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On Writing a Tagline (and Pitching It, Too)

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Peggy, Lou, and Dawn are characters on Mad Men, the 60s period drama about one of Madison Avenue’s most prestigious, albeit fictional, advertising agencies. Peggy is one of the firm’s copywriters, responsible for writing (and pitching) ad copy. Lou is her boss, the creative director. Dawn, a secretary, keeps everyone organized.

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The trio are meeting about a new account, a watch company called Accutron.

“Oh,” says Peggy. She’s looking at Lou. “You didn’t pick a tagline.”

“Sure, I did.” Lou looks at his secretary. “Dawn, what did I say?”

Dawn flips through her notes. “You said, ‘Just In Time To Be On Time.'”

“That wasn’t one of the choices—” Peggy interjects. “I think that was a digression.”

“How about ‘Accutron Is Accurate,’” Lou says. “That was one of the choices, I’m positive.”

Peggy lowers her chin. “I like ‘It’s Time For A Conversation,'” she says. She’s smiling, making eye contact. She’s selling now. “I think that one’s more finished.”

The director looks back at her. He’s peering over his glasses now. “And I think you’re putting me in the position of saying, I don’t care what you think.”

When you finish writing a tagline, it’s not done.

It’s not done until someone else reads it, nods, and says, “That’s the one.”

Indeed, every creative person is a salesperson, too. In copywriting — or any advertising discipline, for that matter — the powers that be must buy into your work, your idea or concept or turn of phrase.

“To sell work I could be proud of,” said art director George Lois, “I’ve had to rant, rave, threaten, shove, push, cajole, persuade, wheedle, exaggerate, flatter, manipulate, be obnoxious, be loud, occasionally lie, and always sell, passionately!”

That’s one approach, I guess. But what if you’re not in a position to “threaten” or “shove” or “push” your boss? Or, what if acting this way — aggressive and domineering — feels unnatural to you? Or uncomfortable? Or, erm … illegal? Then keep reading because this Mad Men scene provides some alternative advice, some timeless wisdom I, as a copywriter, wish I’d known sooner:

Chicago, 2014.

I feel nervous. I shake out my hands, take a breath, and knock on the door.

I hear my CEO’s muffled voice. “Come in.”

I crack the door and peek through the opening. “Hey, Rick,” I say. “I’m a bit early—”

Rick is looking at his monitor, typing. “No problem.” He looks up and smiles. “Early is good.” He slurps some coffee. “Come on in.” He puts the mug down with a thud. “Close the door.”

I purse my lips, nod, and step into his office, closing the door behind me. Rick gestures at one of the chairs in front of his desk. “Have a seat,” he says. I sit down. “How’s your first week going?”

I’m a copywriter, four days into my first role at Rick’s marketing agency. It’s a small, busy shop, specializing in lead-gen websites. I was hired on the back of my direct marketing experience and told I’d be focusing on writing conversion assets — landing pages, email campaigns, banner ads — but I could be tapped for other projects, too.

“Oh,” I say, “I love it here. Everybody’s been so welcoming.”

“Great to hear.” Rick crosses his arms and leans back. “I’ve got a project for you.”


“I want you to write us a new tagline.”

He has some more coffee. “Or would it be a slogan?” He put the mug down. “I dunno.”

The difference is nuanced but taglines and slogans aren’t interchangeable. Basically, a tagline supports the goals of a business while a slogan supports the goals of a specific campaign. A tagline is a branding tool. A slogan is a marketing tool. A tagline should differentiate the brand — and it’s there for the long haul: could be years, or even decades. A slogan should express the campaign’s specific idea or message — and it has a shorter shelf life. A tagline is more or less perennial. A slogan will change with every campaign.

“I think a tagline,” I say. “If it’s for the business in general.”

“Yes, a tagline,” Rick says. “Can you bring me a few options by next week?” he asks. “Is that enough time?”

Writing a tagline doesn’t have to be complicated.

It can be. That is, you can make it so … but it can also be simple.

You can’t make it easy, unfortunately. It’s still creative work, fraught with decisions and self-doubt and, sometimes, agony. But having a process — a series of clear, reliable steps — can make it simple, less daunting.

For example, most taglines are synthesized expressions of either:

So, to write a tagline, simply start by writing out your PS or USP in as many words as necessary. Then, edit for brevity and concision: cut the word count in half once, twice, three times. Doing fine. Keep going until you’re left with a sentence, one line. Then, put down the ax. It’s time to finesse, to make your tagline attractive to the masses:

  • Make it clear. No fancy jargon, please. Fancy words are usually big. And a big word will never impress The Reader as much as a big idea, clearly expressed. Good copy, first and foremost, is understood.
  • Make it beneficial. During his career, copywriter John Caples tested thousands of headlines. “The best headlines appeal to people’s self-interest,” he said. So, act accordingly. Your tagline is the headline for your business. Tell folks what’s in it for them.
  • Make it amusing. Puns, rhymes, wordplay, metaphors. These things are fun. People like fun. (We remember it, too.)

Done? Fantastic! Now, rinse and repeat. Go again, and again, and again. Quality comes from quantity because volume is illuminating: the more you write, the less precious and more objective you’ll be about each line, which is the point.

“The fewer ideas you have,” said screenwriter Scott Dikkers, “the more weight each idea holds in your mind.”

Indeed, as a copywriter, fetishizing one “darling” tag is counterproductive. Stifling your ideation prevents you from doing your best work. Instead, have many tags, many options. Don’t start with only three or four or five. There’s not enough there, not enough slack. You’ll be forced to settle. Better to start with 20 or even more — and pare down. The more you cut, the better. Eventually, you’ll start cutting ideas you actually like. This is the mark of true progress.

“Kill your darlings,” said Stephen King. “Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.”

Yes, kill your darlings. It’s the only way to produce your finest work, which is also the only work you should be putting in front of clients. If you’re asked to bring “a few options,” each one must be viable.

If you wouldn’t want an idea to get picked, don’t bring it to the table. I learned this the hard way:

“Next week is fine,” I tell Rick. “I’ll turn it around.”

A week later, I’m in his office again. This time, I have a handful of tags for him to review.

“Great work, Ed—” he says, flipping through the deck I created. “What’s your favorite?”

I had one, the clear winner in my opinion. “This,” I say without hesitation, pointing at the screen.

Rick’s face turns sour. “Eh,” he says, “I prefer this one.” He’s pointing somewhere else. “Let’s go with this one.”

I lower my chin. “I really like this one,” I say. I’m smiling, making eye contact. I’m selling now, explaining my decisions: the clarity of the message, the inclusion of a benefit, the creativity of the phrasing. “It’s gotta be this one,” I say, pointing at my option.

Rick looks back at me. He’s pursing his lips now. “Yeah,” he says, pointing at his option, “it’s this one for me.”

Murphy’s Law tells us, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Copywriter’s Law tells us something similar:

“Any idea that can be picked, will be picked.”

“Why would you put something in front of me that you don’t want me to pick?” says Lou.

“Because you told me to give you two ideas,” says Peggy.

Lou takes a beat. “You apparently only gave me one.”


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