How I Learned Not To Suck. (As Much.)

My first "ad." (I know, I knnnow.)

(I just “liked” my own essay to see what would happen. What happened was my name ends up in the list of likers. Made me feel creepy. Please forgive, won’t you?)

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A friend of mine is writing a book about advertising and he asked me to contribute some thoughts about my earliest experience with the craft, in particular any memories about my “first time,” my first successes (or failures).

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Ray Bradbury. I think he’s one of the best writers in captivity. In a biography about the man, Mr. Bradbury  remembered the time he first realized he’d written a good short story (The Lake).  Of that 1944 story he wrote: “When I finished [writing it], I was crying. I knew at long last, after ten years of trying, I had written something good.”

I think as we grow up as artists and creative people, our reach exceeds our grasp for years and years. We grow up being able to see so much more than we can do. We love the creativity we see in the art we love, but it takes years for us to learn a craft well enough to finally make something as good as the things we’ve been admiring.

So it was with me.

When I first got into the business, my mentors were the Original Minneapolis Duo, Ron Anderson and Tom McElligott. For the first few weeks after they hired me, Ron and Tom put me in a room with their collection of One Show award annuals. They called these books the “graduate school of advertising” and told me to sit down and read them all.

I was such an ad geek that I did more than read them. I Xeroxed every single page of every annual and then cut them all into individual pieces, all the ads, and then assembled all the world’s best auto ads in one book, all the best tourism ads in another book, creating a shelf-full of 3-ring binders of the world’s best ads broken into categories. Then, whenever I got a job order, whether it was for a restaurant or a brand of liquor, I’d go back to those books and re-read everything in that particular category all over again.

I would give the same advice to students today.

Learning the language of persuasion, of excellent copywriting, it isn’t a whole lot different than learning French. It’s about immersion. I immersed myself in the craft and you should too. Eventually all that smart starts to rub off on you.

So I started by copying. I didn’t copy concepts of course, but I did my best to copy the rhythms of, say, Neil Drossman’s brainy headlines or Ed McCabe’s smart-ass writing style. After awhile (in my case it took about 3 years) your own style begins to emerge.  You don’t decide what your style is, you discover it. Style is hard-wired into your brain and it’s a matter of discovering what your style is and then sharpening it, exploring its dimensions.

I’d like to say that once I studied all these masters, my own style quickly emerged and I was brill from then on.

Oh, but becoming good at anything is rarely a graceful process. In those first  years, I created some truly horrible things. I’ve already written about my first ad in my book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising, and if I may, I’ll pull this short quotation:

As hard as I studied those awards annuals, most of the work I did early on wasn’t very good. In fact, it stunk. If the truth be known, those early ads of mine were so bad I have to reach for my volume of Edgar Allan Poe to describe them with any accuracy:  “. . . a nearly liquid mass of loathsome, detestable putridity.”

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s my very first ad. Just look at it (for as long as you’re able): a dull little idea that doesn’t so much revolve around an overused play on the word interest, as it limps.

Rumor has it they’re still using this ad at poison control centers to induce vomiting. (“Come on now, Jimmy. We know you ate all of your sister’s antidepressant pills and that’s why you have to look at Luke’s bank ad.”)

As I said, it ain’t pretty and it ain’t graceful. I sucked for quite a while and this in spite of having some of the best teachers in the world.

Hall of Famer Tom McElligott once looked at a radio script I presented him, handed it back to me shaking his head and said, “This is a real mess.” It was a mess. Oh, it probably had some shred of concept to it but it was undisciplined, not single-minded, it sprawled, it had useless little asides I thought were so clever, and on top of all that, it had the most junior of mistakes — it didn’t time out to a sixty.

I had another excellent teacher, copywriter Dick Thomas. I remember bringing Mr. Thomas another over-long radio spot. He could tell at a glance it was too long and said, “Here, let me just trim it a bit.” That’s when he fed my script into an oscillating fan he had running on his desk. “There,” he said, handing back my shredded, truncated script. “Rewrite it to that length.”

May I take a moment here to humbly thank all those brilliant teachers I had early in my career.

And now, in parting, I’ll summarize: Study the masters. Immerse yourself in their work over and over again until you have it memorized. Surround yourself with people who are better than you are. Don’t waste time defending your early efforts. Just shut up and listen to your teachers. Stay humble. Stay hungry.

Sooner or later you’ll produce something that looks like the work you’ve been studying and admiring. Like Ray Bradbury, one day you’ll lean back and realize, wow, all that work, it’s starting to pay off.


  1. This was a quick and insightful read. I’m off to immerse myself in the infinite world of my craft. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the article, Luke. I’ve been a copywriter for 22 years in Brazil. Your book is the best thing I read about the subject.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words all the way from Ireland.
      Yours, Luke O’Sullivan

  3. This site is just a wealth of vast useful information that is building foundations to my Marketing understanding.
    I’m a Marketing/Advertising student in Ireland and have a genuine interest in the field.
    I only found this website through chance and I am delighted I did.
    I dream of being able to utilise my crazy, zany ideas for brands and products into a ‘job’ per say, when I leave college and this website is helping me to understand the real world of Advertising and Marketing.

    Thank you for your posts

  4. You’re right luke; it doesn’t come easy. That thing about writing to a spot length? I’m still struggling after 25 years.

  5. Interesting piece. I’m a copywriter by day and, personally, I kinda do the opposite. I hate advertising and avoid it at all costs, with the exception of a few select blogs that post off-beat, wacky stuff. I don’t watch TV and I adblock my browser. I listen to podcasts so I don’t have to hear radio ads. When I present ideas, from time to time, someone says, “Oh that’s been done,” and I missed it because I pay no attention. But over all, I think my strategy keeps my work fresh. People tell me as much. I don’t fall into trends and tropes and clichés.

    I’d been a professional writer in other contexts for years before I decided to give advertising a whirl. So I did spend the requisite years painstakingly hunting down my voice.

  6. All of this wisdom, all of this knowledge…yet there are still legitimate, supposedly creative agencies churning out headlines no better than Luke’s first effort. A current example, for a brand we expect more from: “It’s not an SUV, it’s an SUVW.” This is one of those headlines you scribble on a piece of paper and immediately throw away. Correction, you tear it up, burn it, and flush the ashes down the toilet lest the cleaning lady find it in your wastebasket and use it for blackmail.
    Keep up the good fight, Luke, there are still some Whipples out there.

  7. Hey Thomas: Thank you so much. Gotta post again to start off 2012. Hey, did you get my message on your FB?

  8. If you read this, you’ll understand the calamitous state of copywriting today. If you don’t, we’ll understand.

  9. I had a similar experience as a newly-minted copywriter. I was passionately interested in radio. So I ordered all of the tapes (they were reel to reel in those days) of all the great companies doing award-winning radio, particularly Dick & Bert. I listened to them a million times over. I transcribed the scripts and tried to figure out how they set up the ending, how they created the characters, how they got product information in there without being clunky. Years later, Dick Orkin saw a script I wrote and asked me to write for what was by then The Radio Ranch. Dream come true. He was everything I’d hoped and more, I’ve never had more fun ever and I’ve never written better stuff.

    • Hey Claudia: That is so cool how you studied radio, looked at the scripts, studied their architecture. You rock.



  1. Words of wisdom from Luke Sullivan | dearbrookblog - [...] Here’s where you can find what he said about his early years: [...]

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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.