the frustrated business owners doing the complaining are usually right – about their own ads. It’s not that ads can’t work to bring in new business. It’s that they don’t work when you use the wrong words.

Use the right words and you’ll make more money than you ever imagined. The wrong ones will bleed your marketing budget dry.

If I made a stew for dinner by tossing all the food I found in the refrigerator into a pot, no one would want to eat it. And if I blamed the stove for the horrible taste, instead of blaming the random combination of ingredients, my family wouldn’t by my excuse. I can just hear the sarcastic response:

“Ever hear of using a recipe, Dad?”

In the following paragraphs, I’m going to give you a recipe for writing successful ads.

I’m going to walk you through one simple form of advertising, the 35 to 40-word classified ad. I’ll show you what to do and what not to do to create advertising that really works to get new clients.

I’ll show you the 3 steps to writing an effective ad and tell you which elements are essential to include. I’ll give you a handful of examples you can steal, tweak and reuse.

You can apply my formula for writing these small, succinct ads to ads of any size or length: from your pay-per-click ads, to advertising on Craig’s List, to landing pages on your website¬† and even to your sales letters.


I mention the 35-word ad below in my book, Writing Copy That Sells. I wrote this ad for a client several years ago. It attracted almost $200,000 in new business in just the first few weeks he used it. That new business pulled him back form the brink of bankruptcy. Need I say more?

Here’s the ad that Jose had been using to solicit new clients for his property management business. He got zero response from this ad, absolutely nothing. The cost of running the ad and the lack of new business was putting him in the red.

What’s wrong with it?

Write a Winning Ad 1

Is describes what his company does, right? Yes but that is not his prospects’ first concern.

Here’s how his prospects – and you and I – think:

I’ve got a business problem.

I own 3 apartment building and I can’t keep up with all the maintenance, the rentals, the paperwork, etc. The property management is a big expense, a lot of trouble, and takes a lot of my time.

I want somebody to tell me how I can solve this problem, or how they can solve this problem for me. I need help with these management problems; maybe I need to turn it over to someone else.

What should I do next to get the solution? Who do I call or email or Tweet or whatever?

The Number One Rule

Write your ad based on the way your prospects think. If you’re going to ignore this rule, you might as well take your advertising budget and donate it to your favorite charity. At least then it will do some good.

Here’s what Jose’s ad looked like after I rewrote it:

Writing A Winning Ad 2

Within a few weeks of placing this ad in the same three local papers where he’d run his previous ad, Jose more than doubled his business. Can you afford not to try this approach?

My Six Step, No-Fail Recipe

Let’s look more closely at the approach and the ingredients I used and see why this classified ad worked so well.

This small ad made a big difference by following six simple but critical steps.

1. Identify Your Target Market
Get your prospects’ attention. Talk directly to them – the “Landlords” in the headline.

Remember that your prospects are scanning ads, whether it’s a classified ad in the newspaper or on Craig’s List or a full-page ad in a trade magazine. Get their attention by letting them know you’re talking about or to them.

2. Identify Your Prospects’ Primary Concerns
Knowing nothing about property management, I asked Jose to list his clients’ biggest concerns. He knew right off the bat his prospects want to make money and they want to do it without all the work and time involved in dealing with tenants.

Knowing this, I wrote a headline that talked directly to Jose’s prospects and directly to their interests; “Helping Landlords Prosper”

The subhead addresses the second prospect concern and repeats the financial concern; “What to reduce your property management headaches and increase your profits?”

3. Use a Problem Solving Approach
Every prospect wants to know how your product or service is going to help them. Jose had included the basics in the ad he wrote, but he had phrased things in terms of what his company does, not in terms of the problems he solves for his clients.

Taking a problem-solving approach, “Tenant Placement” became “Filling empty apartments.” The other bullet points are equally specific, and the ad gets right to the heart of the matter from his prospects’ perspective.

4. Make a Unique Promise
Jose had listed “Home Improvement” as one of his services. In out phone conversations, I searched for something unique that his company does that would make his services invaluable to any landlord.

Turns out that because he does most of the standard apartment repairs all the time, his crew can do most repairs for less than it would cost landlords if they did the repairs themselves. This is a huge plus for his clients and he should be letting his prospects know about it!

So “Home Improvement” became “Maintaining and Improving Your Property for 30% Less.”

See the difference?

5. Pack It With Benefits
In just a few words, the ad promises:

– Profits and Prosperity
– Reduced work load
– Full apartments, so increased revenue
– Less paperwork and hassle
– 30% less money spent on maintenance

6. Tell People What To Do
You’ve gotten your prospects’ attention; you’ve stated their problem and your solution; you’ve summarized the benefits you offer. Now get them to take the next step.

In a simple statement using an action verb or verbs, tell them what to do. Call, email, go to your website, send in the reply card – state clearly and succinctly the action you want them to take.

You can use the Six Step, No-Fail Recipe to write your own profit-producing ad. Got some ideas already? Skip the next section and go right to Action A below.

Still stumped about what to say? Then you’re in the same boat most of us are in when we have to do marketing copywriting of any kind. Don’t worry, I’ve got a solution for you.

Steal it!

The Swipe Solution

That’s right. Do what the pros do and steal someone else’s ad. I’m not suggesting you use it word for word, obviously, but re-using good ideas is the name of the game. Keep your eyes open for winning ads and repurpose them to speak to your prospects.

For example, let’s look again at the ad I wrote for Jose. Imagine that instead of property manager, you are a printer specializing in digital printing for retail chains.

Helping Retail Merchants Prosper
Want to:

  • Boost orders
  • Move more merchandise faster
  • Increase your profits?

We can help you by:

  • Pulling more customers in
  • Generating more sales
  • Maximizing profits from high-ticket items



See how easy it is? Look for ads that have the 6 elements in the recipe and rephrase the ad to target it to your prospects’ problems. Promise them the benefits you specifically provide, put in your call to action and your ad is ready to go.

Okay, maybe you don’t help people make money. Could the same ad structure work for someone offering services?

Helping You Reach Your Fitness Goals
Want to increase your strength, speed and agility and be a winner at your sport?

We can help you by:

  • Giving you an easy-to-follow plan
  • Maximizing the benefit of each hour of exercise
  • Putting you at the top of your game
  • Showing you how to avoid injury



Ad Headlines

The ad above leads with an action verb, “helping.” Including an action verb makes a strong headline. In this case, there’s a certain amount of empathy in the word “helping” and it suggests an ongoing process, which is perfect for this service. There are other types of headlines; here are some common approaches:

1. Begin your headline with an action word
2. Create curiosity. “Let’s Talk About Price”
3. Ask a question. “Are Your Budgets Tight? Here’s Some Help.”
4. A combination of the above.

Don’t worry about being creating or funny unless humor comes to your naturally. Focus on talking to your prospects about their needs. (It’s done so rarely that you are going to end up looking very creative, anyway.)

Want to benefit from a winning ad? Take action!

Action A: Write Your Profit-Producing Classified Ad

A. Problem
Write down the key problem or curiosity hook that will get your prospects’ attention.

B. Solution
List 3-5 specific benefits of your product or service.

C. Call To Action
Write your call to action. If possible, include a motivator to get prospects to call or visit your web site. Free reports, or time – limited offers, special discounts, etc. are reliable motivators.

Tested Advertising Examples to Repurpose

Partner Wanted
I have just obtained the exciting MS. AMERICA FRANCHISE for N.J. Already showing extraordinary potential income. My partner could not raise his $10,000. Can YOU? Mr. Richard Stockton at Ms. America Headquarters will handle interviews. Phone NYC 212 MU 2-XXXX.

(from Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples)
This ad rad in the New York Times for 2 days, and turned up a partner willing to commit $10,000.

Below are two templates for direct marketing ads that my friend Rick De Lima has used successfully many times. Steal them and repurpose them to suit your prospects and your marketing strategy.

(Write your own headline)
(You’ll find hundreds to “borrow” in Writing Copy That Sells)

FREE Report is yours for the asking
If you seriously want to _______________, is/may be one of the most important things you ever read.

My name is ________ and I admit it (story continues). I want to share with you my ___________ formula that guarantees you ____________ for FREE.

All you need to do is use what I give you and your ____________ will improve. Why free? Because _________________, and I have a little something to give back.

Call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx, leave your info and I will send you the Special Report (Name) and a best selling book called The Success Formula.

Call xxx-xxx-xxxx right now and I will mail them to you.


How to Save (Make/Earn/Find) a Ton of __________ With More Ease and Make Sure the ____________ Stay Away From Your (Home/Business/Bank Account)!

This FREE special report is yours for the asking, courtesy of _______________ who is a specialist in ________________. Call toll free xxx-xxx-xxxx today, and make sure you ask for the ____________ report. There are very limited copies available of this special report, so please call soon.
Plus, if you are one of the first 25 to call and leave your details on the recorded message, you’ll also receive a special bonus gift!

Action B: Track & Test
One of the biggest problems with most marketing is you don’t know what’s working and where the business is coming from. One simple solution is to include a special discount coupon code in your call to action.

“Mention this special offer code EN-4B and:
– save $50 on your next purchase
– to get your free confidential report”

And while not everyone will remember to mention the promotional code, you’ll at least have some idea of which ads are sending customers your way.

No matter who great the template you are using or how much you like your ad, there is only one way to tell if it will bring in the business you’re looking for. Run it for a limited time and see what results you get.

Action C: Fine Tune/Change It/Try Again
If you don’t get the results you need, go back to your recipe and check your steps. Fine tune the ad or write a different one. Don’t keep running the same ad, hoping that something different will happen.

If an ad works to pull in prospects, you can use it again and again. Some winning ads have been used for decades and still produce profitable results.

Whether it’s a couple of hundred words or just 35 words, make sure to take the time to do your research and get the wording or your ad right. When you do your ad will work like an automatic cash generating machine, bringing in a steady stream of new business every time you use it.

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