Egotist Interviews: Senior VP/Managing Group Creative Director at GSD, Luke Sullivan

By The Portland Egotist / /

A nationally acclaimed copywriter with a 30-year track record, Luke Sullivan is Senior VP/Managing Group Creative Director at GSD&M. He helps manage a creative department of 70 while continuing to work directly with Goodyear and the American Legacy Foundation.

Luke is a self-described “ad geek” and the author of the best-selling book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising. Offering practical advice with an irreverent eye toward the history of advertising, the book was ranked by Advertising Age readers at #5 on the list of top 10 media and marketing books of all time.

Luke’s experience includes 10 years at Fallon and five at The Martin Agency, with work for Miller Lite, United Airlines, Toyota, Black & Decker, BMW, Porsche and AT&T. He has more than twenty medals to his credit in the prestigious One Show and has served as judge for many creative award shows.

He holds a degree in Psychology from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and lives in Austin with his wife and two boys. He reports that he “enjoys the indoors” and likes to spend a lot of his time there.

Luke is one of the main reasons we got into advertising and, to this day, is one of the guiding lights in our daily work.

Q: You wrote one of the most famous advertising how-to books, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. Are you sick of it yet – or at least those ad boners who still reference it?

A: Hey Whipple has been a constant source of joy for me because so many young people write to me and say, “Hey, your book is what got me into the business.” That does NOT get old, I assure you. Feels great, knowing you had a positive effect on someone’s life (if luring someone into the dark alley of advertising can be described as positive). It’s in five languages now and the publisher just asked me to do a 4th edition. You’d think writing just a few new chapters and updating some of the work could be done quickly, bit it’ll likely take me most of the year to get that done.

Q: You’ve worked in a number of cities across the US during your career. Do you believe in “creative hotbeds” and the momentum they carry – or is that a thing of the past since the advent of the internet?

A: Back in about 1980, yeah, there were lots of articles in Ad Age about the “rise of the regional agencies” – Fallon, Wieden, Goodby, the usual suspects. But you’re right when you ask, “Did the internet change all that?” Sure did. The internet did that to the whole damn world (see The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman).

Q: What are the top 3 reasons you’ve never started your own agency?

A: 1.) I liked doing the work too much and didn’t want to disappear in a Black Hole of Meetings. 2.) It’s a lotta damn work. 3.) Lazy.

Q: What, in your opinion, is career suicide for an ad professional? Is working in-house or going client-side frowned upon?

A: Beyond getting soft or stupid or compliant, I don’t think there is any particular career move that’s career suicide. I’ve got a buddy who went client side and I know any agency would snap him up in a minute if he wanted to come back. How about Goodby’s Mimi Cook, now a big shot at Apple? Think we wouldn’t love to hire her? As long as you’re in the game, thinking, pushing for better, cooler….who could fault you? I sure wouldn’t.

Q: How do you think the role of the copywriter has changed, considering the present advertising environment that is predominantly visual-based?

A: It has changed. Big time. And the best answer to that question is a great new book by the editor of Creativity magazine, Theresa Iezzi, called The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era. I can’t say it any better than she said it.

Q: You talk about “craft” a lot and clearly take words and writing seriously. In your opinion, has social media turned us all into a bunch of half-literate monkeys?

A: This is a question that goes back to, I dunno, the emergence of comic books. Comic books were supposed to turn teenagers stupid, then it was radio dramas that were supposed to do that, then TV, then rock and roll, then MTV. All these things were supposed to have turned us stupid. Which is silly. We got stupid on our own. We got “half-literate,” as you describe it, by not reading and not writing.

Q: Speaking of craft, how do you bring it to digital?

A: When writing on paper, you try to write well. Am I right? So do that when writing for online publication. When you’re art directing graphics for a TV spot, you try not to suck, right? So, don’t suck when you do that in digital. When you’re casting for a radio spot, you pick just the right voice, right? So, do the same for an online video. Seems to me craft is portable. I’m sure there are some crafts unique to online, but they’re probably about stuff like coding, or faster downloads, and compressions and a buncha stuff I don’t know. But as for all the other crafts associated with the creative business, aren’t they the same?

Q: We noticed you have a relatively new blog, Hey Whipple. Convince those CDs and agency heads who think blogging is a waste of time that social media’s actually worthwhile.

A: Nope, I refuse. Fact is anyone who can’t be “convinced” that the world is changing needs to be left behind. When you think about it, it’s kinda like that scene in old war movies, you know, where the guy is wounded but he doesn’t know it and his buddy has to leave him behind, so he gives him his canteen and maybe a handgun with a coupla bullets. Anyone who’s talking like that (“social media and all these dumb web things”) anyone talkin’ like that, they’re wounded and you gotta leave ‘em behind. (“Go on! Save yourself, kid.”) Give ‘em your canteen, wish ‘em well, and head out.

Q: Which current campaigns do you wish you’d had a hand in?

A: Apple. It’s always Apple that has me goin’ “Damn, I wish I did that.” I wish they hadn’t retired “Mac vs PC” but I always say that about good stuff. I’m sure they’ll do something extremely cool soon.

Q: In all your years, what campaign were you the most stunned to have sold through and how’d you convince the client to buy it?

A: Good question, to which I have a definite answer. It’s a radio campaign, for a teeny little client that we had at Fallon McElligott in 1995 and 1996. It was a technical school called Dunwoody. And they trained kids in what they once called “the trades.” You could get a degree in, say, heating and air conditioning, architectural drafting, computer repair, … you know, REAL jobs. I had a great client who never changed a word of copy, trusted that I had their best interests in mind, and just let me at it. I’ve posted my fave spots from this campaign on my blog.

Q: Award shows – do they still serve a purpose, or are they outdated and unnecessary?

A: I’m all over the map about this one. I grew up positively insane about working the awards circuit. I think that’s probably pretty normal for younger creatives.

The reason? I see ad careers in terms of three stages. Early on, it’s about GETTIN’ FAMOUS. That’s what awards help do. Then, once you’ve got a bit of a name goin’, that’s when the juniors say, “Man, I oughta get paid more if I’m doin’ so great” which, of course, is when the second chapter kicks in – GETTIN’ MONEY. Then, when the final third of a career comes around, maybe when you got kids to worry about, a house, a spouse, when you have a life … well, but then it’s all about GETTIN’ STABILITY. You want a job that will last. You don’t wanna have to move your family around. So, with that sort of career track in mind, I get the whole awards thing.

On the other hand, if you get too into awards, it’ll start to effect your work. Because now, instead of sitting down to solve a business problem and to write to a particular audience, you could be writing with an award show audience in mind. It’s conceivable one could begin to work with a sort of Super Bowl “How-can-I-amaze-everybody” kind of mindset, one that may not be right for the problem at hand.

I’ll close with a several different paragraphs related to awards I wrote in Hey Whipple, Squeeze This:

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If there’s ever a time to study the awards annuals, this is it.
Study them. Read, learn, memorize. Don’t just concentrate on the most recent issues either. Dig up old annuals. Design fads come and go, but the classic advertising structures endure. See what makes the ads work. Take them apart. Put them back together. Some of the ads are humorous and work. Some are straight and work. Why? What’s the difference?

Avoid trends in execution.
Don’t take your cues from design trends you see in the awards books. (For one thing, if they’re in the books, they’re already two years old.) But this is about more than being up-to-date. It’s about concentrating on the soul of an ad instead of the width of its lapels.

Leafing through the awards annuals is okay, too. Get some inspiration, but don’t stay there too long. The shows are a good learning tool, early in the business; they’re a good starting point, early in the ideation process. But at some point, they will begin to steer your thinking. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to unmoor and sail into the unknown.

On the value of awards shows.
I shouldn’t talk. In my younger days, I was a pathetic awards hound. Just around April, you’d find me lurking in the mailroom pining for “the letter” from the One Show announcing accepted entries. “Is it here yet? . . . Well, check againnnnnn.”

But I won’t be too hard on myself. Our work isn’t signed. And when you’re new in the business, there’s no better way to make a name for yourself than getting into “the books.” Awards shows allow tiny agencies to compete with the behemoths. They serve as great recruiting tools for agencies. And they expose us to all kinds of work we’d not see otherwise. So I recommend them. With some caveats.

Don’t make the wrong name for yourself by entering too many campaigns for easy, microscopic, or public service clients. They might get in.

Don’t talk about awards shows around clients or account executives. You’ll devalue yourself in their eyes and make your work suspect. (“Is that last ad she did on strategy or is it just another entry into Clever-Fest?'”)

Don’t enter every show. As of this writing, there are 39 different national awards shows in this industry. No kidding — thirty nine. And that’s not counting the local shows. Only a few of them have merit. In my opinion, the best are The One Show and Communication Arts. And, in England, D&AD.

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Q: What do you think of the Victor & Spoils “crowdsourcing” agency model? How do you think it will affect the industry as a whole?

A: Good question but I do not know the answer. Too early for this one to tell.

Q: You have a magic fairy wand. If you wave it, you can change one thing about advertising that you hate. What do you change?

A: Clients would no longer ask agencies to do creative for new business pitches. The clients would simply pick a few shops based on the kind of work they’ve done previously. Then the clients would visit each agency, get a feel for the people, and make a choice. I can think of no other business where we give away our product for free; where we work ourselves to the bone, where we lose weeks, weekends, holidays slaving away with limited information in a crunched time schedule, as we try to quickly throw together solutions for complex marketing problems…. and doing it all for free. I think it’s just an absolute shame. But until the whole industry locks arms and just says “No,” it’s gonna keep happening.

Originally in The Denver Egotist.