The AdPulp Interview: John January

John January, Senior Vice President and Executive Creative Director at Sullivan Higdon & Sink in Kansas City is one of the good guys. Why else would the American Advertising Federation’s Kansas City branch name him Kansas City Advertising Professional of the Year? I suppose it might have something to do with commitment to craft, a history of big ideas for his agency’s clients and his consistent cultivation of talent.

Decorated ad man he may be, but January’s also a down-to-earth, fun loving family man. How do I know? I flew to Kansas City and met him, that’s how. Oh, have I mentioned American Copywriter, a blog about a podcast about advertising? That’s right, he’s one of us. He makes advertising by day and talks about it by night and weekend.

Q. is the best agency domain name ever invented. How important is it to distinguish your agency brand? The answer seems obvious, but so many agencies miss this boat, the dock and the waterways altogether.

A. The whole “We Hate Sheep” thing came out of a single presentation that we made in 2000. The point of it was, and is, that blending in is a bad business strategy. That leading is better than following. And so on. It created such a visceral reaction that we never looked back. Obviously, it’s memorable. But it also makes a smart point in an irreverent way. It communicates a lot about the type of agency and people we are. And that’s the key. Because We Hate Sheep repels as many brands as it attracts. Occasionally, just occasionally, we have to remind ourselves how great a thing that is. You have to take your own advice about going out there with something different and something that makes people have to think a little. Even in some damn serious and complex categories, the brand still plays. That’s because, ultimately, clients who buy in do so because of what it says about them, not us.

Q. Kansas City is a big time agency market. Please describe the scene to those coastal types who may not know the score.

A. Before the darkest days of the recession, Kansas City was a top five market in terms of the number of people engaged in the creation of advertising on a per capita basis. The city also boasts a surprisingly large number of creative jobs. Part of that is because creative companies like Hallmark and Andrews McMeel make their home here. The city’s largest shop, VML, employs around 800 people, the majority of which are here in KC. The city has a more than its fair share of sizeable indies such as Bernstein-Rein , Barkley , Sullivan Higdon & Sink, MMG Worldwide , Callahan Creek , NK and others. You’ve got nationally recognized design firms such as Willoughby , MK12 and Design Ranch and internationally renowned photographers such as Nick Vedros , Ron Berg and the Wade Brothers . Then you’ve got all these really interesting creative companies like Liquid9, Department Zero , T2 and Bazillion Pictures who are doing stellar work in everything from content to production to experiential to digital. And that’s just the start of it. The creative broth is really starting to thicken. The market has certainly suffered with the economy and some recent sea changes. But I remain bullish about the creative community here.

Q. Are you now, or have you ever been, tempted to leave KCMO for greener pastures?

A. Well, you know what they say about the grass being greener. Sure, there have been opportunities. But I’m an entrepreneur at heart. Always have been. It’s important to me to feel like I’m building something, not maintaining something. I want to feel every win or loss. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s the right gig for me.

Q. What’s wrong with the Royals?

A. What do you mean? They have the best farm system in baseball.

Q. What’s the best place for BBQ in KCMO? I know what the Food Channel says, I want to know where the Januarys grind?

A. Anthony Bourdain is right about Oklahoma Joe’s. When the craving strikes, the family and I get in line there with everyone else. But it’s Kansas City. So, occasionally, I need a Danny Edward’s or LC’s fix. You can’t go wrong with Fiorella’s Jack Stack or Gates. But it would be a sin to come to Kansas City and not try Arthur Bryant’s. Some say it’s a bit of an acquired taste, but it’s a taste worthy of acquisition. Plus the joint is exactly what your soul wants it to be. Go for the Rich and Spicy Sauce.

Q. Your agency specializes in “Marketing to Men.” What’s that all about?

A. We just looked around one day and realized we were talking to predominantly male audiences for jets and engagement rings and camping gear and big juicy steaks. We knew the categories. But we decided to get specifically smarter about marketing to men. We didn’t want to make a lot of clichéd assumptions. We poured over all the secondary stuff available and then we went out and did our own research and, after a couple of years of really digging, we landed on some insights that I know have helped us do a better job of connecting our clients with their customers. And they’ve helped us win new business in new categories, too. It’s not the only thing we do, but it’s an interesting and growing practice area.

Q. Sullivan Higdon & Sink really works both sides of the B2B/B2C fence. Do you enjoy the back and forth between the two disciplines?

A. We work very hard to tear down that fence you mention. We remind anyone who’ll listen that businesses don’t buy anything. Humans do. And all humans, even if they are also a CEO or a senator or a surgeon have hearts and minds. Whether you are selling cheese or jet engines or propane gas or a new idea, your advertising has to compel those hearts and minds. Yeah, the copy can get more complex when you’re selling an institutional investing approach vs. a new pizza, but the principles of salesmanship and the persuasive powers of creative craftsmanship don’t change.

Q. I had the pleasure of attending one of your famous Halloween parties a few years ago. How long have you been holding down the spooky?

A. About a decade. I look at it as a time of unfettered creativity. I’m married to an art director. Our Halloween extravaganzas are our own and we completely indulge ourselves. And we have learned to spin webs and build pneumatic props and program servo-We do exactly what we want with no input from anyone. I think all creative people need some kind of outlet where the only critics they choose to please are themselves.

Q. What does a writer or art director need to bring to the table if they want to work in your creative department?

A. Brains, humility and a love of their respective craft.

Q. Let’s talk “American Copywriter” for a minute. What does the blog and podcast bring to your professional life?

A. It’s allowed me to meet and build relationships with a lot of excellent people whom I would never have had the opportunity to interact with otherwise. I include the AdPulp crew in this list as well as a lot of the other ad and marketing bloggers who, to this day, amaze me with their relentless content creation. And I’ve gotten to meet Master Jedi copywriters such as Luke Sullivan, Mark Fenske and Sally Hogshead, as well as hundreds of cool creatives from all over the world. I don’t know about conversations. But I do know about connections. And the blog and podcast have certainly built them. I’m really grateful for “American Copywriter.”

Q. How did you get interested in this business in the first place?

A. I was in J-School and we had a guest speaker from an agency make this presentation one day. It changed my whole focus. That’s why I never take speaking to students lightly.

Q. Which is the best live band you’ve seen recently?

A. Government Mule. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that recently.

Q. What other sources do you tap for creative inspiration?

A. I think the most important thing is to ensure that you are leaving yourself enough time to fill up your creative well with stuff that’s not really connected to the industry. Go see a play. Jump into a weird gallery. Throw a pot. Write something just because. If all that you’re paying attention to is other advertising or commercial design then your perspective is going to get too narrow. When you fill up on creativity that doesn’t remind you of work, it bores new tunnels in your brain for ideas to squeak through.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.