The AdPulp Interview: Luke Sullivan

Luke Sullivan, Copywriter.
I somehow can’t imagine his name without the professional designation, given how synonymous the two are. Of course, Sullivan’s more than a Copywriter today. He’s also Senior VP/Managing Group Creative Director at GSD&M in Austin and the author Hey Whipple Squeeze This, one of the more instructive “how-to” books available on the topic of creating advertising. Sullivan also has a new blog called Hey Whipple. Thankfully, it’s not an obvious ad for his book, but a furthering of his thoughts on the ad business.
Enough with the introductions. I know you know who he is. But did you know his portfolio once sucked? Okay then, please read on…
Q. Your former colleague Bob Barrie now has his name on the door. Do you ever think about running your own shop?
A. Nope. Because I know how hard it is. It was hard for me just moving from copywriter to a creative director, in the sense of moving away from the front lines of the work. Once you’re a partner, man, you’re even further away from the work. Well, at least that’s how it felt to me. I don’t know how Bob does it, but it would be too much for me.
Q. Is social media important to you? Or would you prefer to avoid it?
A. I have really enjoyed discovering first the online world back in like ’97 or so, and now more recently social. Yeah. I am not plugged into everything though. Just Facebook and Twitter, though I do maintain a page on LinkedIn. I sorta look at Linkedin is the office, Facebook is a backyard BBQ, and Twitter is a cocktail party. That kinda sums it up for me.
Q. Does an aspiring copywriter today need to show more than ads in their book? Is web content also needed, given clients’ voracious need for it today?
A. Very true. I cannot bring myself to hire someone who doesn’t have a serious amount of digital work in his or her book. But here’s the main thing I look for (after, of course, great ideas executed across a variety of media): I look for CRAFT. For writers, this means, well, the craft of writing. The quickest way for me to judge that ability is in good old-fashioned headlines. So I recommend having some good ol’ print or outdoor, work where the entire piece is held up with a strong headline. This is important for juniors given that the jobs a junior writer is handed are often small print jobs with no photography budget. Jobs where you pretty much need to solve the whole thing using nothing but words. So, advice to writers: write.
Q. Tell me what you drew you to GSD&M and what are the best things are about the agency and living/working in Austin?
A. I love GSD&M and I love Austin. First of all, it’s kinda weird to be working in such a big agency in such a small town. In fact, GSD&M is the biggest place I’ve ever worked. Also, check out our client roster. It’s amazing to work on all these blue-chip brands from our little Texas town: the U.S. Air Force, BMW, Goodyear, Norwegian Cruise Line, L.L.Bean, and of course Southwest Airlines. Sorry if I sound like I’m from the PR department, but that’s the way it is. The single best thing about working here (which I felt the minute I walked in the door in 2003) was the warmth of the culture. You can’t invent culture. You can’t buy it. You can’t ship it in or transplant it. You either have culture or you don’t and GSD&M has the strongest culture I’ve felt in my 31 years in the business. It is extremely familial; which is especially cool given the size of this place.
And as for Austin, man, it’s such a cool town. Patton Oswalt the comedian did a show here and he made fun of us. “Austin would elect a hacky-sack for mayor if they could.” It’s just a bunch of hippies down here. Everybody has a tattoo and everybody is in a band. There’s SXSW Interactive every year and a couple years back, during Austin City Limits, I remember coming home one night and sitting on my back porch and listening to the Rolling Stones play live, from the park just over the hill. Yes, it’s very hot here, from about June till September. But when you think about it, pretty much every section of the country has four months of crummy, whether it’s Portland’s rain or Minneapolis’s snow. Four months of somethin’ that kinda sucks; ours is heat. But as my wife says, “You don’t have to scrape heat off your windshield before you drive into work.” One last thing. Austin is NOT Texas. Dallas is Texas. We’re just….well, we’re Austin.
Q. Are you only as good as your last ad?
A. Oh, I’ve always thought that was a little harsh. And back when I was a harsh little ad critter, yes, that was my credo. But I found this made me beat myself up, pretty much all the time. I was in a constant funk about it. The thing is, creative people are prone to this kind of silly shit no matter what field they’re in. We take our work and ourselves too seriously. I once heard that it is the responsibility of the artist “to last.” To survive. The great ones, they do. The people worried about what they look like, worried “Am I only as good as my last ad,” I’m not sure having that much fear and friction in your head would be a good way to work, not if you want to have a long career. It’d be like that Jackson Browne lyric, where the “sound of your own wheels drives you crazy.”
Q. Do you have an iPad and or iPhone? Why or why not?
A. Of course, I have both, you nutty nut. I will buy everything that company makes. I love everything about the company. I love their vertically integrated art direction. The sparsity, the use of white, it defines the way their website looks, their TV spots, the design of their products, the way the stores look, all the way down to the dang boxes you carry out of the store. In fact, their packaging’s so cool, I still haven’t thrown away the box my iPad came in. Stupid, I know, but it it’s just so well-made. The sense of quality just seems to come off the box in waves.
Q. Do you work more than 40 hours a week?
A. One of the best parts about the culture of GSD&M (and Fallon too, as I remember it) is a sense of work-life balance. Yes, we work our asses off, but when you’re done, you go home. Sure, during pitches, we’re here around the clock, drinkin’ the tepid coffee and eatin’ cold pizza. But when you’re done, you’re done. There is no unspoken code here that says you gotta be here all the time. I think that leads to low morale and then burnout.
Q. What led you to advertising as a profession? Did you grow up wanting to write copy?
A. I grew up reading comic books: Spider-Man, Daredevil. Then I started making my own comic books, which if you look at a comic, it’s basically a storyboard. Telling stories with words and pictures. It took me a couple of years out of college to put those two together: telling stories with words and pictures, and advertising. Lordy, I remember the first book I put together to get into the business. What Tom McElligott and Ron Anderson saw in me I will never know. But man it sucked. But somehow I got in.
Q. Can you explain to me-a doubter-why industry awards shows matter as much as they do? To me, peer evaluation seems like the wrong metric to base one’s career on.
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.
Q. What are your favorite ad campaigns that debuted over the last year or two?
A. Apple vs PC.
The Most Interesting Man in the World for Dos Equis.
Google Chrome Labs.
And I love this new work from Leo Burnett for Allstate, featuring that cool actor named Dean Winters as “Mayhem.”
Q. You wrote the book on making better ads. Can you also speak briefly here on the magic of creative presentations and selling the work?
A. If you wanna get ahead in this business, and I mean really ahead, you are gonna have to good at presenting. There’s no way around it. Now the thing is, you can have a very good and long career in advertising and never present. You can be a “below the line” sort of creative who just stays in his/her office and cranks out the great stuff. But in order to move up the corporate ladder (and that is a good thing, people), you gotta get good at presenting. Getting great at presenting would be even better, but not everybody is great at this stuff.
Present every chance you get, whether internally at the agency or in front of clients. Practice is the only way I know how to improve at it. Well, there is one other way, happened to me back in 1981. I spent about a year and a half goofing around as a stand-up comic and going on stages all over Minneapolis. Man, you wanna talk about getting confidence? Getting up there and learning how to get an audience on your side is extraordinary training for presenting concepts to a client. It doesn’t come without pain. I can remember DYING several times. There probably isn’t a worse feeling in the world than DYING on stage. Ouch.
Q. Some people have claimed there’s been something of a talent drain in advertising, of late. Are agency people (and clients) as talented and intelligent as always?
A. I don’t see it. The rise of the ad schools has resulted in a very robust pool of candidates to pick from. I am seeing so many amazing books. Sorry, but I disagree with this one.



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.