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Famous Copywriters Series: Tom McElligott

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Searching for famous copywriters to act as professional inspiration is infinitely more difficult than if you are an artist, architect, author, lawyer, psychotherapist… OK, you get the gist. The point is that copywriters are relatively unheralded outside of the marketing industry. Even the legendary Tom McElligott yields few search results when you punch his name in on Google. But what you do find is a treasure trove of inspiration for copywriters.

Famous Copywriters Existed in the 1980s

Before the fictional days of Sterling Copper Draper Price in Mad Men came the real-world success of Fallon McElligott Rice, an advertising agency founded by McElligott back in the 1980s. The most successful years for the agency were between 1981 and 1988, the year in which McElligott left in a creative divorce. His next major career milestone came in 1991, when he was voted into The One Club Creative Hall of Fame. Sadly, it was a downhill ride from there for the Midwestern-born copywriter.

Creativity Stifled in the 1990s

After working briefly for Chiat/Day in 1991, McElligott would attempt to found an advertising agency in Minneapolis. Sadly, however, McElligott Wright Morrison White floundered in the face of the industry’s diminishing creativity. This failure led to our hero retiring from copywriting in 1993. He would only live another decade before his death, depriving the world of his witty approach to print advertising.

The Fearful Mad Man

When it came to his work, McElligott was fearful. It is often told in stories of how he would vomit before pitches and presentations to clients. This fear stemmed from how much he cared about the work. Basically, he wanted every client to adore it as much he did. But that fear never seemed to stop him from displaying considerable bravery when crafting his copy. That led to year after year of winning awards during his heyday.

Work Was Everything

Interestingly, here is what he had to say during an interview after his retirement:

Don’t be distracted by anything. The work is what counts. There are a lot of things that can get in your way, that take up your time and your emotional and intellectual energy; none of them account for anything. They mean nothing. The only thing, in the final analysis, at this stage of the game, that really counts, is the work. The work is everything.”

Tom McElligott’s Finest Work

Some of McElligott’s most iconic adverts were produced for world-famous brands, the likes of which included Hush Puppies, PETA, and Rolling Stone. These adverts are all over Google Images, which is where you can find them without difficulty. But for a catalogue of his legacy, you should check out this article. That’s where I found these three outstanding examples of his work. (Photo credits to Dave Dye.)

A Bad Haircut…

Tom McElligottGrow it Yourself…

Tom McElligottNo Matter What Shape…

Tom McElligott The Glass is Half Full

In my experiences as a marketer and copywriter, some clients strive to make their communications as ‘accessible’ as possible. But often this results in wit and intelligence being sacrificed out of fear that customers won’t understand. As you can see from the above works of Tom Elligott, this is a man that always overestimated the intelligence of his audience. Every one of those adverts speaks for itself. The inspiration I have drawn from McElligott is to also think positively of the audience I am writing for. Customers won’t thank you for talking down to them.

By Mike Porter