How do you know which advertising principles suck and which don’t?

Okay, Zen parable time. And I’m gonna update mine a little bit for the modern palate.

Okay, so you got this Zen master dude, right? Dude looks totally like Uma Thurman’s teacher from Kill Bill Vol. 2, always brushing that long white mustache to the side and everything. He’s pouring tea for his student, Grasshopper. (I know, I know, different show, whatever, doesn’t matter.)

Anyhoo, he fills the tea cup all the way to the top but then the Zen master guy, you know, Japanese-Gandalf guy, he just keeps pourin’ the tea, right? It’s overflowin’, overflowin’, and still he keeps pourin’ until finally Grasshopper guy goes, “Dude!  … I mean, … Sensei-dude. WTF?” And Mister Master, he’s all like “What up?” And Grasshopper is all like, “Why you still pourin’ when the cup is like totally overflowin’?”

And that …. that is when the Zenster brings it home. Dude says, “How can I teach you new knowledge when your cup is already full of the old? You feel me?”

Grasshopper doesn’t feel him at first but then he does, he reaches enlightenment, and goes “True dat.”

Okay, here’s where we take a hard left turn from Zen-as-seen-on-The-Wire to the world of advertising.  Students new to advertising should empty their cups, too.

Purge your brain of all the advertising stuff you’ve seen during your 18 or so years of life on the planet. Because on any given day, 90% of the stuff that’s out there, it just blows. In fact, even if you like that other 10% of cool stuff (and who doesn’t like Nike, or Mini?), still, I recommend you empty your cup and be ready to start over.

In fact, if you’ve hated everything you’ve seen growing up, all the better. Many of the best people of advertising today came into this business hating it; hating all the crap they’d seen on TV, online, in magazines. This is true even back to Bill Bernbach and all those famous folks in the Creative Revolution. They hated advertising, too. (What were they revolting against but the usual advertising crap?)

Okay, that said….

….we’ll close with one last observation; that famous line about how “You can’t break the rules until you know what they are.” True dat.

Yes, come into advertising with your disdain of the ordinary intact, with your disdain of all the bad stuff out there. But bring also a willingness to learn what basic principles do work. There are in fact certain principles that don’t suck. There are in fact smart things passed down from the people who have come before us. Your job will be to pick the smart and useful stuff from the pile and leave the crap.

So empty your cup. Start with Zen mind. And, as the Buddha said with his dying  words, “Seek out your own salvation.”

(Sorry. Did I just go “all deep” on everyone?  Oh well, … sue me.)


  1. Love hearing your voice in your writing my friend. Great post, and so true. An interesting way to say…”get over yourself!”

    Definitely needed to hear a bit of this today.

    Miss you!


  2. Zen also has another saying applicable to this article: “If you on your path enlightenment you happen to meet the Buddha, kill him.” (Or something to that effect.)

    Zen is renown for being extremely strict yet simple in its approach. Most forms of zen are not flexible in their rules. And yet the ultimate goal is entirely personal: To get beyond the rules. To understand them so deeply that you don’t need them anymore. Hence the whole killing the buddha thing.

    I think the same is true in most fields, but certainly in advertising as well. The goal of every student (whether in advertising or in zen) is to ultimately make their teacher/master irrelevant. And to do that, you first have to learn it all, then you have to let it go.

    At least I *think* that’s the whole idea. But what do I know? I’m still learning.

    • I think you kinda nailed it, Mario.

  3. Luke,
    I just read your book and was happy to find that it “didn’t suck”. I’m another Austinite with this crazy Idea that I want to be a copywriter. Though Grad school, particularly the creative school at UT, is still on the table, I’m trying out the self education route first. Thanks for the inspiration and information.

    • That is very cool amanda. Go for it. Make sure you get a good mentor, either at UT or one of the agencies in Austin.


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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.