Meet the Marketer Who Gives Brands the Middle Finger—and Profits From It
Most marketing ventures wouldn’t have the guts to describe themselves as a “liquor-filled chocolate treat” that’s “not for humorless bores.” But The Middle Finger Project, which is part of the copywriting company House of Moxie, is all about bucking trends.
On the project’s website, its fearless founder Ash Ambirge goes on to explain that TMF is “in the business of shunning clichéd, overused language, business practices, and lifestyle choices in favor of originality, happiness, and doing what feels good for you. Also, ‘no rules, just right’ was taken by Outback Steakhouse.”
In other words, Ambirge encourages people to throw traditional corporate language out the window and curse at it as it falls to the ground. And her clients love it. (How can you not adore someone who uses the phrase “It will wet your business panties?”)
In fact, The Middle Finger Project offers many different kinds of consulting for brands that want to be a little more badass. You can talk on the phone with Ambirge about copywriting and strategy for “troublemakers,” or about sending marketing emails “that people actually read and give a shit about.”
TMF also offers online classes, like “Learn How to Talk Business With Confidence” and “Brandgasm 101: DIY Design and Copywriting Course.” Befitting the company’s ethos, all of these consulting options and online courses aren’t run-of-the-mill.
I recently got on the phone with Ash to talk about how she chose her business model, why it’s working, and how other companies can benefit from some moxie.
Image via About.Me
What is the origin story of The Middle Finger Project?
I come from a really small town in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, so my whole life I was dreaming of moving to the Big City. And then I did! First I worked in marketing, and I was really successful at that so I started climbing up the ladder. Then I ended up landing my career in ad sales for a magazine. I loved it and was very good at it, but every single day I couldn’t help but feel like, “Shit, is this really all I’m supposed to be doing? This? Really? My life exists to make some other company a lot of money?” It felt so hollow. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that.
One day, I decided that I wanted to start a blog—a community—where people like me could talk about their quality of life. Because all of my friends thought that I was crazy, and told me to start dealing with real life. So I started the blog, but I never thought people were actually going to read it!
What was the tipping point that led to The Middle Finger Project becoming your main career focus?
I had quit my job in the ad agency, and had started my own copywriting company in 2006. But it failed miserably! I ended up writing copy for pharma companies, aka not what I wanted to be doing. I hated my life and ended up going back to ad sales. In 2009 I started The Middle Finger Project, but had already been dipping my toe into new ways to reinvent my copywriting agency. Then in 2010 I was forced to pursue the project full time, because I had no other way of making money. And now we’re doubling our revenue every year! I couldn’t be happier with the decision.
You say that your company is for business owners with a sense of humor but no business sense. How does The Middle Finger Project help entrepreneurs improve their company?
I’m very proud to say that there are people who have been reading the blog since 2009. Then, the whole goal was to say: How can I bridge the gap between my professional expertise and this world of freelancing and small business? I saw starting your own business and becoming independent as the way to improve your quality of life.
We have a very strong focus on branding and standing out from what I call the “sea of sameness.” With the Internet, you have the opportunity on the table in front of you, but you have to cut through the noise. We build things to help business owners enjoy their lives more, have more fun doing business, and keep business from being the fuckery that it can be.
Who writes the kick ass copy for your website? Is it just you?
I wrote 99 percent of everything you see on TMF because I am a total control freak. But I did go through this interesting journey where I built a team of writers, not so much for internal purposes, but more for external client work and helping to build out my agency. But then what happened is that my focus shifted from being a writer to being a manager, and I wasn’t happy with that. Sure, I was making more money, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I scaled back, and now it’s just me and my assistant who do it all.
It seems like the reason your company is doing so well is because you’ve mastered your voice. How can other companies benefit from creating stronger branding?
The big thing that people say to me after they read The Middle Finger Project is, “Thank you. You have helped me be okay with using my own voice.” Everyone gets trapped in fluffing their feathers and sounding professional so that people take them seriously— especially if they’re new at something. We freak out that people will know that we don’t have decades of experience. But that ends up kicking us in the teeth, because everyone is saying the same thing. And what’s problematic about that is nobody knows how to pick.
I often do workshops where I insist that everyone put a brown paper bag over their head. You can’t resonate with any one of those people because they all seem exactly the same. So in that sense, having a brand personality for your company is crucial. That’s the only way a potential client can decide if you’re the right match for them. You need people to react emotionally to you so that they’ll push the “Buy” button. In that way, brand language is the most important part of business.
What advice would you give to someone who is searching for their unique brand voice?
I meet a lot of new business owners who might know what they want to say, but they don’t want to pigeonhole themselves. So I often have people keep a voice diary. I have them write down any time during the day that they wanted to say something, but they didn’t—they toned it down to be politically correct. And then I have them write down what they really wanted to say. And soon, people will start to find a pattern in their own thoughts. And they start to figure out what position their brand is taking in its industry. That’s the key—find your position, figure out what kinds of statements you want to be making, and then start making those statements.
Would you say that humor is a great way for companies to find a competitive edge?
That’s a difficult question, because not everyone has that natural ability, and not every company will want to have a humorous tone. But I will say that one of the best things that I’ve done with my career is study psychology. What attracts people to buy something? Oftentimes it’s not the product itself, but how the person feels that product is reflecting their own identity. Because of that, using comedy is fantastic because most people have a sense of humor. Plus, it transforms a high-pressure sales situation into something that’s fun. Humor is a great way to get people to put their guard down, so that they can hear your actual message.
What advice would you give to someone who is unhappy with their current job situation?
I will never be able to have another traditional job. Now I can run with my ideas and control my own income. It’s amazing what you can do with a marketing or writing background. Everything is online now—everything is words! If you’re pounding your head on the keyboard because all you’re doing is writing the same goddamned thing, now is the best time to go freelance. Go get clients and make it happen for yourself. The Internet is more powerful than ever, and it’s still not too noisy that everyone and their mom is freelancing. You should take that risk. At the very worst, you just go back to your old job if it doesn’t work out.
The rationale is always, “Oh, but I spent so much time doing X, Y, or Z, or getting this eight year education. I don’t want to waste it.” And my response always is, “Okay, if you want to waste the next sixty years of your life, then go ahead.” Just cut your losses.Image by FreeBird Photos