Ad Chat: Luke Sullivan on creative culture and not being an asshat

Luke Sullivan needs no introduction, really. We've shared with you his books in the ad books section; both his biography and the many editions of "Hey Whipple". We've interviewed him when he visited Denmark and lectured at the Creative Circle, which was a hoot. If you ever have a chance to see him lecture, do go. He serves his ad-wisdom with a spoonful of funny.

You've led a long creative career, and hold passionate lectures about advertising and creativity. While some people famously enter the business and burn out in a few years, you're still on red hot. My question is - where is this fire coming from, and how do you keep the flames burning?

It’s kind of a cliché, but these ad students keep me young. It just rubs off on you, all their curiosity and velocity and at the end of the day, I’m not as wiped out as I should be, because I was getting so much out of it.
You've taught at the creative circus, and now at SCAD. You've worked at agencies like Fallon and GSD&M.... What's the difference and similarities between ad schools and ad agencies?
There really and truly is such a thing as culture and it is not just an intangible soft metric signifying little. Culture matters. Okay, here’s somethin’ I learned about cultures and about agencies. When you first walk into an agency where you’re interviewing,…stop right there in the lobby and take a note how the vibe feels. Is it good? Stop again somewhere else. What do you feel about this place? This company? You’re gonna have a feeling one way or the other and I’m here to tell you today, trust your gut. Listen to those feelings and if it isn’t a good vibe, don’t take a job there. Every time I denied those feelings, they came back to bite me.

Now, as for ad schools? Well, I taught one class for one quarter at the Creative Circus. Long time ago, so who knows what it’s like now, but I just loved their funky digs. Totally unique little building that’s just made for ad geeks, with silly stuff, like street signs at the corners of crossing hallways, signifying Bernbach Avenue, etc. And the top person there is also very cool and is godmother to a hundred ad careers -- Carol Vick.

I’ve also visited and spoken at VCU Brandcenter many times. Love that place, most especially because it was founded by a Martin Agency art director I worked with for years (Diane Cook-Tench) and continues to this day to bleed Martin Agency red. Good ol’ Mike Hughes is to thank in large part for how good this school is and his name deserves to be on Mike Hughes Hall, and probably a couple of other buildings. Plus there are all the other Martin folks who have taught and/or teach there.

The University of Texas at Austin continues to be just about the only mainstream university that consistently puts out lots of high-level portfolios. Deborah Morrison (now at the University of Oregon) got that school going and she is one of the most-loved people in advertising. Her kind face has launched so many good careers and she is now busy building an equally good school in Oregon.

But hey, I can’t end this section without a few words about my own school, the Savannah College of Art & Design. The coolest part about coming here to study advertising is that you get to work collaboratively with other students in one of the 47 other creative majors here on campus. When you’re in, say our Art Direction of Photography course, you’re creating work for you book, yeah, but you aren’t using stock images or stock footage. You’re right in there working with photography majors or film majors, the same way agency creatives do out in “the real world.” There aren’t many schools with classes (like our CLC classes) where real clients fly in with real business problems and brief a class of 20 students in wildly different creative majors like, say, Illustration, Advertising, Service Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design, and Motion Design. It’s just cool to see what happens when so many bright minds – minds that all think so differently -- all think about one problem. So, there’s that. Plus the fact that the school is in a sleepy little southern town and there’s Spanish moss in the live oaks just like in all the postcards and Forrest Gump.
What's the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

Oh, there are so many. See, the thing is, I was such an asshat for so much of my career. I took it all way too seriously. I beat myself up if I didn’t win a gold every year in the One Show (like so many of my colleagues at Fallon were doing, criminy, come to think of it, no wonder I was nuts; working with all those stars was in fact intimidating). If I could, yeah, I would tell myself to shut up and listen more. Even if you’re fairly talented, just behave as like an apprentice should and learn from the journeymen and masters who surround you. I would tell me to quit gettin’ so bent out of shape every time one of your ideas gets axed. Deal with it. That’s how it is in every creative business. 98% of everything you ever come up with will die. The answer is to sit down and come up with another idea. The best revenge is a better ad.
What triggered your journey into advertising as a career?

When I was in seventh grade, I noticed something about the ads for cereal on TV. (Remember, this was before the FTC forced manufacturers to call these sugary puffs of crunchy air “part of a complete breakfast.”)

I noticed the cereals were looking more and more like candy. There were flocks of leprechauns or birds or bees flying around the bowl, dusting sparkles of sugar over the cereal or ladling on gooey rivers of chocolate- flavored coating. The food value of the product kept getting less important until it was finally stuffed into the trunk of the car and sugar moved into the driver’s seat. It was all about sugar.

One morning in study hall, I drew this little progression (Figure 1.3), calling it “History of a Cereal Box.” (above)

I was interested in the advertising I saw on TV but never thought I’d take it up as a career. I liked to draw, to make comic books, and to doodle with words and pictures. But when I was a poor college student, all I was sure of was that I wanted to be rich. I went into the premed program. The first grade on my college transcript, for chemistry, was a big, fat, radioactive “F.” I reconsidered.
I majored in psychology. But after college I couldn’t find any businesses on Lake Street in Minneapolis that were hiring skinny chain- smokers who could explain the relative virtues of scheduled versus random reinforcement in behaviorist theory. I joined a construction crew.

When the opportunity to be an editor/typesetter/ad salesperson for a small neighborhood newspaper came along, I took it, at a salary of $80 every two weeks. (Thinking back, I believe I deserved $85.) But the opportunity to sit at a desk and use words to make a living was enough. Of all my duties, I found that selling ads and drawing them up were the most interesting.
For the next year and a half, I hovered around the edges of the advertising industry. I did paste- up for another small newsweekly and then put in a long and dreary stint as a typesetter in the ad department of a large department store. It was there, during a break from setting type about “thick and thirsty cotton bath towels: $9.99,” that I first came upon a book featuring the winners of a local advertising awards show.

I was bowled over by the work I saw there— mostly campaigns from Tom McElligott and Ron Anderson from Bozell & Jacobs’s Minneapolis office. Their ads didn’t say “thick and thirsty cotton bath towels: $9.99.” They were funny or they were serious— startling sometimes— but they were always intelligent.

Reading one of their ads felt like I’d just met a very likable person at a bus stop. He’s smart, he’s funny, he doesn’t talk about himself. Turns out he’s a salesman. And he’s selling? . . . Well, wouldn’t you know it, I’ve been thinking about buying one of those. Maybe I’ll give you a call. Bye. Walking away you think, nice enough fella. And the way he said things: so funny.
Through a contact, I managed to get a foot in the door at Bozell. What finally got me hired wasn’t my awful little portfolio. What did it was an interview with McElligott— a sweaty little interrogation I attended wearing my shiny, wide 1978 tie and where I said “I see” about a hundred times. Tom later told me it was my enthusiasm that convinced him to take a chance on me. That and my promise to put in 60- hour weeks writing the brochures and other scraps that fell off his plate.

Tom hired me as a copywriter in January of 1979. He didn’t have much work for me during that first month, so he parked me in a conference room with a three- foot stack of books full of the best advertising in the world: the One Show and Communication Arts awards annuals. He told me to read them. “Read them all.”
He called them “the graduate school of advertising.” I think he was right, and I say the same thing to students trying to get into the business today. Get yourself a three- foot stack of your own and read, learn, memorize. Yes, this is a business where we try to break rules, but as T.S. Eliot said, “It’s not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.”

What's the one thing that excites you about the future of advertising?

Content. The age of the message economy is over. Nobody ever wanted brand messages to begin with, but the media was paid for by ad dollars and so the content was held hostage. There was the interruptive model of advertising. Now it is advertising-as-destination. Now it’s about content; about doing something so cool for brands, so interesting, that people will stop what they’re doing and come over to see what cool thing everybody else is looking at. It’s all very different from the days of interruptive message-based advertising. Which is why it bugs me a little bit when I still see interruption-based thinking still tryin’ to hang on by the fingernails with interruptive stuff like “page takeovers” or the roll-up videos you have to watch before you get to watch the video you asked for.
Which campaign or project that you've done, are you most proud of?

32+ years in the business, and my single favorite creation is -- of all things -- a radio campaign. The reason is I had a great client who trusted I had their best interests at heart.
As I've mentioned before, radio is a great medium to work in. Partly because everybody usually leaves you the hell alone. They don't know what makes for great radio, at least not in the script stage.
I've often suggested that radio is one of the few media where I rarely feel bound by any particular campaign structure. Plenty of great radio campaigns out there have them (I'm thinking Bud’s real American Heroes). And if you've stumbled upon a platform that's yielding great spots one after another, by all means, stick with it. But if such a platform eludes you, there’s no dishonor to you nor loss to your client if you end up creating simply a string of great stinkin' radio spots. As long as the spots are on one strategy and are all great.
See, I think radio is different than other media. A radio spot exists only as long as it's playing. (Okay, so does TV. Pipe down, I'm on a roll here.) And unlike TV or print, there's no visual graphic standards to worry about. Whenever I sit down to do radio, I allow myself the freedom to attack it one spot at a time, tryin’ to just string together a bunch of the coolest-or-funniest-or-scariest spots I can. Sometimes I'll hit on a spot that has a repeatable format and lots of legs. That’s when I go with a very campaign-y campaign.
But if I don't? BFD.
The thing is, if you are diligently writing to one strategy on one brief, your spots will likely all add up to one brand anyway. No matter how wildly different the structures of the spots or the sound of their voiceovers, in the end the listener takes away one thought. (GEICO'S 4 TV simultaneous campaigns come to mind.)  In the case of these wildly dissimilar spots for Dunwoody, the intended take-away is: "You can waste your life after high school by getting a crappy job, or by getting a fancy-schmancy liberal arts degree in like ‘romance languages’ which’ll result in the same crappy job anyway. So come to Dunwoody for training in a actual career where you'll land an actual job."

You can listen to my favorite career work by visiting and looking at the tabs at the top of the home page. Please feel free to tell me what you think, even if you think they suck. (I'll probably disagree with you because I think they're pretty good. But, hey, I could be wrong.)

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kidsleepy's picture

Long live Luke. Dude is a genius. And humble, too. That's a rarity in this business.

Dabitch's picture

Yep. His lectures are so much fun too.

Maria's picture

Thanks for the interview. It's always great to hear Luke say so much of what other creatives are thinking and feeling. Having survived in this business for a few decades myself, I applaud such spot-on heart-felt honesty and candor.