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Tugboat copywriting

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When you think about copywriters and advertising, you can’t avoid associating it with the classic Mad Men, Madison Avenue era.

The 60s, cigarette-smoking, whiskey-sipping, late-night office hours pondering on the big ideas, until a stroke of genius hit you.

It was David Ogilvy and the golden years of copy that engulfed the minds of consumers and skyrocketed sales.

There was another side to it though.

Enter Leo Burnett, the guy who came up with the Marlboro man ad.

Not from fancy New York, but from blue collar Chicago.

In Ogilvy’s biography “The king of Madison Avenue” the author shares something Burnett said once about how his agency did things differently:

“Its ad-making ranks are filled with folks whose heads are stocked with prairie-town views and values . . . our sod-busting delivery, our loose-limbed stand and our wide-eyed perspective [makes] it easier for us to create ads that talk turkey to the majority of Americans. . . . I like to imagine that Chicago copywriters spit on their hands before picking up the big, black pencils.”

Love it. It’s the perfect image for getting your hands dirty and digging into your market.

It’s also a great point about how being part of your market sometimes is the best thing that can happen to you. You speak their pains, their worries, their desires, their motivations.

You match their expectations, their style, their voice and tone.

This does not mean that your job is just writing a couple lines of copy and call it a day though.

It’s what spitting on your hands before picking up your pencil means, I think. Knowing there’s always work to do, before writing even a single line of copy.

Never thinking you know enough, or that you’re blessed with a god given talent for generating big ideas. Never thinking you’re immune from confirmation bias.

Because you’re not.

It’s a contrast with the idyllic and almost mythological view of copywriting and advertising that most people have.

One of Burnett’s employees called it “tugboat copywriting”, for their tugging on consumers’ heartstrings. Not luring them in, not hypnotizing them with fancy or “magical” words.

Just pure, rugged and real language their people would use.

Keep it real.

If you’re having trouble with that get in touch.



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