Selling Vs. Selling Out.

John Cusak’s character in the movie “Say Anything”:  “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”

So the other day, I am walking down the agency hallway.

Dude walks past me, gives me the hairy eyeball, so I go “What?”

And he points at my Southwest Airlines t-shirt. (Southwest is a client of ours.) I say what? and he points at my t-shirt and snickers, so I go what again and he says, “Sold out to The Man, eh? Look at you, wearin’ a t-shirt with the client’s name on it!”

I could tell he was kinda kidding … and kinda not.

I laughed agreeably and we both went our separate ways. Later on I had one of those “Man-I-wish-I’d-said” moments. I wish I’d said, “Dude, look where you work. You’re at an advertising agency, for Chissake. What do you think this is? Walden Pond?”

And as for selling out? That’s what we do. Selling, that is. Selling out is a phrase I’ll reserve to describe doing things I don’t believe in, for personal promotion or profit.

It made me wonder how many creatives out there share his attitude; who really don’t embrace what it is they do for a living. Considering all the snarky sales-free advertising I see out there, I’m guessing more than a few.

I think part of the problem is that much of today’s work is being crafted by creative people who are simply disdainful of their clients’ products, or of their customers. Perhaps, too, it could be that they hate the advertising business itself. These are people who — with sufficient amounts of alcohol in them — might privately admit they hate thinking of themselves as salespeople. Salsepeople suck, you see. True “creatives,” well, they’re more like that cute Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything. Real creatives, they’re edgy.

See, it’s not cool to be too into our clients’ products. Cool creatives have what’s known as “ironic remove.” Ironic remove means nothing impresses them. They are far above the scrum and rattle of pedestrian life, up in a lofty sphere where worldly things have no effect upon their excellent selves.

The thing is, I don’t know how you can write a single persuasive sentence without loving the product you’re working on, without really knowing what appeals to its customers.

Me, I happen to love our clients’ stuff; their airlines, their cars, their clothes, all of it. I don’t mind being a salesman.


  1. Thank you for putting it so well.

    If, as creatives, we don’t sell, we don’t earn and then we don’t eat. Nor will we have the resources with which to expand our collections of ironic trucker hats. Get over it and stop wishing you were someplace else where your “genius” would be fully appreciated.

  2. In a perfect world we would love all our clients’ products, but that’s rather idealistic and unrealistic. With how tough it is to even land a job at an agency these days, there’s a likely chance you’ll end up working on accounts that don’t fit your personality. Hell, most creatives I know are pretty unusual, and when marketing to the masses, have to dumb down their personalities to think like the “average joe.” You don’t have to love the product– you just have to love the art of creative persuasion.

    • Yo Pondering: I get it. You have a point. I do tend to get idealistic and perfect-world. And you are right about creative pursuasion. Sometimes there is NO way I am gonna love my product. I’ve done work for investment managers selling market-indexed annuities. Try loving that, much less understand it. I hear you.

      • Actually, my spin on this is that you have to understand how your target would love the product and then love how much it is you understand your target. I’ve sold a lot of Bud Light in my day, and while I’d certainly not put it in my top 10 favorite beers, I do love the fact that Joe Six-Pack adores it so. That’s where the fun is.

  3. Great post Luke, And it goes beyond just the creative team – the media team, interactive groupr, production team and account services. We all need to collectively love our clients products/services. When I worked at Leo Burnett this client loyalty was instilled in me and for me I enjoy being a salesman for our brands.

    I also enjoyed your talk here at the Guthrie last fall. Come back again!

    • Yo Mark: Glad you liked the post. And i had a great time speakin’ there in my old home town, Minneapolis. I miss it. I miss four seasons. I do not miss the Vikings.

  4. There are good products with good marketing. Good products with bad marketing. Bad products with good marketing. And the worst, bad products with bad marketing. I’ve worked on them all. I love being a salesman when I believe in the product and the marketer will let you actually do something good. I’ll still even be a salesman when the product is good and the marketing isn’t. It’s when I get into the other two categories when I hate my job and I feel like a sellout, even when the creative is tolerable. It’s your decision to move on in that case, but that’s not always easy to do. Everyone is this business finds themselves in this situation at one time or another. Sometimes it gets better, other times you might have to go find something you believe in.

  5. That’s a very interesting perspective. As usual, I completely agree and I’d add the other side of that coin. If you can’t really endorse a client’s wares, don’t take their money. There are creatives out there still making art to sell Camel or Marlboro. Let them do soulless work for brands they can’t possibly believe in. As Seth Godin puts it, “Somebody has to do that stuff, but it doesn’t have to be you.” Maybe it’s naive, but I believe the world is a big enough place to pass on work you don’t believe in.

  6. Yes! Also: hell yes!

    And: Can I get an amen?

    I suspect a big part of why so many people have that “ironic remove” (love the term, by the way) is guilt.

    See, creative people are passionate by nature. We care about things. We’re more likely to have been radical activists as youth. And most creative people ended up “settling” for advertising because it’s a way to get paid using their otherwise low-value skills. (Who else gets paid so well to string a few clever words together, or draw pictures all day?)

    This radical nature is at odds with advertising, because in advertising we don’t pick what to care about. We have to care about our clients and their products. What’s more, the creative folk typically don’t get a say on who the clients are. That’s up to the account people (as well as a healthy dose of luck).

    So I actually sympathize with those holier-than-thou creative people. They sold out. They’re selling out every day precisely because they don’t love their clients and the work they do. They’ve settled for a life they don’t really want.

    By the same token, if you don’t love clients and their products, maybe you shouldn’t be in advertising. I can respect people for hating advertising and capitalism and commercialism and [insert other corporate “evil” here]. That’s fine. I get it. They’re probably better people than I am.

    But wouldn’t it be nice if they could also respect the passion someone like yourself brings to the work? Why is it so uncool to love what you do? To love your clients? To get up in the morning and think, “I’m proud of what I do”? Is that so bloody wrong?

    So with my own take on irony, I say it’s your hallway friend who sold out. It’s only selling out if, as you put it, you do something that you don’t believe in for the sake of personal gain. The saddest thing in the world is the vast amount of passionate and brilliant people who sell for a living but don’t believe in it.

    (K, maybe not THE saddest thing. Ebola was pretty bad. Old Yeller, too.)

    • Dude, well said, man. I think you nailed it with the observation that many of us creatives are by nature rebels and misfits, and so working for The Man often doesn’t sit right with us. Good stuff, dude.

    • Probably just what I needed to read. Thank you!

  7. Too true, Luke. How about everyone working on car accounts that still think all car dealers are the devil? (And heck, there are a bunch that work for the auto companies themselves that think that way, too….). Don’t believe? Don’t do the work…

  8. Hey, friend-
    I write about this sort of thing all the time on my blog, Gods of Advertising. Truly, the topic is a mother lode for we who work in the creative dept. As for the tee-shirt episode, why would identifying with your benefactor be considered “selling out?” Besides, I wonder how many brands the offending jokester self-consciously put on that morning.

    • Yo Steffan: Glad to hear from you. Hey, just had an idea. Let me add a link in my blog roll dealie-bob and you do the same, the ol’ one-hand-washin’-the-other thing. It’s all about SEO, dude.

      And yes, the t-shirt curmudgeon probably is very brand conscious…but just can’t bring himself to wear his own agency’s brands for fear of not being COOOOOOL.

  9. I agree that the best work will only come if you support the product and have some kind of a desire to promote it to other people. A client can tell if this is just a business relationship or if you really are on their side. It’s hard for me to research and learn as much as I can about a client’s product or service and not gain an appreciation for it.
    Thanks for writing this! I’ve seen examples of this before but I never thought about it much until now.

  10. Luke this is a great essay. I just responded on Twitter but wanted to expand on my thoughts beyond 140 characters. As a younger creative person in the advertising business, I often find myself struggling with this issue. The clients are the reason why we exist but also can be the bane of our existence! Sometimes it’s hard to come out of a pressed for time, the client hated it, start all over, it’s still not right, DO IT NOW! HURRY UP! situation and still feel the love. The other issue I struggle with is (like I replied on Twitter) whether or not I should be living, breathing and rolling around in the bed with Advertising/Copywriting. I love what I do…but do I have to constantly show and prove that love, especially with social media taking off like it is? Do I have to have a website and a blog? Do all my tweets have to be industry related? Do all of my social media outlets need to be connected? When can I ever just be myself but still like what I do and really want to be good at it?

    • Your comments in upper and lower, mine in all caps: Sometimes it’s hard to come out of a pressed for time, the client hated it, start all over, it’s still not right, DO IT NOW! HURRY UP! situation and still feel the love. YES, YOUNG GRASSHOPPER, THIS ISSUE WILL DOG YOU ALL OF YOUR DAYS. IT WILL NEVER GO AWAY. BUT AS JAMES MICHNER, THE TRUE TEST OF CHARACTER IS WHAT WE DO ON THE FOURTH AND FIFTH TRIES. The other issue I struggle with is (like I replied on Twitter) whether or not I should be living, breathing and rolling around in the bed with Advertising/Copywriting. YES, IT IS GOOD TO IMMERSE YOURSELF IN YOUR CRAFT, BUT AS WRITERS WE ALSO NEED TO RECHARGE OUR CREATIVE ENERGIES BY IMMERSING OURSELVES IN THE WORLD. IN ART. IN COMEDY. IN MOVIES. IN MUSIC. I love what I do…but do I have to constantly show and prove that love, especially with social media taking off like it is? NO, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO ANY OF THAT IF YOU DON’T WANT TO. THE ONLY REASON I DO IT IS TO STAY CURRENT WITH CHANGING TECHNOLOGIES AND PLATFORMS. THIS ISN’T ABOUT SHOWING OFF. IT’S ABOUT KEEPING UP. Do I have to have a website and a blog? NO, YOU DO NOT NEED TO HAVE A BLOG. ONLY MAKE ONE IF YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY, TO CONTRIBUTE. WRITERS ONLY WRITE BOOKS WHEN THEY ARE MOVED TO DO SO. Do all my tweets have to be industry related? TWEET ABOUT WHATEVER YOU WANT. PERSONALLY, I USE TWITTER EXCLUSIVELY FOR WORK-RELATED STUFF, AND I DO ALL MY GOSSIPING ON FACEBOOK. Do all of my social media outlets need to be connected? NO, BUT IT’S EASY TO DO. ASK SOMEONE. When can I ever just be myself but still like what I do and really want to be good at it? YOU CAN START TO BE YOURSELF RIGHT NOW. WHAT IS THE WAIT FOR? ARE YOU WAITING FOR PERMISSION? GO GET EM GIRL.

      • Ahhhhhhhhhhh! You’re awesome! Thanks for replying to every single one of my questions. Sometimes I’m afraid to say/ask those things out loud so I really appreciate your feedback. You rock!

  11. I don’t see it as “working for the man.”
    It prefer to think of myself as a creative mercenary. An ethical one.

    Whatever it is an advertising creative would’ve rather been, then they need to take a good look inside themselves and figure out why they didn’t be that, and what perhaps they should try to be.

    I love advertising. If and when I no longer love it, like any relationship, I’ll leave it. But if I didn’t love it in the beginning, I wouldn’t have made such a large commitment.

  12. Luke, great post.
    Another reason some/many agency creatives don’t love their brands is that they simply aren’t the target. We often say this about the consumers or business owners or distributors who don’t “get it” when they see the ads we create. They obviously don’t get it because they’re “not the target.”
    Maybe agencies have the same problem in reverse.
    Because agencies hire young, creative, often-single and childless people on to their creative teams, they struggle to “get” uncool brands like Pampers, or K-mart, or Crest, or any number of brands that will never be a hipster’s love. Why would they love SW when there’s a Virgin or JetBlue around to stamp their cool cards? (Not slagging SW here by the way–I like the freedom to move about the country).
    Understanding these brands can be hard for someone outside the market. Loving them may be next to impossible.
    Could the answer lie in hiring more older creatives?

  13. Hello,

    I stumbled upon this very interesting read! It’s good to hear the insider’s view on advertising, clients, love/hate relationships, feeling like a sell out / or not etc…

    As a voice artist with a hippy-ish outlook on life, I made a decision a little while ago to create an ethical policy, which highlights certain types of products/brand campaigns that I won’t voice. I know I’m in the minority, it’s obviously a financial nuisance, I’m sure it hasn’t been too helpful early in my career and there are always going to be grey areas. Overall, I feel better knowing that there are some clients I will never work with and that’s the bottom line.

    Also, I’ve seen a couple of ad agencies (albeit small-scale) spring up with a clear ethical policy – which is great! Creatives get to create with a conscience, for brands they genuinely love, rather than sometimes having to leave their personal values at the door.

    I’m all for mixing purpose, passion and principles with the pursuit of profit….and proudly wearing client t-shirts (fair trade cotton t shirts of course)….

  14. Awesome post Luke. I call these people Artists Who Are Too Chickenshit To Starve. If I sound harsh, it’s because they make it harder for me to sell in work that I believe in both creatively and strategically. They make “creativity” a four-letter word in clients’ minds. (And also Luke: you’ve looked at my stuff twice over the course of my career and I want to say big thanks for giving me the good, the bad, and the ugly about it. You’re a rarity in the world of creative leadership. Glad you’re rocking at GSD&M.)

    • Wow, thanks for the kind words. Glad I could help.

      • You were very helpful. Big thanks.

  15. Yeah, I was walking around the agency with my British Petroleum t-shirt on today. I was getting some eye-rolls as well.
    “Creatives.” pfft!


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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.