The Interview Series // 32

Back in 1998, the distinguished dewd pictured above, Luke Sullivan, (http://twitter wrote a book called Hey Whipple, Squeeze this (http://www In the twelve years since its release, Hey Whips has become THE go-to book for all aspiring advertising creatives. There are several reasons why this is the case, but the only one really worth knowing is because Luke has that innate quality to call bullshit and talk straight. A quality that all great admen and women certainly seem to have. Unequivocally speaking, Luke Sullivan is THE man–he’s funny as hell and makes your dad seem like the uncoolest man alive. These days you’ll find Luke at GSD&M (http://ideacity in Austin, Texas (http://maps NULL.00048895d4ddeb59f9425&ll=5 NULL.344985,-164 NULL.79728&spn=134 NULL.70471,324 NULL.667969&t=h&z=3&iwloc=00048895d4e694e67dd83) where he is Senior VP / Managing Group Creative Director, making cool shit, doing interviews like this, and writing a pretty damn good blog (http://www NULL.heywhipple So, for all you ad kids out there, read on, get the low-down, then buy the book (http://www if you haven’t already.

Junior: Hey Luke, how did you get your very first break in the industry?

Luke Sullivan: I entered the agency business from the fringes. I was a typesetter for the in-house agency of a department store in Minneapolis called Dayton’s. It no longer exists, but the brown building is still there. (In fact, you can still see it in the credits for the old Mary Tyler Moore show (http://www They shot the part where she throws her hat up in the air in front of Dayton’s.) But I digress. I had a second job at night being what they then called a ‘keyliner’ at a weekly newspaper called the Twin Cities Reader. One day, I found a small publication listing the winners of the local advertising show and I was smitten by how cool the work was coming from a particular pair of people: Ron Anderson and Tom McElligott. I put together what has to be the worst beginner¹s book in the history of advertising, took it in, and somehow got a job. I also had a contact with the president of that agency through my college buddy. Kinda did both at once. And it worked.

J: Okay, fill us young pups in: What did a “keyliner” do?

L: Today, you would call a keyliner a studio person. You executed ads based on what an art director specified. The even-more-ancient word was “paste-up.”

J: Most people who start in typesetting become art directors. When did you start writing – or had you always been a writer?

L: I was in between. I liked to draw. And I liked to write. And as a kid I got to do both when I made my own comic books. By college, though, I knew. I liked writing.

J: What made you decide to write ‘Hey, Whipple, Squeeze this’ (http://www

L: I wrote Whipple when I was at Fallon in Minneapolis. I had been saving speeches and articles for a few years in a file and then gradually I started adding other people’s advice, insights, and articles. The file eventually grew unruly and bad-tempered and would barely fit in my drawer. Then one day I had to give a speech at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta and raided that file for all it was worth. In Atlanta, I handed out the notes of the speech and later learned that the notes were turning up as screen savers in agencies here and there. In addition to being flattered, I began thinking there was a market for a decent book on advertising. Most books (at least at the time) were pretty bad. All you had to do was look at the examples of “good advertising” these books contained and you could tell the authors weren’t practitioners of the craft, at least the craft I practice. So I just started writing. I didn’t have a publisher, nor any hope that such a book would be welcome on the shelves of bookstores. But that was beside the point; I had to write this book mostly get it out of my system. After I had finished, I showed the first manuscript around to about 40 people I admired, just folks in the business: creatives, account folks, directors. Every one of them was kind enough to read the entire thing and give criticism. I am still in debt to those people. After that, it was just a matter of getting it into the hands of the right publisher. Not knowing the first thing about the process, I just wandered over to the Barnes & Noble in downtown Minneapolis and bought some books on book proposals for publishers and other how-to manuals. I followed what they said to do and that was pretty much it. It’s been a fun thing. It’s made money. Not Stephen King money, but first-time authors rarely make any serious dough. It’s more of a love and pride thing.

J: There’s a lot of people and books out there that will tell you how to get a job in an agency. But once in, it’s sink or swim. Do you have any key survival pointers for kids just starting in Adland?

L: It helps to have a friend higher up, somebody who can keep an eye on you. Maybe it’s someone in the creative dept who isn’t the CD, but a senior person you can turn to for advice. Maybe it’s someone you met when you were interviewing there. Look for ‘em. Don’t be shy about it either. After hours, lean into someone’s office and just go for it. You’ll find them. Only if you look; they generally won’t walk up to you and introduce themselves. Creatives are often shy; always busy. Go find them.

If it can’t be a senior creative, buddy up with the friendliest juniors you can find. You’re always gonna find a few friendly souls who are the welcoming type. Hang out with them. Ask their opinions. What should I do? Where can I go to get help with such-and-such? The jungle drums are always beating.

J: We read on your blog (http://www NULL.heywhipple something about marrying the techno-geek code-guy with the wordsmith/art director in terms of making yourself a valuable creative. What advice would you give both for discovering the beauty of the other?

L: The only way to do this stuff is to do this stuff. Sounds silly, I know. But that is my experience and it’s what I am seeing the successful agencies doing. They just start; they dive in; they figure shit out as they go. You, too, will figure shit out as you go, but first you have to dive in. After you start, you will begin to realize what you bring to the party (and what you don’t) and if you enter with a willingness to learn and to just shut the hell up and listen, you will meet in the middle regardless of which side you started.

J: These days, wannabe ad kids are springing up all over the world, mostly in geographically ‘unfortunate’ places (as far as the industry is concerned) How should these kids without access to interesting start-ups and creative powerhouses with a billion internship places approach the advertising world?

Back when I wrote Hey Whipple, I did some research through AAAA about how many agencies there were in America; just to see for myself. Turns out that even in 1998 there were over 13,000 agencies. Dudes, that¹s a lot of places to find work; a lot of places to get your foot in the door. And now, with the explosion of digital, there gotta be tens of thousands more places.

Fact is, you do NOT need your first job in the agency business to be at some creative powerhouse. What you need to do is get a job. First and foremost, get a job. That is the important thing. Yes, you should try to get one in a place of your choosing, but that’s not always gonna happen. There are only so many A+ agencies out there. But you can do great work in any number of places. There are agencies out there that may have a couple of big clients that make them do bad work, but if you take a look you’ll see they’re doing great work on other pieces of business. It’s just not black and white. So my advice is a.) yes, go for your fave agencies but b.) don¹t despair if you can¹t get a job there. There are plenty of great places to get a job. Get a job where you can and start working on adding good work to your book.

J: A lot of the advertising we see seems to feel the same – you know, a variation of an idea or style that won at Cannes the year before. What would you say to young juniors falling into the trap of monkey-see monkey-do?

Well, what I learned in grade school art was this. “No tracing, Luke. Did you TRACE this?” Umm, yeah.

I guess that advice still applies. I want to see what you think. The thing is, given the speed at which award shows are able to print and bind their award annuals…..when you are reading a new annual, you’re looking at work that’s about a year-and-a-half to two years old. These things get printed in China, okay? And to reach your hands, it had to come on a slow boat from China. Literally. So…I don’t know about you, but I don’t wanna be modeling my ideas on stuff that came on a slow boat from China. I had a long talk with Mike Hughes about award shows once. He was actually considering not letting his creative department submit anything to any show for a year. Just to see what they would do if the orbital pull of the shows were entirely removed from the creative process. While the idea is not popular with creative people I mention it to, I still think, wow, pretty interesting way to go.

J: If you could give the one, final set of instructions on how to write clear and engaging copy, what would you say?

L: Sorry, but this is kind of a silly question. There is no one final set of intructions. Read William Zinser’s On Writing Well. Read the books of good writers. Read all the time. Write all the time. Read the awards annuals. Read everything. Adweek, Archive, watch the reels, read library books, read the sports section, the business section. Read history, read comedy. Soak up the culture around you. Don’t stay in your advertising ivory tower. Get out there. Learn and learn and learn some more. It is a process that will never end. There is no shortcut.

J: How do we find ‘the truth’ in a brief or problem? What does it feel like when you find it? How do you know if it’s really ‘a truth’ or not? Tell us everything about it. We feel like this might be the secret to everything.

L: Often times I see agencies working to briefs where the strategy looks more like a company mission statement. ‘We believe fresh foods mean better health.’ A strategy, however, at least by my way of thinking is a clever plan. Look it up in the dictionary. Well, lemme do it.

1 a: an artifice or trick in war for deceiving and outwitting the enemy
b: a cleverly contrived trick or scheme for gaining an end.

By this definition, the Trojan Horse was a strategy. It was clever; it was unexpected. Too often though strategies today seem to be little more than ‘themes’ or mission statements. Better, I think are strategies that are built on top of, and powered by, cultural tensions. Depending on the client you are working with, this isn’t always possible. But when a strategy can be built on top of a cultural tension, great work is built into the strategy and fairly bursts out of it, like volcanoes along tectonic plates. Unfortunately, I am not an expert in strategy. All I know is that ‘Fresh foods mean better health’ is a theme; not a clever strategy and not built on a cultural tension.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 11/06/2010