If you have no past, you probably don’t have much of a future.
In 2012 I wrote a (surprisingly) heavily trafficked blatant fanboy post about Underground Copywriting Hero Tom McElligott.
A couple others have joined the party. And we’re all asking the same questions.
During the 1980s, McElligott and his ad agencies dominated the awards show. Strong headlines and simple images pinged off each other in what would soon become known as the “Minnesota School” of advertising.
Simply put, McElligott largely defined what most of us believe was the Golden Age of Print Advertising.
McElligott also taught at least one clueless novice copywriter what great advertising looked like.
Yet you don’t hear his name dangled alongside advertising’s greats. He doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry.
I wondered why. Turns out I wasn’t the only one.
(Because Dye’s a talented art type instead of a lazy word jockey, he included several linear yards of McElligott ad scans).
Copywriter Mark Duffy (famous for his “Copyranter” column) also heaped steaming piles of writer love on Tom McElligott. Because he has 25+ years in the industry and is clearly heading into #offmylawn territory, Duffy offers his own ideas why creative talents like McElligott seem to have sunk from view:
The Great Copywriter is dead and buried. He was already wheezing when McElligott left the industry. He dropped dead about ten years ago. Now everybody is a “creative” (even those who “create” the new awful native advertising garbage), and creatives create “content.” It’s a happy, little, “NO HATERZ” kumbaya business, where things faintly resembling ads are assembled by groups in brainstorming sessions, not by two-person teams of copywriters and art directors—the only way to make great advertising.
Probably true. But here’s another unpretty theory.
Most creative fields — architecture, film, art, literature and others — are steeped in their past.
Architects know whose shoulders they’re standing on. Artists don’t dismiss Monet and Picasso as a pair of hopeless old analog geezers whose work is best ignored.
But move much beyond David Ogilvy’s name and most advertising “professionals” draw a blank. The arrival of digital — and its “there are no rules, yesterday is dead” ethos — hasn’t helped.
What discipline doesn’t bother with its own history?
Advertising, apparently. After all, the media channels are all new (wrong!), so there’s no need to study what’s gone before, right?
McElligott’s ads weren’t just funny and sophisticated; they treated the reader as an equal in the entire enterprise — a concept sorely lacking in so much of today’s pandering, bottom-feeding social media/native advertising/print & broadcast ads.
Given that both clients and creatives believe advertising largely blows right now, ignoring the brilliant work that’s gone before seems like a damned poor plan.
But here we are.
We miss you, Tom McElligott. All of us. More than we even know.
Keep writing (and learning about the past), Tom Chandler.