Start With the Truth: Advertising Wisdom from Luke Sullivan

Luke Sullivan imparts his advertising wisdom to hundreds of SCAD students—and the rest of us.

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If you’re in the advertising world and you haven’t read Hey Whipple, Squeeze This! The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads by Luke Sullivan, you’ll want to correct that error by putting it on your bookshelf, right next to Ogilvy on Advertising and Made to StickWhipple is a 350-page master class in the art of persuasion, with insights from classic DDB ads for Volkswagen to Crispin-Porter’s Subservient Chicken videos and the author’s own work at The Martin Agency and Fallon.

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After spending 32 years as a copywriter, Sullivan now chairs the advertising program at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. And although none of his students have ever seen VW’s inspired “Lemon” ad or Avis’s “We Try Harder” campaign, the professor still uses the simple print ad as a practice tool, to focus students’ thinking on the most basic principles of copywriting and art direction.

“Just like learning to draw the body with a live model is a crucial step to becoming a professional artist, a print ad is a fine place for designers and copywriters to learn,” he says. “It’s not about merely dragging print skills into a new medium—it’s systems thinking where you learn to tell a brand story in a complex ecosystem of media and technology platforms. The idea of storytelling is the same; it’s just much more complex now.”

And it all starts with the truth.

“I always tell the kids, ‘I don’t care what the research says or what the client says or what the brief says, don’t put pen to paper until you figure out the truest thing you can say about a brand,’” says Sullivan. “Usually the truth is something the client wants to cover up or minimize. One good example is Crocs, a brand that my students really enjoy working on. People who love the shoes say they’re the most comfortable shoes in the world, and that’s what the client would say, but if I asked you to identify the truest thing about Crocs, what would you say? ‘They’re ugly!’

You can’t go to the client and say we’re going to say how ugly your shoes are, but when you start with that observation, everything has a ring of truth and authenticity that you can’t get with, ‘These are comfortable shoes at a good value.’ Yes, we have to get to a sales message, and ultimately make them desirable, but that all starts with the truth.”

One of the most memorable solutions offered up by Sullivan’s students: “World’s most comfortable birth control—in 15 bright colors.”

Truth not only wakes up potential customers, it also brings authenticity. In Whipple, Sullivan cites 1950s auto ads that simply tell readers that Plymouth makes amazing automobiles. At that point, readers were inclined to believe whatever they read in a newsstand magazine. No more.

“Our whole world has changed from a message-based economy to a content-based economy,” Sullivan says. Those ads have been replaced by Old Spice videos that go viral and Snickers’ social media campaigns that make us all brand evangelists. “People don’t want messages—they want interesting stuff,” says Sullivan. “That’s where the world is, and it’s a great place, a more interesting place to be.”

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“The breakthrough happened in 2002 when Fallon produced the BMW film series called The Hire, says Sullivan. “It was the first time an agency talked a company into scrapping their entire advertising budget to pay Hollywood actors and A-list directors to produce content for the web. (The short films were viewed more than 11 million times in four months, years before YouTube and Twitter even existed; BMW sales jumped 12% in a year.) That moved advertising from something that was interrupting someone’s TV show to advertising as destination. The idea that you could get someone to put down what they were doing and actually seek out an ad was huge.” And now the best advertising campaigns to do just that, because they simply must.

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Sullivan’s last bit of wisdom? Don’t just make an ad, create a platform.

“A platform is an idea that creates other ideas,” he says. “A world with its own rules, like something you’d find in sci-fi novels or screenwriting. If you create a world with its own rules, you can use those rules to tell story after story, like a movie franchise like The Matrix or James Bond.” Sullivan offers the example of Crispin’s Coke Zero campaign from years ago, in which the diet soda sued another division of Coca-Cola for “taste infringement.” The ads featured actual lawyers countering arguments from actors pitching the ridiculous premise.

It all reinforces Sullivan’s single most important piece of advice: “Don’t do an ad. Do something interesting.”


More Advertising Wisdom from Luke Sullivan

Luke Sullivan spells out more than a dozen principles that go into constructing compelling advertising—all of them highlighted in the 5th edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This! available February 1. Here are just a few:

Find the emotion. People do things for emotional reasons and then rationalize their actions. Find the emotional center and the words and ideas will flow.

Conflict creates story. Find and leverage these conflicts. Without them, you don’t have a story and without a story to tell, no one will listen. Conflict is at the core of every single movie, book, or sit-com you have ever enjoyed. The conflicts you leverage can be as big as good-versus evil or as banal as Crest-versus-cavities.

Without is usually more interesting than with. Clients prefer to show life with their fine products because it’s a happy place where no one has cavities or is overdrawn at the bank. But if we want to tell a story, does it make sense to start at the happy ending? Life in Pleasantville is boring. Start with a problem and work your way to a solution.

It’s not a big idea if it doesn’t fit on a Post-It note. Weird how it works, but if you need more space than a Post-It note to describe your big idea, your idea isn’t big enough.

“Are you sure they’ll even let us do this?” If you have to ask this question, sit down and figure out how to execute your idea. Because it means your idea is outrageous, or oversized, or too-much, or will upset or offend the status quo. These are all very good things. They get people talking about your idea. Remember: Tell the truth and run.


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