An Interview with Luke Sullivan

Luke Sullivan, author of "Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!" and Chair of Advertising at South Carolina College of Art & Design
Luke Sullivan, author of “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!” and Chair of Advertising at South Carolina College of Art & Design

If you’re reading this and you don’t know who Luke Sullivan is, boy are you in for a treat. The guy is colossal. 33 years in the business at shops like Fallon and The Martin Agency, turning out some of the most brilliant work of his time. And of course, he wrote “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This” in 1998 which has been used by more people in and out of this business to teach people what this business is about then I can count. But it’s a lot. We reviewed it here – and we discussed it and the nature of advertising with him here.  

change

Agency Review:

When I look at advertising and marketing books from before 2007, they often feel like they’re from another century. And yet, the first edition of “Whipple…” actually is from another century. So, besides the obvious (the internet, social media, the housing market) what’s changed in advertising in the decade or so since you first wrote the book, specifically, that you wouldn’t have predicted had someone like me asked you about what the future holds back then?

Sullivan:

Let me first address how I have changed. When I was young I was quite certain I knew pretty much everything; that if people would only shut up and listen, well, things would be a whole lot better around here. One of the many things I was certain of was that advertising used to suck and it doesn’t suck as much anymore because the cool agencies are here to fix things. Well, there were come cool agencies fixing things, but advertising had more sucking left to do. Plus, the world was changing faster than I was.

See, just as I started to figure out what the hell I was doing, the whole business changed. I wrote off these changes as fad. But by the early ‘90s, only a fool would fail to see all the deck chairs sliding off to port. And obviously by today, well, the digital revolution is not only over, digital has won.

I wished I had been an early-adopter earlier. I’m a pretty fast study now. Not to hop on a fad, but I try to keep up with as much of the technological change as I am able.

All that said, the newest version of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This is the 4th edition and it’s the first edition where I finally tackled writing about all the new media. I just wasn’t ready to write about it until a couple of years ago. To write about something, you really have to have a good handle on it; to know it.

And while the world is changing too fast to allow any paper-based book be the final word on anything, I stand by the 4th edition as the best way for a student to get a handle on what modern advertising is all about.

Agency Review:

Okay, but a bit of clarification first – are you saying the thing you didn’t realize was that 1) you didn’t know everything, 2) there was still a lot of shitty advertising yet to be created, 3) here comes the internet, or 4) all of the above. Or, are you saying the thing to learn was that one must always be learning and that the moment you stop you’ll find yourself consigned to that special circle of hell were we are all forced to listen to each other talk about how brilliant we were if it weren’t for those bastard clients, blah blah blah. Because that seems to be the thing that I keep thinking – every morning, everything is different, but we tell ourselves it’s not just to keep ourselves from freaking out.

Sullivan:

Here’s the thing about our business. Unlike other industries like, say, grocery stores or fast food or construction….I mean how many other industries had their entire business structure disrupted by digital. Everything changed. How we MAKE stuff, how we DISTRIBUTE it, HOW clients pay us and WHAT they pay us for. Boom, all up in smoke. So yes, this is a very hard business to keep up with. And coasting? Forget about coasting. If you aren’t out there INVENTING stuff, dude, you’re gonna be toast.

And the thing is, with digital, it’s not something you can read about and get great at. You have to actually do it. So yeah, as an ad kid from the ‘80s, I had to swim pretty hard just to stay in place. In a posting on my heywhipple.com, I wrote:

But I won’t kid myself. I’m still a digital immigrant, probably with a heavy old-world accent even the guys at the corner deli couldn’t understand. Yet I am not content to sit on Ellis Island wondering what delights await discovery on the new digital shores. I’m swimmin’ across. Meaning, I stay very busy learning everything I can.

I am busy actually using the new media. I am busy reading about it. I am busy blogging about it, tweeting about it, and watching “webinars” (I still can’t say that word with a straight face) – online seminars broadcast from cool places like Boulder Digital Works. I read Edward Boches’ blog (the guy’s brill). And Boches’s’s site is just one of the websites I visit regularly to find inspiration and education. (The list is over there to the right). When I can talk my company into paying for it (they came through big-time on SxSW) I attend seminars and conferences in person. All of this so I can learn the new media, experience the new technologies, and help take my clients’ brands out into the world to meet their customers.

rediscovery

Agency Review:

One of the things I’ve discovered about teaching advertising is that it reminds you of what you know that you didn’t knew you know. (We tend to talk in shorthand at work, and when you have to slow down and connect the dots, you remember things your forgot). I would guess writing a book about it would be similar, and certainly editing a book you’d written before would be, well, what’s a word for “even more similar”? So what have you rediscovered each time you edited and revised “Whipple…”?

Sullivan:

The ability to write a clear sentence is probably the most important single ability we can learn. The ability to come up with a decent thought and then be able to express it in an interesting and succinct way, what’s more relevant to the communication business than that?

I don’t want to sound like the old professor that I am, but I lament the state of education today. The ability to write a decent sentence is an art on the brink of extinction.

Agency Review:

I hear you about the death of the decent sentence (the preceding example notwithstanding). And I’ve even heard rumours that talent folks at agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to find copywriters who can write copy longer than a tweet, status or banner. Are you finding this to be the case?

Or, if I may digress here for a second, are you finding the ability to think critically a dying art as well? The ability not merely to report a bunch of facts, but to weigh them, compare them, contrast them, and offer an analysis of the differences and values? Whether I’m teaching grad school or undergrad, arguing with creatives or account folks, or trying to sell things to clients, I am finding the number of people who can support their thinking with more than just “well, I dunno, that’s just what it seems like” is dwindling to abysmal levels. You?

Sullivan:

I’m not sure, really. Yes, on some days back in the agency business I remember wondering if thinking clearly might actually be a detriment to getting things done. But those were mostly the bad days. Overall, I think the world is still pretty much a bell curve. You got a small bunch of really smart people out on the end, a whole buncha people in the middle of the IQ-pack, and then you have a small number of idiots bringing up the rear. It has always been thus.

But I will stand by my statement that I think the educational system (and the includes most colleges) the system does not hold today’s students’ feet to the fire when it comes to learning how how to write well.

difference

Agency Review:

“Whipple…” is used by many at agencies as an informal ad school for people entering the industry. Additionally you’re now Chair of the SCAD’s ad department. So you’re regularly engaged with a new generation of agency folks on a couple of different levels. What’s different about people entering the industry now, compared to when you went into it? What surprised you about what they did and didn’t know or understand?

Sullivan:

I think most of the people in my generation of ad folks sort of stumbled into the business. We weren’t any damn good at anything else. Or perhaps we weren’t interested in anything else. Nowadays, many kids arrive knowing that they want into the ad industry. They have a kind of a focus I certainly never had. All I knew was that I wanted to write.

There’s another difference, the obvious one: all the kids today are so incredibly savvy about technology and digital communication. Additionally, the digital lifestyle these kids lead means that most of them are fully immersed in popular culture; there isn’t a meme or a fad that they haven’t posted on their own Facebook pages.  They’re just more global, at least more so than I was at their age.

Agency Review:

I think that’s a good point about wanting to go into the industry rather than just stumbling into it (though I would bet that if we polled George Lois and Mary Welles they might say the same thing about the generation that followed them).

But what about the industry is it that you think is drawing them? You wanted to write and saw advertising as a place to do that. Do you think they see it as a place to write apps or build websites or some other damn thing? I certainly don’t think it’s for the glamour that it had for a short time when I was young. Nor do I think it necessarily has the “I can’t make a living as an artist so I’ll do this instead” cachet that it once had. So what is it? And how do our comments about copywriting and my brief screed about critical thinking fit into that?

And one more part to this question – because I’ve written recently that one of the great things about this business is that it’s a wonderful place if you’re curious, and that if you’re not, you probably won’t be happy or successful. But the internet and social media has had a weird affect on people’s curiousity – especially, I think among the generation entering this industry now. Are you finding that, or do you think my tinfoil hat is perhaps a wee bit too tight?

Sullivan:

“Tinfoil hat too tight.” That is funny.

Well, my guess is that kids learn about the ad business through movies and the internet and YouTube and hear about commercials during the Super Bowl. Yeah it’s likely that jobs in the industry still have a certain amount of glamour appeal to young kids. I mean, come on, it’s not a job at a bank. It’s fun.

future

Agency Review:

With your eminent bona fides (which give you an in-depth knowledge of the industry) and your current position outside the day-to-day agency fray (which means you can speak honestly), who are the top five agencies to watch? The ones that you tell your students to pay particular attention to because you think they’ll be the ones everyone will be aping a decade from now?

Sullivan:

I do indeed have some favorites. For the last decade, few people have been able to unseat Crispin as one of the most interesting agencies on the planet. Every generation seems to have its cutting edge superstars; the people who are not just problem-solving, but problem-finding. People who are doing things that you didn’t even dream of, let alone aspire to.

Weiden + Kennedy and Goodby Silverstein & Partners continue to amaze me, particularly because they were great way back when I was in the business. Which means they’ve had to reinvent themselves several times to stay as cutting edge as they are. Pretty impressive.

But here’s the thing. Back when I was at Fallon (which was, arguably the Crispin of its day) there was in fact such a thing as agency dynasties. I don’t see that happening anymore. The agency world is much flatter now. There are good people everywhere doing great things. Even inside of some otherwise big boring agencies, there are pockets of killer work being produced. You can do it from anywhere these days. You don’t have to go to a name agency to do great work. Yes, it helps your batting average if you work at one but it’s not a requirement for doing great work.

Agency Review:

That’s a terrific point about the flatness of the industry – and one I think that is often overlooked. And I completely agree with you about the difficulty of dynasties – and I think there are a lot of reasons for that on both sides of the agency/client table.

That said, however, agencies have points of view – or at least, the best ones do; ways of operating that are distinct and that make them the right, or wrong, fit for potential clients (and indeed, one of the challenges for agencies is to make sure they don’t become so symbiotic with their clients that they’re no longer able to offer any perspective). Clients have certain expectations from their agencies – some clients want agencies that “just fill in the blanks”; some want agencies that “will be first to be second”; and some want agencies that will “roll the dice and see what happens” and some want agencies that will surprise and delight them (and some just want someone to pick up the check at dinner). So while I completely agree that more great work is happening in more places, and while I agree that Crispin, W+K, and Goodby are all tremendous, I’m also wondering about shops like Droga5, Mother, or Huge or Victor & Spoils or even whatever it is that Google is doing in their creative lab – agencies that seem to be erasing the lines that other agencies blurred.

must-have

Agency Review:

There are a lot of books relevant to this business. Even more if you believe, as I do, that books relevant to advertising are not exclusively “advertising books.” – that you can include books on culture, business, art, etc. So with that in mind, besides “Whipple…” what five advertising books do you believe every agency person should read, regardless of their role or tenure? Or, if you prefer, what five blogs do you think every agency person should read?

Sullivan:

Advertising: Concept and Copy, by George Felton, is a wonderful textbook on the craft. Excellent, detailed advice on how to think, how to write. Good stuff.

The Advertising Concept Book, by Pete Barry. To hammer home the point that idea comes before execution, every piece of advertising in Barry’s book is a pencil sketch.

The On-Demand Brand: 10 Rules for digital Marketing Success in an Anytime, Everywhere World, by Rich Mathieson. This is probably the best book out there right now on understanding the new digital marketing space.

For the sheer joy of writing, I recommend Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

I recommend Vonk and Kestin’s Pick Me: Breaking into Advertising and Staying There.

And for those of you in the mood for some killer non-fiction, I’ve heard great things about this new one: Thirty Rooms To Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic.

Okay, I wrote it. You can decide if it’s your cup of tea by checking out the short video about it on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtmbD4-6XSI

Agency Review:

I just watched the video – “Thirty Rooms…” looks tremendous and is definitely on the short list for a future review. And the whole list is thought-provoking and intriguing, as I expected it would be (and filled with things I have to add to my reading). So let me take this a different way – who didn’t or hasn’t written a book about the business that you wish had or did. Could be someone who had a unique perspective on the industry at a particular time, or it could be someone who created great work that you wish you could learn from. Or maybe it’s just someone who had great stories. Because that’s as much a part of this business as the writing and the crying. So who’s missing?

Sullivan:

I would love to see someone from Scali McCabe Sloves write a book about that agency. Not Ed McCabe or Sam Scali, but one of the people who worked in that great creative department. They were the shit in the 1970’s and early-early ‘80s. I just ate up everything they did.

You can read our review of Luke’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here), or learn more about Luke here.

Illustration of Luke Sullivan by Mike Caplanis

 
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