A simple story about a man with a billion dollar idea, and the fatal flaw in his algorithm that he did not foresee …
Bill was a struggling copywriter with a big idea.
He’d spend hours and days laboring over headlines, landing pages, ads, and emails for his few clients, but the results of his work were often not worthy of comment.
He’d had enough.
One warm Friday night, he decided he would build a machine — a copywriting machine — that could be fed raw data on one end, and would spit out highly converting copy on the other.
If he got it right, the business world would beat a path to his desk.
Over the next seven months, Bill blew his life savings on the project. Then he secured bank loans and two rounds of VC to hire a world-class mechanic, the finest software developer in Silicon Valley, and to procure the best industrial materials on earth.
He mined the Internet, consumer reports, psychological journals, and the great books of the ages for data. Then he brought in a top mathematician, an analytics expert, and the professor of logic from his alma mater.
The shop was humming. As word of his project got out, clients started sniffing around. Big clients.
Finally, one cold Friday night, Bill and a fellow copywriter — a friend who’d been skeptical of his machine all along — stood in front of the finished behemoth.
“Well, time to give it a go,” Bill said.
He picked up the eight hundred and seventy-seven pages of data on the buying habits of his first client’s product that he and his researchers had gathered … and fed it all into the copywriting machine.
The thing spit, buzzed, convulsed, steamed, and jerked back and forth for twelve minutes before belching a single page out of its back end. Bill, sweating and nervous, picked it up and began to read.
“Well?” his copywriter friend asked.
It was an almost unreadable mass of adjectives, percentages, testimonials, and calls to action, topped with a headline that read like the dosage instructions of a prescription drug.
He tried again. And again. And again. He worked all night tweaking the settings of the great machine, adjusting the data feed, even demanding new data from his crew. It was a vain pursuit, the copy it turned out was unusable, at best.
As the sun rose, Bill was beginning to think that his copywriting machine was a bust.
“I just don’t get it. I’ve got the most accurate data, the best engineering, and the finest algorithm in the business. Something is missing. Something is not …”
His friend walked back into the shop carrying two hot coffees.
“Man, I hate to be the one to remind you,” she said, “but the only amazing copywriting machine in this room is the one right there inside your skull. That’s the only machine that can turn good data into true and immortal stories. Here’s your coffee.”
As he took a sip, Bill’s machine burped up one final page. It was blank.
The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in — and stay tuned in — to watch drama.
– David Mamet