Meet Luke Sullivan. Ad geek and an award-winning copywriter. Luke has been writing since about 6th grade and worked for agencies like Fallon McElligott and The Martin Agency. He is now CD at GSDM in ‘good ol’ Austin’. He wrote the bestselling advertising guide ‘Hey Whipple, Squeeze This’ back in 1998, a book now in third edition which is used in a lots of colleges and ad schools.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I like to write in a quiet, well-ordered, empty and totally clean room. I cannot work around people. I cannot work well with loud music. I can’t even work with soft music, if it has lyrics. I cannot work well with distractions.
What motivated you to write your book ‘Hey Whipple, Squeeze This’?
I wrote Whipple when I was at Fallon. I had been saving speeches and articles for a few years in a file. Gradually I started adding other people’s advice, insights, and articles and the file eventually grew unruly and bad-tempered. (It would no longer fit in my file case and I didn’t want to buy a new one; woulda thrown off the design of my office. I’m serious.) Then one day I had to give a speech at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta and raided that file for all it was worth. I handed out the notes of the speech and later learned 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, but not John Grisham money. First-time authors rarely make money. It’s more of a love and pride thing.
What do you look for in a student book and what impresses you?
Okay, so I was just interviewing a kid for his first job, right? Kid had just gotten out of a very good ad school. As we clicked through his book he said, “I’m sorry there’s not much advertising in here, but….” I interrupted him and said, “Dude, you had me a ‘Sorry.’” No, there wasn’t a lot of advertising in there. But his book was filled with fascinating things, interesting content, and yes, pretty much everything except what I might call traditional advertising. And I loved it. What a book needs isn’t cool advertising. Just cool creative stuff. Yes, ultimately the work needs to have some sort of a commercial aspect to it, it has to report to some sort of purpose, some strategy…but if show me something cool, something interesting, that’s what I need to see.
How did you get your very first break in the industry?
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. 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 beginner’s 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.
How important is finish? If ideas are the most important thing, can sketches be enough?
The short answer is, if your ideas are incendiary –I mean if they are hair-curlingly great — yes, you probably can get away with a less-than-finished look. But when you have a less-than-polished book, well, you have human nature working against you. It may not seem fair, but the better lookin’ books have an advantage. It has ever been thus. Remember the handsome stupid guys in high school? Dumb as a bag of scissors, and they still attracted all the great girls? Get over it. Aaaanyway, I don’t care how you do it, but find a way to make your great ideas look like great ideas. I’m not talkin’ about kick-ass finished art, but if you can go a level or two beyond stick figures, go for it.
What’s the most common misconception about being an person who works at an agency?
The movies and TV always get us wrong. They picture us as “wyld & krazee” people who have dentist chairs in the offices and the over-sized pencil on the wall and we say whacky stuff and then go to lunch. Most of the ad people I know could probably work at an insurance agency if they put on a tie. This is hard work we do. It’s not the Newtonian definition of work (moving weight over a distance), but I go home exhausted nonetheless.