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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Luke Sullivan: The Enemies Of Advertising, #1

Luke Sullivan: The Enemies Of Advertising, #1

Posted on February 22, 2008 and read 3,499 times

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ihaveanidea is pleased to present the second in a series of updates and excerpts from Luke Sullivan’s soon to be released third edition of his renowned book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. To order your copy today, click here. Hell, buy a few copies and qualify for free shipping or something.

In a perfect world, it works like this. You come up with a great ad. You take it over to the client, and they agree it solves the problem and approve it for production.

In my all my years in the business, this has happened a total of three times. What usually happens is your ad dies. I don’t know why it is this way, but it is. Get ready for it. It doesn’t matter how good your ad is, it can die. I once watched a client kill a campaign between sips of coffee. Two months in the making, and he killed it all—every TV spot, every magazine ad, and every newspaper ad—with one chirpy line.

“Good first effort.”

The thing to remember is, clients are perfectly within their rights to do this. We are in a service business. And our service isn’t over when we present something we like. It’s over when we present something they like. The trick is to do both, the first time.

There are good clients out there. Bless them. When you have one, serve them well. Work nights for them. Work weekends. You will produce the best work of your career on their behalf.

And then there’s the other kind: the really tough clients. I’m not talking about the ones who hold your feet to the fire and push for greatness. This is about the ones who misbehave. Fortunately, good clients outnumber them. But the bad ones are out there, and you need to be able to spot them. Here are some of the kinds I’ve run into in my career. Let me rephrase. Here are some of the kinds that have run over me in my career.

There isn’t a lot you can do about them. They’re like mines buried in the field of advertising. Try not to step on any.


A very talented woman named Lois Korey, an ad star from the 1960s, described this kind of account:

Clients seem to get the advertising they deserve. The good ones, they’re risk takers. They’re willing to risk failures for extraordinary success. . . . The bad clients? Fear dribbles down from the top. No one says so, in so many words, but you know no risks will be tolerated, no rules will be broken, that mediocrity is the measure by which your work will be weighed.

Fear dribbles down from the top, says Ms. Korey. The Chinese have a more colorful phrase: “A fish stinks from the head.”

You can actually smell it on the vice presidents, the fear. No amount of roll-on is gonna cover up their terror of the boss. It may be their boss, or their boss’s boss—it doesn’t matter.

But the boss has done a terrible thing to these vice presidents. He has put them in charge of something they’re not in charge of. The nameplate outside their cubicle may sport words like “Assistant Director of Marketing.” But they are not directing marketing or anything else, for that matter. They are, in effect, meat puppets.

Invisible strings, thin but powerful, dangle down from management and are attached to every part of their bodies. Everything these guys do, everything they think, every memo they write, every decision they don’t put off, will be second-guessed.

When you’re a meat puppet, what you do is say “No.” An ad lands on your desk, and that invisible string connected to your hand makes you reach for the big NO stamp, pulls it back over the ad, and wham!


I have seen fear completely unravel a meat puppet.

She was the director of marketing for a large corporation whose name you’d recognize. She needed a TV spot, just one 30-second spot, for a new product being introduced the following spring. It was a great product. It deserved a big, wonderful introductory spot. We worked hard and presented an idea we believed was very good.

We flew in. Shook hands. Found a room with an easel, did our setup, and unveiled. She looked at the storyboard, looked at her notebook, then wrote something down. (When clients do this, I always assume it’s: “Begin new agency search immediately.”) She looked up and said, “I just don’t like it.”

The strategy wasn’t the problem. How we were saying it wasn’t the problem.

“I just don’t like it.”

Good clients are allowed this. If they’re buying good work most of the time, well, they deserve to have those simple human reservations we all feel now and then. We decide to let her play the “Just don’t like it” card. Fine. We go back. Time is running out, so we bring three storyboards to the next meeting. Luckily we’re on a streak and all three are good. We’d have been happy to go with any one.

“I just don’t like it.”

“All three?”

“I just don’t like it.”

“What is it you don’t like?”

“I can’t say.” And then she said the one thing all the really bad clients say sooner or later. “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Copywriter and author Dick Wasserman said this phrase is tantamount to a general telling his armies, “March off in all directions, and when I see where one of you is headed, I’ll have a better fix on where I’d like the rest of you to go.”

And so we marched off in all directions. Meeting after meeting was adjourned with, “I just don’t like it.” The boards piled up. After a while, we didn’t bother to fly in for meetings and started e-mailing scripts, always getting the same answer.

Some 25 boards passed before her. And 25 died. I assure you, we didn’t give up. It was a good product. A fallow field lay before us. We presented good work right up to the end.

“I just don’t like it.”

Time began to run out. Directors’ January schedules were filling up. The media was bought and the client was panicking. Client panic sometimes works in the agency’s favor. Not this time. She asked for more. In the final phone meeting, the agency simply refused to provide any more boards.

And the client unraveled. I mean, she completely fell apart.

I remember listening to her voice on the speakerphone, hearing it begin to waver. She began to cry and then, God help me, beg like a junkie for more work.

She had become addicted to indecision.

“Come on! It doesn’t even have to be a 30. Gimme a stinkin’ 15. I’ll take a 15! You got to have some 15s! Oh baby, baby, come to momma with another board.” (Okay, she didn’t say exactly that, but . . . she said exactly that.) I’d never seen anything like it. It got worse, too.

Somehow, around board number 29, she bought something. The agency wasn’t proud of the piece. We were just holding our noses, hoping to simply produce the thing and pray we would prevail on the next assignment. A second-tier director was chosen. A location in Miami was scouted and approved. There was a listless prepro meeting. Sets built. The team assembled in Florida the night before the cameras rolled. And the phone rang.

In the 11th hour, in the 59th minute, and at the tail end of the 59th second, the client’s antiperspirant failed again. “I just don’t like it.”

The agency was forced to come up with a new concept and do it under the constraints of an existing set and a locked-off budget. Which is a lot like being told to build a plane, and here’s a coffee can, a crayon, and an old copy of Sports Illustrated. It was insane. It was like that famous line from journalist Bill Mellor: “We are sorry. But the editor’s indecision is final.”

These incredible dervish-like turnarounds are known as “doing a 360˚.” It’s like doing a 180˚, but twice. It could be argued that this client did a 540˚ or even a 720˚. (A 900˚ was once observed in Brussels, but no verification was available as this book went to press.)

The agency had to go back to the drawing board yet again. This time, getting the idea took just 10 minutes. The tired writer and the dispirited art director walked to the end of a nearby pier and just sat there looking out at the ocean.

Idea number 30 limped into the writer’s mind like a sick dog with its ribs showing, and the writer said, “Okay, what if we did this?”

The art director looked at the dog. The dog looked up at the art director.


They took their sick little animal of an idea and walked it back down the dock toward the nearest phone.

The client loved it.

It should come as no surprise that the final spot sucked. It was so bad we were trying to change channels on it during the final editing session. “See what else is on,” someone would say. What is surprising is how the client later decided they didn’t like it and blamed the agency. “Why aren’t our commercials as good as the work you do for your other clients?”

The spot never aired. I swear this happened.

There is a list I’ve seen posted on bulletin boards in many agencies. One of those jokes that get photocopied and passed around until the type decays. This was the list:


1. Enthusiasm
2. Disillusionment
3. Panic
4. Search for the guilty
5. Punishment of the innocent
6. Praise and honors for the nonparticipants

What was once a joke tacked to a bulletin board had become grim reality. What began with enthusiasm ended as a new agency search.

Funny thing, though. While the account did leave the agency, a month later we heard the woman was fired.

And, wouldn’t you know it, in her absence the client’s advertising improved. Which is always a little hard to take. I mean, the mature thing to do is wash the blood off your hands, wave good-bye to an account, and wish them the best. But you secretly wish your old girlfriend, after she dumps you, ends up dealing crack from a culvert or pushing a mop at the Bun ’N’ Burger. Currently, the on-the-job life expectancy of the average chief marketing officer is a scant 23 months before they’re fired and replaced by the next one (who always has his own ideas, if not his own agency). This often means the only steady hand on the rudder of a brand is the ad agency’s junior account person.

I had another client who was a meat puppet, working in a company run by fear. He was about as far down the corporate food chain as you could get—cubicle plankton. He even looked the part: that pale-white kind of guy who always gets killed in the first five minutes of a movie. Yet, to get an ad approved, you had to run it by this guy. And a bullet from his ratty little Saturday night special was as deadly as any other.

He was perhaps the tensest person I ever met. One morning, he was seen standing in front of the company coffee machine holding an empty cup, growling through clenched teeth, “Brew, goddammit.” He had such high blood pressure, we worried that if he sustained even a paper cut, arterial spray would redden the ceiling.

But as scared as he was, he had a little power game he ran. It was brilliant. Whenever you presented ads to him for his approval, he wouldn’t look at you. Or the ads. Wouldn’t look at all. He’d just stare down at his legal pad in front of him.

There you were, having taken a two-hour plane ride, lugging your portfolio in and out of cabs to arrive in his conference room. You did your setup and then presented the ads, ta-da! . . . to the top of his head. And if it was a visual concept, it drove you crazy. Because you found yourself having to use words to explain an image that you came up with to avoid using words in the first place.

He, too, was a meat puppet. Unable to make any decision without imagined repercussions from above, he chose to make none and, instead, passed his decision on to the next guy up the food chain.

There is nothing you can do about a meat puppet. Your boss is going to have to go above him, to whoever’s yanking his strings. Such a decision is not yours to make, and you’ll need one of your higher-ups to talk with one of theirs. Sometimes it works. You may discover the client culture isn’t, in fact, fear-based and that your contact person is living in a backwater of fear he created on his own.

Luke Sullivan
Creative Group Head
GSD&M Idea City




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