God. The Devil. And Luke Sullivan.
If you believe what you read in the Old Testament– and these days who doesn’t– then you know the story of Moses. To summarize: a burning bush told Moses to tell the pharaoh to let the Jews go free. The pharaoh said the burning bush thing sounded sketchy. God sent a bunch of plagues. The pharaoh told Moses that he and his Jews could beat it, but then changed his mind at the last minute and sent his army after them. Moses parted the Red Sea. The pharaoh’s army was destroyed. The Jews escaped. And a few thousand years later Charlton Heston got nominated for an Academy Award.
In between the burning bush and Charlton Heston, Moses went up the mountain and God gave him the Ten Commandments. When he came back down, there was a bit of a kerfuffle with a golden cow and he had to go back up again. It was a real schlep, but eventually we received, what many believe to be the ten basic rules for living a righteous life. We’ve pretty much been coming up short on them ever since. But damn if we don’t try. Personally, I’ve never coveted any of my neighbors’ wives and I feel pretty good about that.
Similarly, if you believe what they say in Mississippi– and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t– then you might also be familiar with the story of Robert Johnson. He took his guitar down to the crossroads to make a deal with the Devil. When he returned, people said he played that guitar a whole lot better than when he left. He also carried with him the playbook for the music we know today as the Delta Blues. That same playbook would create the basis for pretty much all of rock n’ roll.
There’s a similarity between the two stories. Both men went on a journey. One returned with the word of God. The other came back with the music of the Devil. Moses got the better deal. He lived a long life, became the break-out star of the Old Testament and died at the age of 120 years old. Robert Johnson recorded a grand total of 29 songs in the only two recording sessions he ever participated in. He didn’t make a dime off any of his music and died at the age of 27 from drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey.
And then there’s Luke Sullivan. In 1998, Luke Sullivan wrote the first edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. Many people, and I’m one of them, refer to it as the creative bible. Or the definitive guide on how to make an ad that doesn’t totally suck. I’d agree with that assessment as well. I’ll even go a step further and say that if you’re in the business of creativity, the advertising equivalent of both the Ten Commandments and all 29 of Robert Johnson’s songs are contained within its pages.
So, if Moses went to the mountain and Robert Johnson went to the crossroads, I think it’s safe to say that Luke Sullivan went someplace in between the two. That someplace is called advertising. Which makes perfect sense because if you’re in it then you know that sometimes it’s heaven but a lot of the time it’s fucking hell. On those special days, advertising is the ring Dante edited out because he thought no one deserved to be treated like that.
Nevertheless, wherever it was that Luke Sullivan went to, we’re pretty much all the better for it. For a lot of creatives, reading his book really opens things up and gives you an enormous toolbox for generating ideas that are original and break through the clutter.
There are a ton of books out there on advertising and creativity. But Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, for most creatives, is the only one they’ll ever read.
However, much to Luke’s chagrin, most copies of Hey Whipple aren’t purchased. They’re stolen. Or perhaps it would be more polite to say that they’re often borrowed and never returned. I myself have purchased the book twice and ripped it off from someone’s office once. So, I’m better than most. But if you have a copy laying around, I suggest you keep a close eye on it at all times.
I get phone calls from kids sometimes who are looking for advice on how to break into the business, what creative program they should go to and is a career in advertising as much fun as people say it is. The first thing I do is ask them if they’ve considered anything else. The second thing I do is implore them to give whatever the answer to the first question was some more thought.
Then I tell them that advertising is fun but it’s also really competitive and there’s a good chance they won’t be able to do it past the age of 40 or so. I tell them about the late nights, the impossible deadlines and the cruel cadre of nay-sayers and hall monitors who will do everything within their power to get in the way of your work.
I tell them how much more money my friends who went to law school are making. I let them know that they’ll never coach one of their kid’s Little League teams. And I do my best to give them a crystal clear picture of the demands that will be placed on them as a junior, making about the same as they would if they worked at Bed, Bath and Beyond.
In other words, I try to bum them out as much as possible.
If none of that works then I tell them to go out and buy a copy of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan.
I have no idea how much money I’ve made Luke over the years. I hope a lot. I hope Luke is filthy rich and the whole down-to-earth, nice guy thing is just an act that he puts on before he jets off to his seaside villa with an entourage of Eurotrash who tend to his every desire.
But I don’t think any of that’s true. Luke’s too nice of a guy for that. You’ve heard of Minnesota nice? It used to be called Luke Sullivan nice. He donated it to the state. That’s what a nice guy he is.
I went to Savannah once on a recruiting trip to SCAD where Luke used to teach. I got to have breakfast with him before the review. If I remember correctly we both had the ham and cheese omelet. I requested a bottle of hot sauce for mine. Luke, if I recall, did not partake.
Savannah is charming. It’s a beautiful little town with lots to do for tourists and a really nice waterfront area with some cute shops and good bars and restaurants. I was taken on a little tour by someone from SCAD. They very proudly pointed out building after building made out of slave bricks. Those are the bricks that the pre-Civil War buildings were made from. Evidently, they’re pretty highly coveted down there. Whenever they demolish an old building all of the slave bricks are preserved and sold to contractors and builders who offer them up to home owners at top dollar. Personally, if I were building something in Savannah, I’d say no thanks to the slave bricks. I feel very strongly that all bricks should be emancipated.
But getting to spend some time with Luke and getting to meet some of his students was worth the trip.
Luke has a really good energy that rubs off on anyone around him. You just feel kind of happy and excited when he’s there. The kids were beaming. Usually I’m kind of anti-beaming. It makes me anxious. But with Luke and his students, I not only enjoyed the beaming but may have even been doing a little myself. I can’t be sure. It’s very difficult to self-diagnose one’s own beaming. It’s usually preferable to have someone else point it out for you.
I’ve often wondered what makes Hey Whipple, Squeeze This such a special book. There are literally a zillion books out there on advertising. I’ve read a few of them and they’re quite good. But nothing feels as solid as Hey Whipple. It’s like he’s there in the room with you and whispering the secrets of creativity into your ear, but it’s somehow not creepy because it’s Luke, and I’m just putting this out there so don’t read too much into it, but I’d let Luke Sullivan whisper anything he wants into my ear.
So, why does Hey Whipple continue to resonate? Is it because each new edition brings valuable fresh perspectives on the ever-changing advertising/media landscape? Is it because each new edition offers new takes on things like social media, emerging platforms, branded content and most importantly— how to put a book together and get a job in today’s market? Is it because each new edition has the potential to help you extend your career another few years?
I’d say it’s all those things. But that doesn’t really answer my question because I haven’t read a whole lot of other books on advertising. I’ve tried. But when I feel myself absorbing too much new information, the organism tends to shut down. My brain was designed to hold only so much information. It has a rather sensitive overflow mechanism with a built in shut-off valve that automatically closes when too much is allowed into the system. This did not serve me well as an aspiring pre-med student. But it’s just enough to keep my head above water in advertising.
So I’ve decided to do something unprecedented here at Kingdom of Failure. I’ve invited a guest to contribute to this idiotic blog. But not just any guest. A very special guest. His name is Justin Oberman and if you follow any of us ad nerds on LinkedIn, you know that Justin is famous for his one-advertising-book-a-week series—where he reads one advertising book a week and then tells all of us morons what we could learn from it if we’d lay-off the Netflix and actually try to better ourselves a little bit.
So with that, I welcome Justin to the kingdom—who I have only one question for. Out of a vast sea of advertising books, why is Hey Whipple, Squeeze This the only one that most of us will ever read? And you can’t say it’s because we’re all lazy idiots. While not lacking in truth, I often find it advantageous to avoid the obvious.
KOF: Justin, welcome.
Justin: Thanks for having me.
KOF: No problem. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Let’s not dilly dally. What makes Hey Whipple, Squeeze This the only book that most people in advertising will ever read?
Justin: That’s easy. It follows its own advice. And uses the same techniques it teaches you about.
KOF: Can you elaborate?
Justin: Sure. Hey, Whipple Squeeze This is popular for the same reason a product or service is made popular by an ad.
KOF: But it's a book. Not an ad.
Justin: David Ogilvy is quoted as saying that Confessions of an Advertising Man was the longest and most successful ad he ever made. Rosser Reeves also admitted later in life that Scientific Advertising was written as a way to advertise the agency. Which, when you consider how many people take the concept of USP as gospel, really should make you think.
KOF: So as you say in those cases, Ogilvy and Reeves wrote their books to advertise their agencies. Luke didn’t own an agency when he wrote the book. So what was Luke advertising?
Justin: That’s exactly what makes this book so popular. And unique. It’s advertising, advertising itself. Or, it’s advertising a career in creative advertising.
KOF: Whoah. You’re crazy smart.
Justin: I know. But I didn't realize that until you told me what this interview was going to be about. So I read it again. It hit me in the first 3 chapters which, by the way, I think are the most important chapters in the book. I often tell cubs that they shouldn't continue reading the rest of the book until they have fully absorbed the first three chapters.
KOF: Bonus points for calling aspiring ad students, cubs. I’m sure they’ll appreciate that. But, why the first three chapters?
Justin: Because they are all about the creative process. With tips on how to distill things down to their essence and tricks on how to come up with unique ways of thinking about and dramatizing that essence. “Put the logo upside down. Set it on fire. Advertise it in the typical style of another industry.” Shit like that. Some people do that naturally. Some people need to train themselves. The point isn’t to follow Luke's advice in an Ogilvy gospel type of way. But to train yourself to think in different ways. Take what works for you. Abandon what doesn't and invent your own.
KOF: So getting back to my initial question…
Justin: Right. It’s pretty exciting and interesting stuff. I mean, not for everyone. Someone who is really into accounting might not find it interesting. But then again, they probably wouldn't be reading the book anyway. It’s meant to be an introduction to the creative side of advertising. And it does a very good job at that. And for anyone who is thinking about getting into the creative side of advertising, it does a very good job of making it look like a fun and challenging career. This is why I say that one of the things that makes it so successful is that it advertises advertising so successfully.
KOF: But surely, there must be other intro books about advertising that do that.
Justin: Sure. But, if I can borrow some terminology from direct marketing, there is always control to beat. And right now, that control is Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. The only other thing that I think attracts people to a career in creative advertising more than Hey Whipple is, unfortunately, Mad Men. I mean, the series also had an influence on me. When I was reading the book I was also following the series.
KOF: Don’t get me started on Mad Men. What makes it such a good advertisement for a career in creative advertising?
Justin: Well, look. Before Hey Whipple, THE BOOK on how to create advertising was Ogilvy on Advertising. Which is also extremely well written and easy to read. But, some people (I am not one of them) think it's outdated. Or (and once again I am not one of them) has too many rules. Ogilvy’s Barnum-like boasting is also a hard pill for some people to swallow.
KOF: I love Ogilvy’s book.
Justin: Me too. But when you compare the two, Hey Whipple has none of the problems mentioned above. It offers suggestions and a wide breadth of topics. Has more suggestions than rules. Is continually updated so it stays totally relevant. And while Luke talks about himself a bit, he certainly comes across as a much humbler man than David Ogilvy was. Apparently, his students at SCAD loved him. I think that comes across in his book as well.
KOF: What about other intro books like Junior or Cameron Day’s Chew with Your Mind Open.
Justin: Those are two really, really good books. And I recommend them with an authoritarian-like appeal to anyone thinking about starting a career in advertising.
KOF: Hear, hear. I think Cameron's book is especially good.
Justin: But, they are written more for the person who is already convinced. They don't sell or reaffirm a career in creative advertising as well as Hey Whipple. The same goes for books like The Advertising Concept Book or Read Me or even Eugene Schwartz's Breakthrough Advertising. They are all great how-to books. But none of them sell creative advertising as a career like Hey Whipple does.
KOF: How does it do that?
Justin: LOL. That’s the point. Read the book and you’ll find out.
KOF: Was it your first advertising book?
Justin: Yes, it was.
KOF: So it sold you?
Justin: Well, I think I was already convinced. But it certainly did a good job of reinforcing that conviction.
KOF: So that’s it then? Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This is the only book most people will read because it's in itself an advertisement for advertising.
Justin: I think I lost myself actually. (Pauses for a long time). Think about it like really good advertising that keeps people enamored with a brand. When you look at it from the perspective of an advertisement (instead of just a book), it may be that some people don’t read any other advertising books out of loyalty. This was the book that sold them on starting a career in creative advertising. Or reaffirmed it. Perhaps it does it so well, that people feel guilty reading other advertising books.
KOF: Do you really believe that?
Justin: No. Well, I don’t know. I mean, for some people, it’s the only advertising book they ever read because they decide not to go into advertising. Or they can’t stand advertising. But also…people do things or don’t do things for a lot of reasons. Some people don’t need to read any books about advertising to have a great career in advertising. I don’t know Greg Hahn personally, but I’ve never really heard him talk about books about advertising. He doesn’t come across to me as someone who reads a lot of books about advertising. Some people need the stimulation of reading books about advertising to create good advertising. Some people are just arrogant and think they know it all. Some people are smarter than they think.
KOF: I'm sorry. I lost you.
Justin: That's ok. I lost myself again. (Pauses once more, for a long time). I mean, I guess if you truly want to figure out why people make Hey Whipple their first and only advertising book you’d have to hire a planner like Paul Feldwick to do some qualitative and quantitative research.
KOF: We don’t have the budget.
Justin: That’s ok. We can do the exercise that Luke has readers do in the first three chapters.
KOF: The one where he teaches you how to break down a brand into its essence?
Justin: Yeah, that one. Actually, that's a really good idea! I mean, Paul wouldn’t agree with this methodology. But let’s ask people still reading this to play along and do it.
KOF: Ok, go ahead.
Justin: Ok, so according to Luke the best ad campaigns are ones that break down the brand into an essence. And to break a brand down to its essence you have to break it down to one word. Preferably an adjective or adverb. BMW’s Perform. Volvo’s are Safe. Heinz Ketchup is Slow.
KOF: So Hey Whipple, Squeeze This is…
Justin: Exactly! Or Hey Whipple Squeeze This BLANKS.
KOF: I guess you would say that it “advertises.”
Justin: I guess I would. But this would only work if we were creating a campaign to sell the book. To figure out what makes Hey Whipple, Squeeze This the first and only advertising book some people ever read, we would have to look at it from Luke Sullivan's positioning.
KOF: So Luke Sullivan is BLANK? Or Luke Sullivan BLANKS?
Justin: Sure. That would be a fun exercise too.
KOF: I usually avoid exercises but this isn't so bad. Have I told you about "toiling"?
Justin: (Wisely ignores me) Or, if you continue with my hypothesis that Hey Whipple, Squeeze This is in itself an advertisement for starting a career in creative advertising, maybe we should explore something like “Creative advertising is BLANK” or “Creative advertising BLANKS.”
KOF: This is getting deep. We might need a white board.
KOF: That’s ok. So what you’re really saying is that despite the fact that you read one advertising book a week (#onebookaweek), are a founder of your own ad agency, and have over 16k followers on LinkedIn for the things you write about advertising…You also have no idea why Hey Whipple, Squeeze This is, for some people, the first and only advertising book they will ever read?
Justin: Maybe it’s just that good.
KOF: That’s it?
KOF: Don’t be. A certain amount of failure is expected on this blog. Thanks for hanging out. You’re a cool dude within an enormous brain and I like your posts very much. Everyone, follow Justin Oberman on LinkedIn. He’s a cool dude with an enormous brain and you’ll like his posts too. I’m going to end things here. If I had a theme song it would be thick and funky and it would start playing about now to cue people that the post is over. But I don’t have a theme song so I’ll just say, “Thanks for reading. I’ll see you again soon.”