Whatever you’re making, make it way better than it has to be.

An excerpt from the 4th edition of “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This,” due out in February, 2012.

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Remember how it felt the first time you held a new iPod or iPhone? Remember the delight you felt with every detail? The texture of the metal; the precious curve of the housing; the precise click of each button? I doubt I’m the only one who thought these angelic details made those little devices from Cupertino feel perfect – not just good, but perfect. At Apple, they call this design ethos making something “insanely great.”

I call it making something way better than it has to be and Apple isn’t the only place you can enjoy the benefits of fanatical attention to detail. You can hear it in the slam of the door on a new Audi. Feel it in the delicious weight of a Waterford crystal glass. Or hear it in any Beatles song. (Sue me. I still love ‘em.) All these things are made way better than they have to be.

As we begin to discuss the crafts of writing and art direction in more detail, I want to impress upon you here the importance of doing work that is insanely great; of employing these crafts to the very best of your ability. Because in the end they are all you have at your command to get a reader or viewer to lean in. And this leaning in is the ultimate goal for any artist, especially us advertising artists.

Let me describe leaning in this way: Over the years I’ve judged many advertising award shows and for the print portion of these competitions, thousands of ads are laid out on a series of long tables. The advertising judges (usually slightly crispy from the carousing in the bars the night before) wander up and down the aisles looking for work they think worthy of recognizing and reprinting in the award annuals. During the many times I’ve watched the judges judge, I’ve always seen a magic little moment when the judge stops, bends at the waist, and leans in to more closely study a particular piece. What is it, I wondered, that made the judge lean in?

Over the years, I’ve come to believe the operative element is subliminal; not subliminal advertising the way Vance Packard complained about in his conspiracy book The Hidden Persuaders. No, the operative element we’re talking about here is subliminal quality. The very word sublime helps explain my point. “Limen” is Latin for threshold. Below the threshold of awareness. We’re talking about baking quality so far into a thing that people who look at it perceive this quality subconsciously. They know they’re looking at something of quality before they’re even conscious of it because when a thing is made way better than it has to be its quality comes off of it in waves.

In his marvelous book, Paste Up, my old Fallon friend Bob Blewett agrees: “I believe 
the effort and struggle 
to create 
simplicity and grace 
live on in the work 
like a soul … and as the ad leaves the agency, your effort and care stand over the ad like a benediction.”

Blewett’s benediction is the force I’ve been getting at here; the force which makes someone lean in to study whatever it is you’ve created. There’s no shortcut around Blewett’s requirement; it takes “effort and struggle to create simplicity and grace.” It means sweating the details of whatever ad or script or site you’re working on and going to any length to get it right, and then going beyond that. It means not letting even the smallest thing slide; that if a thing bothers you even a teeny bit, you work on it till it doesn’t bother you and then you keep working until it actually pleases you.

I forget where I read this metaphor, but what you get for your trouble is like the difference between a regular drinking glass, a good one, and Waterford crystal. A flick of your finger on the first yields a “tung.” A wine glass might give you a “tang.” But only Waterford will give you that unmistakable “ting.”

Tung. Tang. Ting. Don’t stop until you get to ting.

This extra effort is how all of life’s pursuits are turned into art; yes, even advertising. An old man from Bali once patiently explained to an anthropologist studying his culture: “We have no  ‘art.’ 
 We do everything as well as possible.”

This unwavering attention to detail will not only improve your craft and improve your client’s fortunes, it will improve you.


  1. Hi there Luke, I’m a copywriter from Australia. I recently hand crafted a trophy to enter in to the BEST TROPHY category at Cannes here: http://on.fb.me/mHRbCH
    I forged it on the smithy of my soul – every precise detail, the babe, the gravitas of the mountain. And I didn’t have to get a tank to squash a small car on the bottom of the trophy. But I did. I really pushed it to the extreme-max in my craftsmanship. 111%. Your article resonated with my endeavour. I hope you enjoy it. P.s. I love your book. Darby.

  2. Luke,
    Great post (blog, book as well).! I talk about telling a brand story — and the last point I usually try to make is that the brand story has to offer some reward in the telling. Some reason that someone will share your brand story with someone else. I LOVE that you’ve identified it as a Lean In factor and I will promptly steal this for my presentations! The corollary to Lean In, I believe then, is what happens next, when the person leaning in waves someone else over and says “Wow! Take a look at this!” I think I’ll post on this and link back to you in a bit.

    • I am so glad you liked it. Feel free to use.

  3. A friend forwarded this to me and it was just the perfect inspiration that I needed. So gracefully and thoughtfully stated. Sublime in its delivery and tone. The written manifestation of exactly the thing you’re talking about. Makes me sad you are leaving. And that we never worked together. Its ALWAYS in the details.
    thanks for the inspiration. Ill keep sweating the details, even if it means the masses may label me as “not nice.”

    • Thank for the kind words Shannon


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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.