If there were no ad schools, the One Show annuals still just might be enough.

Hall of Fame copywriter Tom McElligott hired me as a copywriter in January of 1979. (Insert age joke here. “Ha, ha, that was so funny. No really, that I’m old and everything.”)

Aaaanyhoo, Tom didn’t have much work for me during that first month, so he parked me in a conference room with a three-foot-tall stack of award annuals; books full of the best advertising on the planet: the One Show and Communication Arts awards annuals (the December issues).

He told me to read them. “Read them all.”

He called them “the graduate school of advertising.” He was right, and I say the same thing to kids trying to get into the business today. You need to study these books. If you purport to be a student of advertising, you need to drop everything right now and go get a three-foot-tall stack of your own and read, read, and read.

Yes, I’m aware this is a business where we try to break rules, but as T.S. Eliot said, “It’s not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.” More on that later.

Fact is, it’s entirely possible you could circumvent ad school entirely and create an interview-ready portfolio with nothing but these books and a whole lot of coffee.  Because you’d be studying The Masters, studying people way better than you are right now, people who have their craft down to an art and are at the peak of their creative powers.

The books are in fact expensive and so you’ll have to find them at libraries, used book stores, online, or through friends in the business. And while it’s possible to peruse the One Show’s archives online, perusing is defined popularly as “looking over in a casual or cursory manner.” I want you to peruse People magazine; the annuals you need to actually read.

Yes, you could see much of this work online, but to study it the way I’m talkin’ about, looking at stuff online this long will kill your neck. By studying I mean total immersion; curling up with a One Show annual for hours and hours and just inhaling the work. Concentrating on the work so hard that when the phone rings you come back from a daze, blinking as you adjust from the brilliance you’ve just left in the land where things are done perfectly, where spectacular ideas live one next to another. After swimming this deep and this long under a sea of brilliance, it starts to soak in and when you come out of the perfection, your fingers are wrinkled with creativity. This is how we learn. I don’t see any short cuts.

Now, there are people who say you don’t need award books and sometimes I’m one of them. Once you’ve learned the basics of the craft, once you’re in the business, well, at a certain point it is good to unmoor and sail into the unknown. I know plenty of ad superstars who disdain looking at books. All I can tell you is how I learned the craft, back when there were no ad schools. It was with these books.

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NOTE: The best awards shows in my opinion are the One Show and Communication Arts (its December issues), as well as the British D&AD annuals. For digital inspiration, you can peruse work at thefwa.com, the Webby’s and the SxSW interactive awards.


  1. Could not have said it better myself. There is a lot to be said for osmosis.

  2. Luke,
    In all candor — I have required several universities and colleges to require Hey Whipple as a course textbook. I think that’s my way of saying “First time caller, long time listener.”
    Well, I have prescribed the practice described above. In fact, it was Pat Burnham who taught me the exercise: Take a stack of One Show and/or CA ad annuals. Use PostIt Notes to mark your favorite ads. In the first run, mark as many ads as you like. Then, distill your favorites down to no more than 10 for each year/book.
    Now you can do three things with your curation of advertising.
    1) Transcribe each of the ten ads. Take a blank sheet and trace or draw the artwork. Write out all the words by hand. If it’s an interactive experience or film, you might draw multiple frames. For extra credit, do the same exercise with your computer and set the type, etc. But start with a pencil and paper and do it by hand.
    2) Photocopy the ten ads/experiences. Put them over your work area. Make sure your next assignment is good enough to be “the 11th ad” on the wall.
    3) Make a spreadsheet and write down who was the Copywriter, Art Director, Designer, Creative Director, Technologist, etc. Then find those people on LinkedIn, or their personal websites. Figure out their email addresses. Then write each one an individual, personal message and talk about your process (above) and what you think about their work. Not a bad way to start building or enhance your network.
    There’s a ton of value in the awards annuals. If you go looking for it.
    Hope your teaching gig is awesome!


    • Yo Tim: I love this exercise. And good ol’ Burnham. Miss that guy.

  3. Good stuff Luke – I teach copy at Art Center and at one time attemted to “wean” the students off of Award show annuals. Then I realized that since long form and traditional copy is a bit of a lost art, I do send them there to, as you say, “study the masters.” I also remind them that these are “Annuals. Not manuals.”

  4. Here here. I had no idea what an ad school was until I’d already been in the business three or four years (I was a, gasp, marketing major). On the one hand, award books show great solutions to other brands’ problems. On the other, they prove that pretty much any problem can not only be solved, but can be solved elegantly.

  5. And, of course, I meant “hear hear.” Lack of caffeine.

  6. Luke,

    Looks like we attended the same ‘Grad School.’ I agree 100% with your supposition. The only thing I would add is, many times you’ll get more insights from the OLDER annuals than the ones hot off the presses. Go back ten years, 20 years, or even 30 if you can. Go back to the era before Photoshop and InDesign, to when a good part of a writer’s day was actually crafting body copy.


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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.