What separates advertising’s rock stars from its chair warmers? And what does it take to get to the next level? Over the past few months, we’ve been asking marketers who’ve made their mark their thoughts on getting ahead.
Today, Luke Sullivan weighs in. He’s Group Creative Director of GSD&M Advertising in Austin, Texas and author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A guide to creating great ads.
1) True or False: Results trump all reasonable shortcomings?
False. But a good question. It’s this very question I put in chapter 1 of my book. In fact, it’s why I gave it the title I did. Because the Whipple campaign with the stupid grocer worked really well. It knocked Scott tissue out of #1. But as an idea, it sucked. Results do not trump sucking. In Hey Whipple, I wrote it this way (note in particular the smart quotation at the end from British Creative Director, Norman Berry):
With 504 different Charmin toilet tissue commercials airing from 1964 through 1990, Procter & Gamble certainly “irritated customers with repetitious commercials.” And it indeed “worked like magic.” P&G knew what they were doing.
Yet I lie awake some nights staring at the ceiling, troubled by Whipple. What vexes me so about this old grocer? This is the question that led me to write this book.
What troubles me about Whipple is that he isn’t good. As an idea, Whipple isn’t good.
He may have been an effective salesman. (Billions of rolls.) He may have been a strong brand image. (He knocked Scott tissues out of the #1 spot.) But it all comes down to this: if I had created Mr. Whipple, I don’t think I could tell my son with a straight face what I did at the office. “Well, son, you see, Whipple tells the lady shoppers not to squeeze the Charmin but then, then he squeezes it himself. . . Hey, wait, come back.”
As an idea, Whipple isn’t good.
To those who defend the campaign based on sales I ask, would you also spit on the table to get my attention? It would work, but would you? An eloquent gentleman named Norman Berry, a British creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, put it this way:
I’m appalled by those who [judge] advertising exclusively on the basis of sales. That isn’t enough. Of course, advertising must sell. By any definition it is lousy advertising if it doesn’t. But if sales are achieved with work which is in bad taste or is intellectual garbage, it shouldn’t be applauded no matter how much it sells. Offensive, dull, abrasive, stupid advertising is bad for the entire industry and bad for business as a whole. It is why the public perception of advertising is going down in this country.
2) Do you have any overarching theories that help you navigate agency politics?
Yes. Keep your eye on the ball, not on the players.
3) What’s your leadership style?
My answer to your question will be this as-yet-unposted entry for my Hey Whipple blog. Title is tentatively, “Almost All Great CDs Are Also Great People.”
Recently I posted an article about brutal creative directors. And why you should get your book out as fast as you can. Now, if I may, a few words on what I think makes a good creative director.
I once read that a coach’s main job is to love his players. I think the same holds true for creative directors. Advertising is so hard. There is so much rejection, so much brutality, so many late nights. To be able to motivate people in such a business, you have to love them and they have to know it. Not everyone feels this way. A famous CD once confided to me, “You need to have people fear you.” I disagree. Life is short and this is just advertising, people. If this means I’ll always produce less stellar work than a much-feared-CD, I’m okay with that. We all have our priorities. Those are mine.
Good creative directors need to get to know their people. I’ve heard of CDs who dig a moat around their office and meet only with the senior creatives; never with anyone lower down the food chain. This, too, I think is probably the wrong way to go about it. You need to know and love the people who are manning your trenches. You need to know their names, you need to know what they’re working on, you need to know when they do something great so you can lean into their offices and say, “Dude, that was great.” Soldiers do not charge machine-gun nests for generals they do not love.
Good CDs not only improve your work, they improve you. Someone once told me that a great creative director is a “career accelerator.” These are bosses who leave your career in better shape than they found it. That requires someone who is not completely wrapped up in either themselves or the pressures of doing good work. They manage to keep any eye on the lives and the souls of the people who are working for them.
This takes me to a concept I’ve heard described as the “servant leader.” Writer James Kouzes wrote that such leaders “do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires [but on] the needs and interests of their people. They know that serving others is the most rewarding of all leadership tasks.”
Wow. Sounds a little altruistic put like that, but then I think of a guy like Mike Hughes at The Martin Agency and I realize, hey, he’s right. Here’s a guy who has been quietly building one of the best agencies anywhere and doing by serving his people, serving his agency, doing it without an ego, and without beating on or intimidating the folks who work there.
Perhaps another day we can talk about all the other things it takes to be a good creative director, one of which of course is being a good creative. But for my money the most important thing is being a good person – Honest. Level-headed. Friendly. Approachable. And humble.
Footnote: There’s a great article on what it takes to be a good creative director posted by the Denver Egoist which you’ll find here.
4) How much emphasis should an emerging creative put on post-selling their work through case studies and award shows?
Your question about award shows is an old one, oft answered by smarter people than I. But that bit about case histories, that is interesting.
When I was an ad brat, all that I was able to collect for my portfolio were ads and TV spots, usually one-offs, additions to someone else’s campaign. Nowadays it seems even young people are getting a chance to create entire campaigns. Often the best way to present a campaign (if it’s really a great one with proven results) is in the form of a case history. It’s simply more impressive. I’ve seen them used in online portfolios to great effect. But make sure you assemble the case history as creatively as you did the work. Done poorly it’ll just be a dry-ass PowerPoint presentation of strategy – creative – results.
5) Aside from yours, what’s your favourite book on advertising?
Let’s start off with some old classics: When Advertising Tried Harder, by Larry Dubrow; Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? by David Abbott; and From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor, by Jerry Della Femina.
Then there’s Well-Written and Red, a hard-to-find and expensive book on the wonderful long-running campaign for The Economist.
e is a hilarious novel about an agency going down the tubes, written entirely in emails.
Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris, is another book about an agency going down the tubes but this one’s an excellent piece of literature.
And no list about books for writers is complete without a tip of the hat to the Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style; required reading for anyone who holds a pencil anywhere near paper.
6) How do you know when it’s time to leave your current agency?
When you are always angry. That’s usually a good sign. Or if you are writing to Agency Spy about your agency. (Lordy, why on earth do people do that? If you hate it so bad there, leave already. It’s kinda like being at a bad restaurant and sneaking into the bathroom to make an angry post of the menu. Leave already.)
7) From a career perspective, what’s the importance of making intangible cultural contributions to an agency?
Pretty interesting question. To get ahead in this business, you need to contribute to the agency by doing great work. But you can also contribute by being a helpful and involved company person. That means caring about more than just the ads you’re workin’ on, but caring about the company itself. You can contribute by raising your hand to help with new business. Or by picking up the empty pop bottle by the front door. Or helping with the agency web site or agency blog. All things being equal creatively, management at your agency is gonna notice someone who’s involved over a cube dweller.
8) True or false: every brief contains an opportunity for greatness?
If you’re an optimist, the answer is “Yes.” If you’re a very busy optimist, it’s “Um, maybe. Can you come back in an hour?” If you’re a pessimist, it’s “No.” If you’re a busy pessimist, obviously it’s “Shut the fuck up.” I happen to be a busy optimist.