If you’re a lucky copywriter, you stumble on a hero when you most need one — at the start of your career. This is someone whose creative work aligns so perfectly with your own taste that their work seems almost hypnotic. Sometimes it’s hard to look away.
For a time, you try to emulate them, though the gap is mammoth. Eventually you find our own voice. But you never forget your first.
When I was learning the craft, my copywriting hero was Tom McElligott, a copywriter and creative director who won awards by the truckload, especially after he hit his stride at the Fallon-McElligot agency. The agency so dominated the awards competitions that his retirement became fodder for the next year’s call for entries.
Under his direction, Fallon McElligott created the famous “Perception/Reality” ad campaign for Rolling Stone, and McElligott was credited with brilliance like the “The Daily Diary Of The American Dream” tagline for the Wall Street Journal. They challenged the creative conventions of the time, and successfully.
In fact, I’m temped to say McElligott was largely responsible for the rise of the famous “Minnesota School” style of hard-hitting print advertising, but that’s a fanboy’s perspective.
But I’ll say it anyway.
Unlike today’s consumer advertising, where visuals dominate and copy is considered an impediment to an ad’s global effectiveness, McElligott’s print ads featured witty, aggressive, sometimes-provocative headlines pinging off equally witty visuals.
The whole of his campaigns always exceeded the sum of their parts. And the reader was invited along for the ride.
Fallon McElligott also became famous for their aggressive new business campaigns; in one memorable pitch, Fallon McElligot parked a
Sherman Stuart tank in front of Scott’s (lawn care) headquarters. The banner said they’d do whatever necessary to “protect Scott’s turf.”
Given the simultaneous appearance of McElligott and legendary creative shops like Chiat/Day, Wieden & Kennedy, GB&S and others, it’s hard not to suggest the 1980s were the Golden Age of Print Advertising.
(This was before the Internet tried to strangle the big idea and copywriters reduced themselves to sweatshop status by labeling what they did as “content.”)McElligott was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1991, and if you’re interested in what he had to say at the pinnacle of his career, I found this interview conducted in 1986.
Right now, marketing is as much in the hands of programmers as creatives, though eventually the pendulum will swing back towards the kind of creative insurgency which sprouted in the 80s, when McElligott, Lee Clow and others headed out into largely unexplored space.
When that happens, copywriters could do a lot worse than use McElligott’s print work — which displayed an uncanny mix of personable humor and head-butting impact — as a starting point.
Keep creating, Tom Chandler.