Luke Sullivan was a wild and crazy copywriter at The Martin Agency in the ‘80s: a perfect caricature of the modern creative as seen by your typical banker. He played a big role in putting TMA on the map. In those days, he was obsessed with winning awards. The clients got a huge bonus when Luke was assigned to their account. He wouldn’t quit until he got something special. (Note to anyone who grimaced when I mentioned his awards obsession: aren’t those awards freaks the ones who do the much discussed “creative for the sake of creative”? Nonsense, the self-respecting ones like Luke know that the path to the awards podium is built with fresh strong strategy elegantly or joyfully brought to live. Sure, there are judges who are too eager to give prizes to wild, irreverent, obscene work. So some of that work gets through the system. The industry usually just ignores that work. Which sounds like the right thing to do.
Luke and I have pretty similar taste. If I get straight 10s for my taste in movies, TV shows, music, people and ads (and I do think I get a 10–just as you think you get a 10), he gets 7s or 8s. Not bad. (Well, actually he gets 4s in movies. Lord knows I’ve tried to help him there.)
Luke gave an interview a couple of years back to the Big Orange Slide. I thought I’d compare my opinions (in orange) with his.
October 19, 2010 by Ian Mackenzie
What separates advertising’s rock stars from its chair warmers? And what does it take to get to the next level? Over the past few months, we’ve been asking marketers who’ve made their mark their thoughts on getting ahead.
Today, Luke Sullivan weighs in. He’s Group Creative Director of GSD&M Advertising in Austin, Texas and author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A guide to creating great ads.
1) True or False: Results trump all reasonable shortcomings?
False. But a good question. Years ago Luke created an over-the-top, deliberately schlocky TV commercial for a promotion for Bank of Virginia. We thought everyone would be amused by its extreme tackiness. Here’s the problem: the audience, especially the bankers in the audience, didn’t see the humor. The promotion was incredibly, incredibly effective, soaring past all the stated goals. The chairman of the bank defended the spot in front of his staff because it so clearly worked. But as he left the stage, he told one of my partners” we’re never doing anything like that again.” It’s this very question I put in chapter 1 of my book. In fact, it’s why I gave it the title I did. Because the Whipple campaign with the stupid grocer worked really well. It knocked Scott tissue out of #1. But as an idea, it sucked. Results do not trump sucking. While they’re nowhere near as irritating as the Whipple campaign I’ve got to admit that Whipple and the GEICO gecko aren’t far off from each other conceptually. But the best gecko work is far better than any of the Whipple stuff, so I won’t beat myself up too badly here. In Hey Whipple, I wrote it this way (note in particular the smart quotation at the end from British Creative Director, Norman Berry):
With 504 different Charmin toilet tissue commercials airing from 1964 through 1990, Procter & Gamble certainly “irritated customers with repetitious commercials.” And it indeed “worked like magic.” P&G knew what they were doing.
Yet I lie awake some nights staring at the ceiling, troubled by Whipple. What vexes me so about this old grocer? This is the question that led me to write this book.
What troubles me about Whipple is that he isn’t good. As an idea, Whipple isn’t good.
He may have been an effective salesman. (Billions of rolls.) He may have been a strong brand image. (He knocked Scott tissues out of the #1 spot.) But it all comes down to this: if I had created Mr. Whipple, I don’t think I could tell my son with a straight face what I did at the office. “Well, son, you see, Whipple tells the lady shoppers not to squeeze the Charmin but then, then he squeezes it himself . . . Hey, wait, come back.”
As an idea, Whipple isn’t good.
To those who defend the campaign based on sales I ask, would you also spit on the table to get my attention? It would work, but would you? An eloquent gentleman named Norman Berry, a British creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, put it this way:
I’m appalled by those who [judge] advertising exclusively on the basis of sales. That isn’t enough. Of course, advertising must sell. By any definition it is lousy advertising if it doesn’t. But if sales are achieved with work which is in bad taste or is intellectual garbage, it shouldn’t be applauded no matter how much it sells. Offensive, dull, abrasive, stupid advertising is bad for the entire industry and bad for business as a whole. It is why the public perception of advertising is going down in this country.
2) Do you have any overarching theories that help you navigate agency politics?
Yes. Keep your eye on the ball, not on the players. Good advice. I’d add, be a positive force within the agency. Do something anti-political every day.
3) What’s your leadership style?
My answer to your question will be this as-yet-unposted entry for my Hey Whipple blog. Title is tentatively, “Almost All Great CDs Are Also Great People.”
Recently I posted an article about brutal creative directors. And why you should get your book out as fast as you can. Now, if I may, a few words on what I think makes a good creative director.
I once read that a coach’s main job is to love his players. I think the same holds true for creative directors. Advertising is so hard. There is so much rejection, so much brutality, so many late nights. I do think that in our efforts to convince ourselves we’re in some macho profession we highly exaggerate the pains associated with it. The fact is most of us in this business work long hours, but they’re long hours interrupted by sushi lunches and trips to Shutters. It’s frustrating when great work is killed (KILLED!!), but the fact is the bigger industry problem is that too much bad work gets approved. To be able to motivate people in such a business, you have to love them and they have to know it. Other motivations will occasionally work, but nothing beats love. Nothing comes close. Not everyone feels this way. A famous CD once confided to me, “You need to have people fear you.” Whoever he is, that CD is an a——. I disagree. Life is short and this is just advertising, people. If this means I’ll always produce less stellar work than a much-feared-CD, I’m okay with that. We all have our priorities. Those are mine.
Good creative directors need to get to know their people. I’ve heard of CDs who dig a moat around their office and meet only with the senior creatives; never with anyone lower down the food chain. This, too, I think is probably the wrong way to go about it. You need to know and love the people who are manning your trenches. You need to know their names, you need to know what they’re working on, you need to know when they do something great so you can lean into their offices and say, “Dude, that was great.” Soldiers do not charge machine-gun nests for generals they do not love. True. A little too macho, but true.
Good CDs not only improve your work, they improve you. Someone once told me that a great creative director is a “career accelerator.” These are bosses who leave your career in better shape than they found it. That requires someone who is not completely wrapped up in either themselves or the pressures of doing good work. They manage to keep any eye on the lives and the souls of the people who are working for them.
This takes me to a concept I’ve heard described as the “servant leader.” Writer James Kouzes wrote that such leaders “do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires [but on] the needs and interests of their people. They know that serving others is the most rewarding of all leadership tasks.”
Wow. Sounds a little altruistic put like that, but then I think of a guy like Mike Hughes at The Martin Agency and I realize, hey, he’s right. Here’s a guy who has been quietly building one of the best agencies anywhere and doing by serving his people, serving his agency, doing it without an ego, and without beating on or intimidating the folks who work there. Who am I to disagree? (I swear to God I began this exercise not realizing Luke gave me such a wonderful shout-out. Of course, the shout-out was almost certainly the reason I kept this piece on my desktop, so I’m not completely innocent.)
Perhaps another day we can talk about all the other things it takes to be a good creative director, one of which of course is being a good creative. But for my money the most important thing is being a good person – Honest. Level-headed. Friendly. Approachable. And humble.
Footnote: There’s a great article on what it takes to be a good creative director posted by the Denver Egoist which you’ll find here.
4) How much emphasis should an emerging creative put on post-selling their work through case studies and award shows?
Your question about award shows is an old one, oft answered by smarter people than I. Me, Luke, not I, me. (I love you.) But that bit about case histories, that is interesting.
When I was an ad brat, all that I was able to collect for my portfolio were ads and TV spots, usually one-offs, additions to someone else’s campaign. Nowadays it seems even young people are getting a chance to create entire campaigns. Often the best way to present a campaign (if it’s really a great one with proven results) is in the form of a case history. It’s simply more impressive. I’ve seen them used in online portfolios to great effect. But make sure you assemble the case history as creatively as you did the work. Done poorly it’ll just be a dry-ass PowerPoint presentation of strategy – creative – results. This isn’t on the same point, but one thing to keep in mind is the fact that ideas, ads, portfolios, etc., almost never sell themselves. We wish they would. They should. But they don’t.
5) Aside from yours, what’s your favourite book on advertising?
Let’s start off with some old classics: When Advertising Tried Harder, by Larry Dubrow; Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? by David Abbott; and From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor, by Jerry Della Femina.
Then there’s Well-Written and Red, a hard-to-find and expensive book on the wonderful long-running campaign for The Economist.
e is a hilarious novel about an agency going down the tubes, written entirely in emails.
Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris, is another book about an agency going down the tubes but this one’s an excellent piece of literature.
And no list about books for writers is complete without a tip of the hat to the Stunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style; required reading for anyone who holds a pencil anywhere near paper. True. I do wish someone would create a beefed up version of Strunk & White. The help I need is rarely included—and it’s getting a little dated. (Not as dated as I am, but dated.)
6) How do you know when it’s time to leave your current agency?
When you are always angry. That’s usually a good sign. Or if you are writing to Agency Spy about your agency. (Lordy, why on earth do people do that? If you hate it so bad there, leave already. It’s kinda like being at a bad restaurant and sneaking into the bathroom to make an angry post of the menu. Leave already.) Wonderful advice. I’m an awfully forgiving person, but working against the best interests of your company or your clients is inexcusable.
7) From a career perspective, what’s the importance of making intangible cultural contributions to an agency?
Pretty interesting question. To get ahead in this business, you need to contribute to the agency by doing great work. But you can also contribute by being a helpful and involved company person. That means caring about more than just the ads you’re workin’ on, but caring about the company itself. You can contribute by raising your hand to help with new business. Or by picking up the empty pop bottle by the front door. Or helping with the agency web site or agency blog. All things being equal creatively, management at your agency is gonna notice someone who’s involved over a cube dweller. My partner John Adams says culture isn’t just a big thing, it’s everything. If one job applicant is a 10, but isn’t the person I want to sit next to on a cross-country flight, I’m hiring the 9 instead. The 9 is the guy who picks the trash off the floor, helps the receptionist when she/he needs help, and grows to be a 10.
8) True or false: every brief contains an opportunity for greatness?
If you’re an optimist, the answer is “Yes.” If you’re a very busy optimist, it’s “Um, maybe. Can you come back in an hour?” If you’re a pessimist, it’s “No.” If you’re a busy pessimist, obviously it’s “Shut the fuck up.” I happen to be a busy optimist. If the brief doesn’t have the opportunity for greatness, rewrite the brief.
A final thought: Luke is one smart fellow. He’s also a gracious fellow: he’s never made me feel bad for writing a not-very-good intro to his most recent edition of Whipple. (Of course, he didn’t pay me anything either.)