Why you need a swipe file (and where to find the right material).

The verde river of ideas running dry is the worst nightmare for any copywriter. You’re staring at a blank screen with a tauntingly blinking cursor. With a swipe file that never happens again!

Why you need a swipe file (and where to find the right material).

My granddad has been dead for over ten years. Recently, my dad decided to clean out the attic and throw away gramp’s old things.

Among those old things was a treasure chest. In it were old pictures, letters, World War II relics—the Swiss didn’t fight, but we were ready. My dad threw it all out: “I don’t need anything to remind me how much I loved my father.”

He kept one thing for me. My granddad’s old swipe file.

Swipe file from my grandfather, ca. 1940

You need a swipe file.

In the simplest terms, a swipe file is a collection of ads, marketing ideas, templates, and guides you keep in a physical folder or a digital file. It’s your well of knowledge and inspiration.

Whenever you need an idea for your ad, headline, blog post, or any other piece of advertising, you open your swipe file.

As an ad-man over 70 years ago, my granddad knew the importance of a swipe file. Sometimes, inspiration sits patiently by the side of your desk but most of the time you have to go looking for it.

I spent days tearing through the pages. There are over half a century old ads of products that are still selling today, and ads of companies that went out of business decades ago.

I traveled back to a time when Ogilvy was still kicking—although I haven’t found any of his ads in that swipe file.

swipe file from Switzerland, ca. 1940


But of course, I’m not just relying on my old man’s old man’s swipe file. I’ve got some dynamite on my own that I keep neatly organized in my favourite notes tool: notion.so.

Screenshot of the swipe file categories in my notion.so.


“I don’t need a swipe file.”

See, I knew you’d say that. I said that. I thought I could whip up something better than anyone else did.

Inevitably, you will find yourself staring at a blank piece of paper with a taunting, blinking cursor on your screen.

When that happens, you’ll be glad to have a swipe file.

“Where do you find material for your swipe file?”

Philip Roth famously said:

“Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.”

You witness many things a day that you can add to your swipe file—the way a woman’s hair spills across her pillow like ink, a great ad you saw on a billboard, or something you just discovered. It could all be worth writing down.

You get bombarded with marketing. It’s everywhere you look, listen, and smell. From now on, analyze it. If it’s good, take a picture, cut it out of the paper, or make a note. Then add it to your swipe file.

Martin Lindstrom gives some practical advice in Buyology on how we can escape marketers:

”Perhaps, if you drove to the supermarket, loaded up on food for the next decade or two, and then locked yourself inside your house or apartment with double-bolts. Unplugged your television. Switched off your cell phone. Canceled your high-speed Internet connection. In other words, cut yourself off from the outside world altogether.”

“Can I just get your swipe file?”

No. But I’m not gonna leave you hanging. Here are some public swipe files to get you started:

But please, do get started. Having a swipe file saves my ass every day.

That’s it. I’m out.

—Pat