Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This! is our guest for the 115th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. Kira and Rob were thrilled when Luke agreed to share his advice on the show—Rob is a proud owner of the first edition of Luke’s book purchased 20 years ago and headed for an expanded 6th edition soon—because he comes from the advertising agency world and has a slightly different perspective on copywriting than most of our other guests. We asked Luke about:
• how he got started in the advertising business
• the elements required to create “magic” at an advertising agency
• why you absolutely must work with people who are better than you
• how to surround yourself with geniuses when you work alone
• the power of curiosity and why copywriters need it
• Luke’s favorite campaign—surprisingly it’s radio
• the moment he knew he had made it
• how loving mentors can have an oversized impact on your success
• how you learn to write a decent headline and other skills
• what it takes to get hired at a big ad agency
• the “Alien” moment you need to build into your portfolio
• the things copywriters do wrong and why “idea guy” is dead
• How Luke recommends you come up with your own big ideas
• how to structure your day for maximum creativity
• how to get creative briefs that help you do your best work
• the advice he would give young Luke if he could go back in time
As expected Luke dished out some amazing advice that you’re going to want to hear as soon as you can. So click the play button below or scroll down for a full transcript. You can also download it to your favorite podcast app.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!
Tom McElligott (lots of great ads at this link)
Thirty Rooms to Hide In
Luke on Facebook
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
Intro: Content (for now)
Rob: This podcast is sponsored by The Copywriter Underground.
Kira: It’s our new membership designed for you to help you attract more clients and hit 10K a month consistently.
Rob: For more information, or to sign up, go to thecopywriterunderground.com.
Rob: What if you could hang out with seriously talented copywriters and other experts, ask them about their successes and failures, their work processes and their habits, and then steal an idea or two to inspire your own work? That’s what Kira and I do every week at The Copywriter Club Podcast.
Kira: You’re invited to join the club for episode 115 as we chat with award-winning copywriter, author and professor of advertising, Luke Sullivan, about his bestselling book, Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This!, what it takes to make great advertising, what copywriters can do to get better creative briefs, and what it takes to get hired by an elite advertising agency.
Rob: Hey, Luke.
Luke: Hey, guys.
Kira: Welcome, Luke.
Luke: Hello, thanks for having me.
Rob: We are thrilled to have you here because, for a lot of different reasons, but a lot of our guests in the past have focused on freelance copywriting and a lot of direct response copywriting, and you come from a different branch of advertising. Maybe, the more familiar one to most people. But we’re thrilled to have you here and really interested in your story. How did you become a copywriter?
Luke: Well, let’s see. Number one, I’m older than both you guys, probably older than all your listeners put together. But old school is fun because of all kinds of reasons. I got into the business in the year of 1979, 9, 9, 9, 9, 9, a long time ago. And back then it was all just, you know, print, outdoor, radio and TV. That was it, 1979, I was lucky enough to be hired by two Minneapolis greats, Tom McElligott, who’s a hall of fame copywriter at the One Show, and the late Ron Anderson who, ask anybody in Minneapolis. He was like the godfather to the entire Minneapolis ad community. He just died several months ago, and everybody up there … It was a sad day in Minneapolis advertising.
They were the first of the regional agencies that rose in the ’80s. There wasn’t anything outside of New York back in the early ’80s. It was just New York and, maybe there’s Chicago, but the absolutely killer work was being done probably by, you know, Ally & Gargano in New York and a handful of others. Kelly McCabe, Slobes. These guys woke up the Minneapolis ad community, and soon followed was Portland and Richmond and, so I was lucky to be in the middle and be tutored by these two giants.
So, my first job was at a place called, Bozell and Jacobs, which is no longer around. I was there for five years, and then I had the bug, I had to try New York City. I hated it, didn’t like it. Was there for one year and then I went to the Martin Agency in Richmond. Worked for Mike Hughes, possibly the best single boss I ever, ever had. He too died about three years ago of lung cancer and, he never smoked. Yeah, it’s really sad.
Then I came back to Minneapolis for ten years at Fallon, which at the time, was the agency there are elite agencies, that trade the crown of who’s the absolutely hottest agency. Back then, Fallon was, and then I decided to try my hand at being an owner and chief creative officer at an agency in Atlanta. Was there for five years. And then I spent my last eight years in the business at a wonderful agency in Austin, Texas, called GSD&M.
That was the last time in the business, and I started teaching. In 2011? Yeah, I’d been teaching about eight years now. And I just love it. It’s the exactly the right thing for me to be doing.
Rob: As you talk through your career path, you didn’t mention all of the awards that you won, and the amazing things that you have done throughout your career. You were at Fallon at a time, like you said, it was kind of a magical time. Where it seemed like every single thing that the agency touched was gold, and the work was awesome. I wonder if you just tell us a little bit about that experience. Maybe the process of creating so much high-quality advertising.
Luke: Well, you know what? It’s like, I probably have to go into cliché world here to paint the picture because it was a magical time. It’s when you have all the right things in the mix, and the magic happens. And, we had an agency in Fallon, where the account people are to be credited with that, I mean, yes they were fantastic A+ creatives. But, there was an expectation up and down the hallways, from the top down to the very bottom, that we were going to do nothing less than, just absolutely brilliant work.
And that requires agreement from top to bottom. It has to be absolute alignment on it, and I worked at other agencies where we all wanted that, but there was not complete alignment from top to bottom, and so it never quite into orbit like it did at Fallon.
There are other agencies like this today, who they’ve just got all the right things. They’ve got the planners, and the strategists, and the great account people, and great creative, and then of course, you end up attracting a certain kind of client. The client is the last thing in the mixture, required to get great work.
And there are agencies working today, like, you know, I’ll mention Wieden or Goodby, where clients go to them wanting that kind of work. They shouldn’t go there if they want to just do their usual stuff. So, pretty soon your agency itself becomes a brand, and clients self-select them. They won’t come to you, because they, for one reason or another, because they can see your work and they go, oh, that’s not for me.
So, it is, it’s a huge collection of everything being in absolute harmonic resonance, in order to get that golden age feeling.
Kira: So, to have that brilliance, you’ve hung out with so many brilliant creatives, what do they all share in common, to have that type of alignment?
Luke: That was just nuts, I remember at Fallon days, I have other agencies to talk about. But, starting with Fallon, I used to have this joke. When I went there, after working at the Martin Agency, I was just really scared because, it was just so stinking good. And, I used to have this joke that the office layout, if you looked at the map of the creatives floor. The office layout, I used to say, goes … it went genius, genius, genius, genius, Luke’s office, genius, genius, genius, genius. And my friend, Brad Kilpatrick, who worked there at the time said, ‘No, no, no, Luke,’ he goes, ‘Genius, genius, stairwell, genius, genius, Luke’s office, genius, genius, stairwell.’ And that’s the way it felt, and when you are working with people better than you, you get better.
You get better, and so, you know my students find this at school a little bit. All the kids come to the Savannah College of Art and Design. Most of them are, were, the creative kid in their high school. Like they were the kid who was the best illustrator or did the year book. And so, these creative kids, the top creative kids of their high school, arrive here, maybe seeking an illustration degree or something, and they spend their first week on the dorm floors and they see themselves surrounded by … I can’t illustrate, these kids are killing me. They’re great.
It’s the same thing, you surround yourself with people who are better than you, and are just … you immerse yourself in it and it rubs off on you. It can’t fail to. And so, that’s what happens when you get into a good agency, you’re going to just, your level is going to rise.
Kira: Yeah, it sounds like, even as a freelancer, I’m just thinking, we need to surround ourselves with other talented freelancers to continue to rise. I think it could be challenging for some freelancers who are working out of their home offices and not in an agency setting.
Luke: Well, then you’re going to have to pull your inspiration from online, and setting the con archives. Looking at the latest One Show, subscribing to the CA’s, their December issue of advertising. I have a little list I hand out to my kids. I call it fire hydrant, and it is collected over a career’s worth, and added to most recently, of just sites that are inspiring. They’re not always advertising sites, they’re makers sites or something like that. I call it fire hydrant because it’s way more information than you can possibly take in, but it’s necessary to feed all that stuff into your brain because they become the molecular building blocks of ideas. You never know when it’s going to be needed, but you need to be pouring into your head as fast and as voluminously as possible. Images, words, ideas, constantly.
If you don’t have a hungry mind like that, if you don’t have that curiosity, I don’t think you’re going to be the kind of writer I would want to hire. I love curious people whose brains are constantly inhaling information from a wide variety of sources. This makes you a deeper, more interesting person, just for starters. But, it also makes the variety of creative things you can come up with, much more interesting. More robust. More widely wider, cooler.
In any case, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Rob: So, definitely want to talk more about your experience with your students, but before we leave your career track, I’m curious, is there a campaign that you’re most proud of? The work that if you had to hang one in the living room wall at your house, for one client, what is it? And, tell us about the creation of that.
Luke: I wish it was a national TV campaign or something. When I tell my kids about my career, not one of them knows me, and it’s not partly because they’re just all so young. But, even if you were an ad freak, you would not be able to point to some national campaign that I did, and it was a high visibility thing. I did get a number of awards, and I was fairly well known, but you know what it was? It was, I always got on base. I had very few home runs, grand slams. But, I always got on base. I always delivered for clients in the agency, and I played on great teams. And, that’s all you need in order to work your way up in the world, and become somebody who’s sought after, raise your prices, et cetera, et cetera.
As to my favorite campaign of all time, like I was about to say, it’s not a national, it’s a little, local radio campaign that I did, which you can hear online, it’s on my site, heywhipple.com. And, it’s up on the ad bars across the top and I think it’s labeled, My Favorite Campaign. And it’s a radio campaign for a tech school, you know, they teach you how to learn to be a plumber or a heating and air conditioning person, and it was a fantastic client who never, never didn’t buy anything. He was just fantastic, and so I worked on that little client for maybe, over the course of three years, and I just loved it. It was just, I’m very proud of it. There probably be about eight radio spots on that section in heywhipple.com for Dunwoody the tech school in Minneapolis.
Kira: I’m curious, if you had a moment, I’m sure you did, where you were just like, hey, I’m really good at this. When that moment took place in your career, if you remember where you were and what had just happened.
Luke: Again, I started under Tom McElligott and Ron Anderson, they were other great writers there at the time, some who went to Fallon. Dick Thomas, et cetera, et cetera and I was absolutely green. I didn’t go to ad school, I didn’t go to college for this stuff. I studied psychology in college and came out with a BA in psychology which qualified me to do diddly effen squat, and I went right into construction. That’s perfect, what you can do with a psychology degree.
But, I got into production for a newspaper that got me closer to advertising and publishing and … the moment I knew was while looking after, being mentored by Tom McElligott and Ron Anderson at an agency in Minneapolis, called Bozell and Jacobs. I was green, I had the world’s worst portfolio, I think they’re still using the portfolio at poison control centers, you know, when they need to induce vomiting.
They’ll show my bank ad to some kid and say just look at Luke’s ad, it was really very, very bad. But, because I had gentle and loving mentors, who were able to tell me, this sucks for this reason, I just kept going in to please these guys, and just basically reward behaviorism. I just started to figure out which kind of things they liked. And so, I was lucky that way, not everybody has great teachers.
Maybe, by my third year in the business, they were starting to say, this is really good. So, I worked on teeny little clients there, like Surdyk’s Liquor Store in Minneapolis. It’s actually an old client that’s been around since the 30’s, and McElligott and Anderson had done great work on it, but they handed me that little account. Because they were by then, wanting to play in the New York leagues. And so, I did my probably first decent things on a liquor store of all things, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That’s probably my first memory, so that’s probably three years into my brilliant career.
Rob: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing that it can take so long, and we definitely want to talk about your book. But, I think in the book, in one point, in Hey, Whipple, you talk about how, in order to get good, you have to follow certain people who are doing good work. And, almost copy it until it’s so ingrained in your brain.
Rob: Talk a little bit about that process, would you?
Luke: I think the way I put it in one of the chapters, is that Picasso knew how to draw a human figure that looked like a human figure, before he started putting both eyes on the other side of the nose, you need to understand the rules. You need to understand the rules before you start to break them. So, that is what I had to learn, is just how to write a decent headline. How to write a copy that is directly on strategy that flows, that moves from A to B to C and gets the hell out of the way.
How to have an ad that has one boss in it, and nothing else. How to do the architecture of tension and release, maybe in a radio commercial. These are just basic, craft things that I was lucky enough to learn from some really great senior people at Bozell and Jacobs back in 79, 80 and 81. Boy, I was lucky.
I remember Dick Thomas, boy I loved that guy, he was a copywriter. And, I brought in a radio spot that I’d typed up. I’d typed up, he used to laugh at language like that. And I brought it in, he had a fan going, a personal fan to cool him off in his office, and he said, in addition to the radio spot not being very good, It was too long and so he shoved the script into his fan, to shave off half of it. He knew that I would laugh along with him, but it was just funny to see my radio script go into the blades of a fan to get cut in half.
I had loving, funny, smart teachers, and boy oh boy, when you can find somebody like that, in your first years in the business, man oh man, you’re off to a great start.
Kira: Yeah, can we talk more about that? Because you’ve mentioned mentors a couple of times and a lot of freelance copywriters are looking for mentors. They don’t really know, necessarily where to find them or what they should look for in a mentor. When’s the best time to sign on with a mentor? Can you just talk about how you were able to find them, and what qualities your mentors had?
Luke: I guess in this age of online, the simple thing is you can reach out, reach out to them. Not all creative people are mentor material. First of all, you have to have something to teach. You have to know your craft really well. But, not all people are, I guess, are as directed or as helpful as you need in a mentor. So, you may get a couple of phone calls, not returned. But, if you’re studying like I was just saying. If you’re studying the industry, and your ad week and ad age and you’re in the con archives, etc etc. You’re going to start seeing somebody out there is doing work that just rocks your world, that’s ‘Oh, that’s the kind of stuff I want to do.’ Those are the people, the ones who are doing work that you just think, ‘I’ll never be able to do.’ Those are the people you should go to. And the thing is, and I use my students as an example here but it’s really not about the school environment, it’s about growing confidence, etc.
So I tell my kids, ya know, I have sophomores in my class right now and none of them have books at all. But, by the time they graduate, they have to have an absolutely stellar portfolio. How are you going to do that? And so I tell them, and it’s part of one of our classes is reaching out to find mentors, who will be kind enough to take a minute to occasionally look at maybe something you’re working on and generally, you’re not going to find it in the CCO, Chief Creative Officer. You’re not going to find it in the CDs. What I recommend is finding an art director or maybe an associate creative director. Somebody’s that got seniority and has been in the business for a while. Generally, I find that I know what I would do if somebody wrote to me and they have for years, I always take the time to help them. Even the ones who I don’t think they have any talent.
And the reason why I do this is, I’m paying it forward because Tom McElligott and Ron Anderson did it for me. They took this sweaty little kid off the streets of Minneapolis wearing this shiny, wide 1978 tie, sitting there jittering on the office chair, and they took the time to help me. There are more people like that than there are people who are dirtballs. And you will find them, but opportunity doesn’t knock. You have to go out and find them and just ask them.
It’s a matter of saying, ‘I’m not going to bombard you with emails, but could I send you an idea from time to time and would you take a look at it?’ I’ve been doing that for years and I’m not special. There are other people who will do that and so when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Go find them and they will serve you so well. And then, of course, one day it’s up to you to return the favor.
Rob: Yeah, can we talk about what it takes to get hired at a big agency? Seems like it’s a very different career track from what a lot of freelancers work on in reaching out to particular clients and working on a project basis. What kind of work to people need? How does that whole approach work?
Luke: I don’t think it’s any different, freelancers and working at a big agency. We offer a craft, a skill, whether it’s UX or it’s art direction or it’s copyrighting or it’s creative tech. We offer a service. I do not believe there’s a difference between, ‘I’m going to be a freelancer and I have to have this kind of book.’ And, ‘I’m going to be in the general agency and have to have that kind of book.’
You need to have a book where the outtake is ‘Oh my God.’ I want when I click on your book, I need to see at least, not at least, but I’d love to see about nine campaigns. But, you’re going to be hired on the first three. On the top row. I was just having lunch yesterday with the recruiter from Goodby, and we were in complete agreement, and I do cover it in the last chapter of my book Hey Whipple, all about what recruiters are looking for in a book. Zack[Canfield said yesterday at lunch, and I’d heard this, that at Goodby, Jeff has often hired somebody on one piece. They will hire somebody on one, but it has to be great, piece. One ‘Oh my God’ moment in your portfolio, is all it takes to open the door.
When I sit down to look at books, and I’ve done it for many years, is I click open your think and I’m going to open the top thing on the left because we read left to right. Your first campaign, and I want that to leap out and land on my face kind of like the face hugger from Alien. I want your idea to leap out of the computer and fasten itself onto my face and make me go, ‘Oh my God.’ I think it should probably be 2D because recruiters can look at work extremely quickly, can assess talent extremely quickly and I can decide if I want to go to the second campaign in probably 10 seconds.
If you get me to open the next campaign, you’re doing really well. You’re doing really well. I liked what I see in the first one, whether it’s art direction or copywriting, I can tell instantly that you have talent. Now I want to see if you can think and take this talent on to another client, maybe into other media.
If I open your third thing, I’m going to put you on a short list, then I’m going to go back into the big pile of URLs that I’m combing through to find possible people to fly in for an interview. So, to get on that short list, it has to be absolutely fast and clear. I don’t want you to make me figure out what your damn creative is. I want it to leap out exactly as it does in the egg scene in the first Alien movie. Remember that guy leans over that egg and the face hugger leaps up.
Rob: That is awful.
Kira: Oh my gosh, it’s been a while since I saw that.
Luke: Well, it’s exactly the right metaphor. I want your idea to be absolutely fast and clear. I want it to attack the viewer, be aggressively brilliant and make me go, ‘Oh my God, I have to see what the next campaign is.’ You really only need to get to the third one and have the recruiter nodding their head, saying, ‘This person has some talent,’ to get on their short list. And then after I’ve done that. After I’ve gone through, generally I remember sitting down, usually during lunch when I have time to do overhead stuff like this, non-billable stuff, you know, hiring, is I would go through 30 of these little blue lines on my computer, check them and I’ll probably end up with four, five short lists.
Then I come back to that short list, now I’m going to dive a little deeper. I’m going to go into the fourth, fifth or sixth campaign and its kind of like how they judge award shows. We respond to work that is highly crafted. Then we’ll start to go in to look for the thinking and, how can they take this show on the road in terms of media? How can they really bring it to life in the world in really cool and unexpected ways?
The biggest thing, most of my kids fail on an assignment these days because their ideas are not fast or clear enough. They may well be creative, but I don’t care if it’s creative. I need it to be extremely fast. I heard a recruiter once say, ‘Make me fall in love in three seconds.’ And they’re not exaggerating. If you’ve ever been to a career fair, anybody been to our career fair at SCAD. The kids go down and two or five will show up and Hayle Holiday or Crispen. And they’ll get a chance to see these recruiters click through their book. And it is in 60 seconds. 60 seconds, they’ll say, ‘This is pretty cool. Give me your card, we’ll put you on our short list.’ It’s that fast.
So that is no different to me for somebody wanting to be a freelancer selling their craft directly to a client or to get into a large agency. I need to see that you have the skills in your craft, copywriting or art direction and I need to see that you can think. I want to see it quickly and I want to be blown away by it.
Kira: Hey, we’re just jumping into the show today to tell you a little bit more about The Copywriter Underground. Rob, what do you like best about this membership?
Rob: So, this membership community is full of copywriters that are investing in their businesses and taking what they do seriously. Everything is focused around three ideas. Copywriting and getting better at the craft that we all do. Marketing and getting in front of the right customers so that you can charge more and earn more. And also mindset, so you can get out of your head and focus on the things that will help you be successful at what we do. There’s a private Facebook group for the members of the community and we also send out a monthly newsletter that’s full of advice again, on those three areas. Copywriting, marketing and mindset. Things that you can mark up and tear out, put them in your files, save them for whatever and it’s not going to get lost in your email inbox.
Kira, what do you like about The Copywriter Underground?
Kira: So, I love the monthly hot seat calls where our members have a chance to sit in the hot seat and ask a big question or get ideas or talk through a challenge in their business. Because we all learn from those situations. And then I also feel like the templates we include in the membership are valuable because who wants to reinvent the wheel and Rob and I end up sharing a lot of the templates and resources we use in our own businesses. So, I would definitely want to grab those.
Rob: So, if you are interested in joining a community of copywriters that are investing in their business and in themselves and trying to do more. Get more clients, earn more money consistently, go to thecopywriterunderground.com to learn more. Now back to the program.
Kira: So, to build upon that from your teaching and experience in mentoring students. Where else do you see copywriters fall short in their thinking or just the career decisions they make?
Luke: Well, for copywriters, I’ll say this, a lot of places are training art directors to be the one who does all the making and the copywriter just sort of is like the lazy dad in a sitcom, just does the words. Just does the words and you know, ‘Page me at the pool when you need the copy written.’ And what I want and what we teach is, I want a copywriter simply to be a creative person. I want them to be able to concept. And that means concept visually and also not just concept but to be able to make things. The most impressive kids these days, the ones who are getting their dream jobs directly out of my college, are the ones, copywriters and art directors, who, not only can have a really great idea, but then they can make it. Maybe it’s a website, they have to code it. I want copywriters who can code.
We had one kid, copywriter, went to TDB out in San Fran, it’s a small shop out there and he was a copywriter, but because he was one of our kids, he knew how to make stuff. He knew how to do a really nice after effects video. When he got out there, the first week, somebody was sick, or somebody was gone and they needed to do something for a pitch and our kid sat down, copywriter, and was able to make a pitch video on aftereffects. We’re way past, remember the old image of ‘Oh, I’m just an idea guy.’ you know? You do the finger guns. Idea guy’s dead. Idea guy’s dead. I can get ideas anywhere. I need somebody who can aggressively come up with lots of ideas and then walk in the door and show me a beta. So they can code it or make it. That is what I think is going to be the game in the coming years.
It’s no longer, ‘I can write, look at these headlines. Oh, I can write, look at this copy.’ They’re calling more and more hybrid creatives. I want somebody who can come in the room and start to solve problems in any number of ways and doesn’t have to wait around for somebody to come help them make their idea come to life so that they can show it and sell it to a client. That means understanding Adobe Creative Suite. Every one of them. I would tell every copywriter out there, just pay the money for every Lynda course you can and learn how to use this stuff.
Rob: So, while we’re talking about being able to execute on ideas, maybe we could take a step back and talk about where ideas come from. What’s your process for getting really great ideas, Luke?
Luke: Well, my process, for the most part, like a lot of other people’s, it’s the one I recommend students to do, is that you. I generally start off, I draw this sort of three circles and in the circles it says, ‘What do we have that the customer wants that the competition isn’t giving them?’ It’s sort of my way to be an internal account executive to sit down and figure out what is the right thing to say, to do. What is it we have, what does our product have that customers want, that the competition isn’t giving them. So, it’s AD school 101 is that you have to have a really good understanding of the customer, a really good understanding of your competition, their strengths and weaknesses, in order to get to that value proposition that.
Okay, so that stuff’s often figured out for you by your client or by the agency. So now, okay I’m sitting down, I’ve got my art director with me and I’m going to start to do ideas. Well, here’s one of the first things I do. I ask this question. What is the truest thing I can say about this product, brand, category or customer? The truest thing. The truest thing. It’s very rarely in the brief. Clients generally deal with truth, they deal with facts and facts are boring. They’ll sit down and they’ll think, ‘Well, I have to sell this thing so the research says oh their vitamin D and calcium in here.’ And so they start selling milk with milk means stronger bones. And nobody in the whole stinkin’ world gives a flying F about stronger bones. It’s just b.s. it’s not the truth.
When Goodby sat down to do the milk thing, they sat down and went into the truth. And what they went into was this deprivation strategy is that people don’t buy milk for stronger bones, milk goes with things and so you get to this truth. Milk goes with things and that became the ‘Got Milk?’ Campaign from Goodby in the ’90s. So I’m, I’ll start off with that. What is the truest thing I can say? And clients will rarely put it in the brief.
Alex Bogusky used to say when first meeting with a client, ‘What is the elephant in the room? What is the real problem?’ What is the real problem? Not, oh, this thing has vitamins D, that let them to Domino’s. Domino’s, their real problem was, your product sucks and I don’t care how fast you get it to me, 30 minutes or it’s free. It sucks, and so they started there. Probably would’ve scared most clients away, but they had to remake that thing. So, what is the truest thing about the product?
The next thing I do is, I say, find and leverage the central conflicts in your product, category, brand or customer. Central conflicts, and by that, I mean what this helps me do is get the story. All drama is conflict. All story telling is conflict. Every movie you’ve ever seen, every comic book, every fairy tale, has conflict at its core. Story telling is conflict. And so I look at advertising the same way and conflict comes from opposing energies. So I sit down and I look deep into my category, my product, my customer’s life and I look for these opposing energies because those are going to be the rudiments of story. And I start banging these things together to see if can get sparks going, if I can blow on those little sparks and blow it into the flame of narrative. And I think it’s a really great shortcut to getting to good ideas by looking at it in terms of find the truest thing you can say. Then start looking for conflicts based around that truth and start banging those things together. You’re basically looking for a protagonist and an antagonist.
That’s where a story starts. Whether it’s Crest toothpaste and now, who’s the villain? Who’s the bad guy? Is it the dentist? Is it that little thing that they use in your teeth? Is it tooth decay? Is it yellow teeth? Is it bad breath? When you start to line up these opposing energies, the possibilities of narrative rise to the top. And so that’s another thing I do. Truth and conflict.
Kira: Alright, so I’m thinking about lifestyle design and what trends you may have noticed over the years with creative professionals? How they structure their day, their weeks for optimal creativity?
Luke: That’s a really good question. And what I may say, may not apply to you, because creative processes are different for everyone. What I see as successful, what I see in my own career and the success of my students, is, well I guess it’s reflected in this quote somebody from [Sachi] once said. ‘Have a disciplined eye and a wild mind.’ Another way I heard it put was dream like an Irishman but build the trains like a German. It’s discipline and wild dorm room creativity that really makes for the best kind of creative because they’re able to get really out their ideas, but they’re living a kind of life where they can then take these ideas and get them on paper and put them in their best Sunday clothes and get them to the client over and over and over again. Another way to put that is, I’m just pulling these sayings, like saying sewing on the pillows at your grandma’s house, saying sewing in the pillows at the lounge outside of Crispen. One I like is freed minds can create. Trained minds can execute. What I need is to have this mixture of a very live and flexible mind, but if you’re all poet, you’re just not going to be able to deliver.
Steve Jobs said you have to ship on time. I don’t care how cool your product is. You have to ship on time. And so I looked for… I see, it’s not a matter of looking for. I see students who have great promise but sometimes, these various students who have great promise, I just see really cool ideas on their sketch boards, but they also miss a class or show up late or didn’t listen to the instructions. Because of that, they will likely fail in the long run in the real world because you do have to show up on time. You do have to listen to the instructions. You do have to deliver on the brief. You have to do that, but what we’re paying you for is for the poetry. And it’s like, Hey Whipple, you have two voices up there your head. One is the poet whose just, you know, crazy and stays out to late, and the other one is this OCD person who just wants to get all the measurements right and… Between the two of those things in your head you have to deliver. And when they both have a seat at the table in your head, you are going to be all the sloppy geniuses out there.
I’d rather have a determined hard-working kid who has discipline and can hand me ideas over and over verses hiring a genius whose unstable, I can’t depend on them. Yes every once in a while, they hand in a Rembrandt, but in the business I can’t wait for that. I can’t bet on the calm and hope that this person’s going to turn it in. I’d rather have a lesser talent with a great work ethic, because I know that they can improve. And they will give me the things I need to solve my client problems, and they’re worth training because you will see the return on your investment of times that they’re just going to get better and better.
People who don’t have this discipline or work ethic I can’t use. They may be fun to watch for an hour or two. Wow, it’s like it’s 4th of July fireworks, ooh that was cool. But when push gets to shove in the agency world which is full of deadlines and a lot of money on the line, or the freelance world, you have to deliver on time. You have to deliver on time. So I love this mix of wild creativity and a disciplined mind, that’s it.
Rob: Luke, I want to ask about creative briefs. I know this is something that you teach about in the industry and we mentioned a couple of times. You said that part truth about the product or the service is never in the brief. And so I’m wondering what we as copywriters and creatives can do to make sure that we get really good creative briefs so that we can do our best work.
Luke: Well number one is unfortunately we are not in charge of the creative briefs. In school, we get to make up our own, so that’s different. As a copywriter and agency the briefs are going to be slid across to you and it’s not likely you’ll even be able to have input in those briefs until you’ve been at the agency some time and you’ve worked your way up, and you’re able to work your way upstream into the whole process that you get near where the briefs are being forged. I happen to think that most briefs suck, and it doesn’t mean that I think most brief writers suck. I just think that there’s this way we’re supposed to write briefs that we’ve been doing for years and years that’s been unexamined. I decided one day at the urging of a sort of agent of mine, to tackle a how to write brief sort of master class. And I’ve always thought it was way outside my pay grade. I’m not an expert in this, but I finally did it and I was surprised at the result because I managed to figure something out that I wish I had in my whole career.
Most of the time briefs… What they do is they slide a statement across the table and expect you to work from that. And most of the time that single key thought is a solution, it’s a solution. You need to say this, fresh food means better health. And so you sit back and you go, fresh food means better health. We can do a campaign on that, right? It’s five words, it’s fairly clear, but when you… This happened to me, we leaned back and tried to work with this brief with the key message, fresh food means better health, and we just sat there. We stared at the thing and stared back at us. We poked it with a stick, it didn’t move. It was just gray and inert. It’s not a brief. What it is… It’s not a problem. I need a problem, because only problems cause creativity to kick in. When you have fresh food means better health as your brief, it’s a solution. They’re handing you the solution. They don’t need you, this is your solution. Well then just execute that.
What I prefer, what I suggest as many other people, I’m not the only person who’s figured this out is I like to have you slide a problem across the table to me. A problem in the form of a question, and it’s best when the question cannot be answered except creatively. Dan Wieden once said the best assignments are in trying to figure out what question we want to ask. Not what’s the answer to the question. So you see a good assignment is always a question. The best brief is a well-defined question. And the question always fulfills two criteria. You don’t know the answer to this question, but the question comes out of the heart of the issue you’re dealing with. There has to be an unresolved issue there. What is the thing we can’t quite solve? So the heart of what I think is a great brief is you need to formulate the core of your proposition as an exciting question. And one that can only be answered creatively.
When you have a solution there, fresh food means better health, what do you do with that? It’s already been answered for. There’s your solution. It’s like going into the movie theater at the very end of the movie where the cowboy’s riding off into the sunset. That’s not the interesting part, the interesting part is up front with the conflict.
Kira: Right, Luke I love to hear… Okay, let’s imagine this, you’re starting your career in 2018 you just graduated from school. What advice would you give to yourself? What would you focus on?
Luke: I would shut up and listen more. I was a mess. I was just a hot mess, and I thought I knew everything. And you know what, I was smarter enough to know what was crap and smart enough to know 80% of advertising isn’t very good. But I wasn’t smart enough to do that other 20% yet. I just knew who the bad guys where, and I didn’t listen enough. And I was surrounded by incredible teachers. It’s lucky I was surrounded by incredible teachers and I’m lucky I listened enough to them as I did. But I wished I’d listen more, especially to people I thought I disagreed with. I wish I had taken a deep breath and not tilted at so many windmills and fought every damn battle that presented itself to me. I would’ve had lower blood pressure, I would’ve been happier, and I would’ve improved faster. Had I just listened, and by listening I don’t mean just shutting up and listening to your mentor but by studying, studying, studying. Filling your head with all the stuff you can. I was too much of the lone wolf kind of creative, oh I can do all this just stand back I’ll solve this. I wished I’d been more collaborative, less sure of myself, and just soaked it in. Instead of insisting on I was right and this client if they don’t do that, they’re stupid. I wasted too many years doing that. It still happens today, it’s human nature. But that’s what I wished I’d done differently.
Rob: I think that’s what I need to needle point onto my cushion on my couch, is just shut up and listen more. Great advice. So, Luke I want to ask about your book. You wrote an amazing book, I mean it’s been 20 years so 1998 I think is the date on my copies, and I’ve had it on my shelves ever since. I’ve read it a couple of times. You know, people talk about it as the same phrases as, or in the same sentences as Ogilvy’s books, and it’s kind of become this text book for advertising. Certainly for image and brand advertising. If you were writing that book today, what would be different in it?
Luke: Well this is the 5th edition is out now. So thank you number one for those kind words and I’m glad you the first edition 1998. That was you know… The web wasn’t even really up by then and so because it sold well enough, it’s used in colleges world wide I’ve been lucky enough to rewrite new additions. Interesting enough I think in the 3rd edition I had a whole chapter on direct marketing that I had to cut out in the 4th edition cause the web was getting too big too important and I needed room. But I had that in there. The 5th edition is one I finally invited a co-author to join me. The deal was is that over all these years, even when I was in the business and when I was out, if I’m going to be teaching this stuff I need to be in command of it. And so I had to stay as current as I could, as hip as the kids are. Understanding the social and merging media, and all that stuff and to the 4th edition I did it myself.
Finally, two years ago when the last one came out I just decided you know what I’m kind of up to date, but I’m not an expert in this. I know my limitations and so I invited a guy named Edward Boches who was a top dog at Mullen, which is a very good agency in Boston, and asked him would you address all the new stuff, the emerging media, social, etc. Interactive in the book write your own chapters, and he did. So the 5th edition has the improvement of having another brain in the room who knows his stuff. The 5th edition is so, so much more complete and better than that 1st edition.
I wrote the one in 1998, because I just didn’t see any really good books out there, including Ogilvy, On Advertising, and that, that a student could just grab this book and learn most everything they need in order to start creating portfolio and get into the business. So I just started writing that. What had come out of was a speech I gave to the portfolio center in 1996 I think. I gave a speech, and in that speech I decided instead of being just another agency person coming in here, here’s our reel aren’t we cool, and then answering questions. I thought is there something I can give these kids, something they can use right after this stupid speech is over? And so I just made this little modular thing, single piece of advice, single piece of advice, single piece of advice. And months later I heard, I’d left that speech behind, and I heard that they turned all those things into a screen saver. Somebody turned it into a screen saver. And I saw, oh wow there’s this demand for it, that’s when I decided to sit down and try to write this book. It took me a long time, but I stand by it because it’s improved, with every edition it’s improved and I do think it’s still one of the very best books for somebody to pick up to understand what it is that we really do in this business. And what you have to bring to the table in order to succeed in it.
Rob: Sounds to me like I just need to come and go out and pick up a 5th edition.
Kira: Need an updated book.
Rob: Yeah, update myself.
Luke: The 6th edition I’m cooking at now, and I’m going to probably peel back. It’s gotten to fat for my money. I got a copyright over here, it’s getting into the, what is it the 424 pages. It’s getting a little fat. I may have to peel some stuff back. What I’d like to do, I’d like also to update the examples of work in the book that illustrates whatever principles we’re talking about. So that it’s as fresh as possible, but you know what, it’s paper. So anything you put on paper just ages so quickly. In this business in particular it’s hard to have a paper, you know a Papyrus based platform that is as cutting edge as it should be. But no, that’s the way it is.
Rob: That’s true. And one of the charming things about that 1st edition is the advertising. It’s a little dated, you know it’s the stuff that’s happening in the 80’s and 90’s but it’s kind of fun to look back and see where we’ve come from. I guess what we should say is hit the used book store and get all of the additions so you can see all the stuff that’s there.
Luke: Yeah, you know even the dated stuff you can learn from a one show annual work done for BMW by [inaudible] and Pearce in the 80’s. However old school it may be the crafts are evident, the crafts of copywriting and the crafts of art direction which are portable. The go from median to median. And understanding information architecture looking at a single 2D print ad. The humble little 2D print ad has everything we need in order to first practice the crafts of art direction and copyrighting. So old school fine, it is old school but the lessons are there just the same.
Kira: Alright Luke. I know we’re out of time with you. We have so many questions for you, but before we wrap can you just share a little bit about what you’re most excited about right now? If you’re working on any new products you want to share or promote? Where can we find you?
Luke: I have another book that took me 18 years to write and it’s a memoir. They say write about what you know, so I wrote about advertising. Then I wrote about growing up in an insane alcoholic household and that book is called, Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Addiction, Insanity, and Rock in Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic. I grew up a doctor’s kid. I had, had such high hopes for that, but that book has begun its long march into complete obscurity. But I stand by it because it’s the single finest, creative piece I’ve ever made. I still look at it and say I can’t change a word. That’s on Amazon.
One day I hope to produce something a little like what you guys are doing. An online course, probably of three videos of how to put together a book that could do a job in advertising. Can’t do it right now because it competes with my contract with the school, and I owe that to my students now. But when I finally start to hang it up, I think I’ll create something like that so kids who can’t afford college can still have an unfair start in this business. That’s about it. I’ve got another webinar coming up. Anybody can friend me on Facebook, I friend everybody. And that way you can see if I have any webinars coming up.
Kira: Sounds good. Alright, I’m friending you today.
Luke: Cool. Anybody, I like it, it’s just another network. And happy to have you.
Kira: Alright, thank you Luke. This has been just so inspiring and helpful to. I just have so many take aways from our conversation that I can integrate into my own business. So thank you so much.
Luke: Well, good.
Rob: Thank you so much for sharing.
Luke: I’m flattered you guys, it peels to my ego, hey somebody’s asking you something. [inaudible] Give me that microphone.
Kira: Great, well we hope we can have you back again soon. Thanks Luke.
You’ve been listening to The Copywriter Club Podcast with Kira Hug and Rob Marsh. Music for the show is a clip from Gravity by Whitest Boy Alive available in iTunes. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard you can help us spread the word by subscribing at iTunes and by leaving a review. For show notes, a full transcript, and links to our free Facebook community visit the coywriterclub.com. We’ll see you next episode.