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The Greatest American Copywriter Wasn’t a 'Mad Man'

Tom McElligott is the Midwestern son of a preacher. As an adman he was shy, not boastful. He vomited before client presentations—not from liquor like that hack, Don Draper, but from fear. Fear that this new client wouldn’t have the balls to buy his...
February 24, 2014, 5:20pm

Most of you have never heard of him. He never threatened to jump out of an office window when a client wouldn’t buy his ad, like George Lois, or famously suggested the headline "From those wonderful folks who gave you Pearl Harbor" for a Panasonic campaign, like Jerry Della Femina.

He is the Midwestern son of a preacher. As an adman he was shy, not boastful. He vomited before client presentations—not from liquor like that hack, Don Draper, but from fear. Fear that this new client wouldn’t have the balls to buy his ballsy ads. But for him, advertising was always about one thing only: the work. Nothing else mattered.


You won’t find much information about Tom McElligott online. He didn’t give very many interviews. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. And his Minneapolis start-up agency, Fallon McElligott Rice, made its mark in the pre-internet years of 1981–1988. This was smack in the middle of the mega-merger phenomenon of big Madison Avenue agencies swallowing other big Madison Avenue agencies—a development that forever destroyed a lot of the creativity and spirit of the advertising industry.

I was attending advertising concept courses at the School of Visual Arts in the mid 1980s, so I had access to the annual One Show Awards annuals. The One Show was—and probably still is—the highest quality American advertising awards show. At the time, the annuals were essentially yearbooks for Fallon McElligott Rice. They were that good.

I plastered the felt-covered cubicle walls at my first ad-agency copywriting job with those McElligott ads (see some of them below), carefully, selfishly X-Acto'd out of the annuals. Another thing on my wall was this quote by McElligott:

“I’d much rather overestimate the intelligence of the consumer than underestimate it.”

Don’t be fooled by his aw-shucks friendly face. McElligott was always the smartest man in the presentation room, and an unrelenting bear when it came to selling his work. Some of that tenacity comes through in this 1986 interview in Inc. magazine (where the vomiting stories I heard at SVA are confirmed). The reporter kept trying—and failing—to poke holes in McElligott’s philosophy.


McElligott left his own agency in 1988, apparently unhappy with its creative direction. (Today, the agency he started with account guy Pat Fallon is owned by Publicis and doesn’t even have his name on the door.) He worked briefly for Chiat\Day, and then in 1991, the same year he was elected into the Advertising Hall of Fame, he launched another Minneapolis start-up: McElligott Wright Morrison White. It quickly failed, thanks largely to the disintegration of the super-competitive creative spirit of the 1980s ad industry, the spirit which he thrived on. He retired from advertising in 1993, before the age of 50.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview he did for an ad student, after retiring:

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. The years that I spent in advertising I saw an awful lot of people who had the potential to be good lose a lot of their ability to distraction, to politics, to fear, and to who has the bigger office. You’ll get the bigger office; you’ll make the money. Anything you want will happen, but sometimes it’s hard for people to see that when they’re in the middle of it. It looks like it’s incredibly complicated. Well, it’s not complicated at all. In fact, it’s so uncomplicated it’s amazing. All it is about is the work. Finally, if you do the work people will notice and you will get what you want. That’s it. It’s as simple as that.”


This is applicable to much more than creating ads, obviously.

Now let’s start your master class in advertising copywriting.

The most famous, and probably most successful, campaign McElligott created was the “Perception/Reality” business-to-business print ads for Rolling Stone.

The ads were placed in trade publications like Ad Age to change the media’s perception that the Rolling Stone reader was a stinky counterculture bra-burning hippie with no money. McElligott even created a scratch and sniff execution (use your imagination about what the two smells were).

As far as my opinionated ass is concerned, this is the best business-to-business ad campaign in history. The side-by-side perception/reality idea has been redone ad nauseam, less effectively, over the last 35 years. If you’re wondering how successful the campaign actually was, ask founder Jann Wenner how much his ad revenue jumped.

This Hush Puppies campaign was a client’s wet dream—product name in every headline, product shots in every layout—yet the ads were still hilarious and featured the cutest brand mascot ever. Has there been a better shoe campaign since? Nike in the 1990s, by Wieden+Kennedy. That’s about it.

Two brilliant public-service ads for two very different clients. Left: a Stevie Wonder testimonial—funny, memorable, and damn effective. The copy reads: "Driving after drinking, or riding with a driver who’s been drinking, is a big mistake. Anybody can see that.” Right: a simple undeniable truth for the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

McElligott got himself a whiskey account in the mid 80s—a whiskey account with no money to spend on production. Not a problem if you have a great fucking concept with legs, a big idea. The campaign makes you want to run to the nearest bar for that first drink. And it did it with stock photos. Brilliant.

One of McElligott’s early clients was the Episcopal Church. Better ads for a church have never been written. Period.

PETA used its full name in ads in the 1980s. And the ads weren’t the sexist garbage they are today. It’s often not effective to use shock-value visuals in PSAs, but with the right writing, it can work. No matter your view on animal experimentation, I dare you to tell me these ads aren’t effective.

If you’re wondering about TV commercials, McElligott did them too, and he did them well. But not many of them are online. An exception is this commerical for Penn tennis balls.

It takes the tired product-demonstration bromide and hysterically turns it on its head (please excuse the laugh track). This ad would of course never pass muster today. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”—perfect tagline.

Flash-forward to the 2014 advertising industry. 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.

The above collection is just a smattering of McElligott’s great ads. Dave Dye has collected every Fallon McElligott Rice print ad that can be found online. If you work in a creative field—especially if you’re a social-media dipshit—go look at the ads, here. Now.