Musings On America’s Obsession With Winning.


(Reposting for our 2016 graduates.) Having been around the ad schools over the years, I’ve overheard conversations in the hallways and the computer labs.

“Dude! You know Bill? Yeah, he got into Goodby and I didn’t even get an email back from them. God, I suck.”

People, here’s the thing.

You probably don’t suck. It’s just that you’ve been raised in a culture that places a lot of emphasis on winning. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” “Winners never quit…” and all the others.

Fact is, America has been obsessed with winning ever since we won first place in WW II. We copped a silver in the ’50s space race (damn Sputnik), but we came back and nailed the gold with Apollo 11. Ever since then, we’ve been all, “Who even remembers the second man on the moon?”

It seems we’ve left the grading system and become a pass-fail society; in fact, more like Winners/Failures.

“What? You didn’t get into Harvard? You got into only Notre Dame? Duuuude.”

“What?? You didn’t win the Super Bowl, just the AFL title? Lose, much?”

So, students. Repeat after me:

“I did not get a job a offer at Goodby.

But I did get a job offer from (say) Shelby & Hammerstein in Chicago.

And they want to pay me for my ideas.

I am not stocking Bic pens on the shelves of Wal-Mart.

I have landed my first job in a creative industry.

From here, I can probably go anywhere.

Because I have a career now.

It has begun.”

So let us bless our friends who’ve landed jobs at the high-profile agencies. (The jobs come with some extra stress. Sure you want that?)

Let us be kind to ourselves and become “recovering perfectionists.”

Let us leave winning to Charlie Sheen.


  1. I wish someone had told me this when I was 25. VERY sound advice. Thanks Luke!

  2. You know i ve been thinking about that lately, in my college every year they make an ad contest about making a viral campaing about some specific subject, in the last 2 years in a row i have manage to get third place… for a while i thought that was very dissapointing because the first place is the only one who gets a trip to cannes…but now i just want to focus in being the best creative person i can be, i want to be an idea man, no for the gold or the prices but because i just want to be good at this.

    So thank you for this Luke, im in a moment right now where im almost graduating and i have to finish my portfolio and start my quest for a job, luckily in an ad agency. I dont know if i ll get hire in one of the big ones in here but i ll sure appreciate anything that comes in my way.

    (sorry for my english typos) from Dominican Republic

    • Know what you mean. I used to BEAT myself up once a year trying to kill in the One Show, in CA, in the Mercury’s. Be kinder to yourself.

    • Thank you Mr. Sullivan for calling this disorder out to the world.

      I’ve been out of school for awhile and I still struggle with this kind of thinking.
      I think it is part of the DNA of creatives to be told that we don’t suck by people who don’t suck.

      Rejection doesn’t just apply to creatives trying to get into agencies… it really is part of our business. Everything we create has a chance to die, it just tends to sting a bit more when your entire body of work doesn’t fit with your dream job. It’s not like Goodby thinks you are a horrible person who offers no value to society. They just don’t need what you have to offer right now.

      I try not to let the ad-world tell me if I’m cool or not. I know I’m not cool, but I do know that I get to make stuff up for a living and I get to wear t-shirts and sneakers while I save for retirement.

      The best advertising advice I’ve ever gotten is from a writer named Tom Demetriou. We were a little drunk so I don’t remember the exact words, but basically he said “Be yourself. If they don’t like you, screw them.”


      • I love the “I get to wear jeans and t-shirt while I try to save for retirement.” True dat.

    • Jean, the best way to win first prize is to change the rules. See: Ogilvy, Lois, Bernbach, McElligott, Clow, Wieden. If you’re winning third prize already, you’re pretty damn close. Keep it up!

  3. Or maybe consider what the winds of superiority are trying to tell you… you indeed do suck.

    So what are you going to do about it?

    • Dude, you’re right. I shoulda added some little addendum in there, some asterisk, for the people who do in fact truly and most sincerely suck. The simple existence of a bell curve suggests they are out there.

  4. What if we have a signed copy of Hey Whipple with a message from you telling us we suck? What about then? Middle-ground? Maybe I suck, but only at book signings? Or perhaps I just suck in Luke’s eyes? These are the questions I fall asleep with each night.

    • You poor bastard. Wondering if you suck all the time. I thought I settled that when I signed your book “YOU SUCK!”


  5. So true. The sad part? Even if you win one show or Cannes gold you’re still not number one. You could’ve won the grand prix/best in show… And when you do that, well, look at all those other shows you didn’t win best in show in. Ah, the joy of never being satisfied.

  6. Generally, the stronger, often more edgy work doesn’t take first place. The judges get divided on it. Look for the knockout work in second or third place.

  7. Hey Luke,
    Even when you win, you can always get fired. I worked for small firm, in a small market, and after a project of mine got a Gold Lion, a Gold Clio, and into theCA Annual, the creative director fired my ass. His reason? “You’re not that creative any more.”

  8. I swear to ‘God-by’ I am grateful I read this right as I was about to slice my wrists..

    Thank you, kind sir.



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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.