Can Luke Sullivan Make West
In Luke Sullivan’s office, the last thing that meets the eye are his One Show pencils. Stacked under a briefcase next to his computer, they are not exactly ostentatiously displayed. They haven’t seen much polish lately, either.
Still, the awards are Sullivan’s barometer of great work. He has won 20–eight gold, seven silver and five bronze. And if he’s right, those days are over.
“I don’t think I’ll win anymore,” he says. “My job now is to help other people win them.”
Sullivan, 44, is five months into his position as chief creative officer of WestWayne in Atlanta. A copywriter at Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis for almost a decade, Sullivan has never been an agency creative head–or even a group creative director–which begs the question, can he make the jump?
“Creative directors have to inspire and motivate people. He has that ability,” says Diane Cook-Tench, director of the AdCenter at Virginia Commonwealth University and a former colleague of Sullivan’s from The Martin his work at Fallon for clients such as Lee jeans, Porsche and Miller Lite, he says, “I wasn’t going to [leave Fallon] just to be a creative director. There had to be more to it.”
The WestWayne job came at the right time. Sullivan says he was ready to trade in his native Minneapolis winters for a job in the South, where his wife’s family lives. And he didn’t want to be part of a startup operation or to take the creative leadership of an agency whose principals were close to retirement.
WestWayne fit all the criteria. The $270 million agency, with 260 employees, has a number of high-profile accounts, such as BellSouth, Publix, National Automotive Parts Association and Florida’s Natural; and agency president Ben West and chief operating officer Michael Edmeades are both in their 40s.
Yet the most critical factor for Sullivan was the agency’s objective. “They were honest about their creative–they weren’t happy with it,” Sullivan says. “They knew it needed to be better, and were willing to do what it took to make it better.”
Management at the independent shop felt the agency’s creative product lagged behind other disciplines such as account service, media and planning. The leadership of former creative director Martin Macdonald no longer proved a good fit. Though the agency hoped to craft a national creative reputation when it hired Macdonald from Los Angeles shop Asher/Gould (now Asher & Partners) in 1993, it was still not getting into pitches with rivals like Martin, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, or, well, Fallon.
“We thought our creative product was very much in the ‘B’ category. We occasionally did some ‘A’ work, but we need to be more consistent,” says West. “We felt we had talent and experience [in other areas of the agency] and creative was the key piece to drop into the engine.”
Now Sullivan powers the machine. His style tends to be lean, with the visuals doing as much work as the copy. Though Sullivan has labored in all media, print is a strong suit. He cites his efforts for People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals as some of his best. Those ads showed graphic photos of lab animals with headlines like “Can you scream louder than the animals in Gillette’s testing labs?” In a different vein, his ads for Family Life magazine featured headlines such as “One minute you’re blowing bubbles, the next you’re explaining sex. Go figure.”
Sullivan started his career in 1978 when Tom McElligott hired him to work at what was then Bozell & Jacobs in Minneapolis. Five years later, he ventured to New York, joining Della Femina, Travisano & Partners. Unhappy with that situation, he left after a year to work with Mike Hughes at The Martin Agency. He returned to Minneapolis in 1989 to join Fallon and remained there until this year. Along the way, he studied the management styles of McElligott, Hughes and Bill Westbrook. “I’ve had good teachers,” says Sullivan.
At WestWayne, Sullivan has put his education to work for BellSouth, Publix supermarkets and NAPA. While he’s “satisfied” with the initial efforts, the process is slow. His first BellSouth spots, which broke last month, show a little more finesse and humor than the client has employed in the past. One ad shows a man in the woods, cooking over a campfire. Gophers, attracted by the smell, pop their heads up out of the ground. The man looks at the animals and it occurs to him to call his office using his cell phone. When word gets around the office that the boss is calling, heads start popping up, gopher-like, from employee cubicles.
Sullivan expects it will take at least a year before appreciable improvement–One Show potential–is achieved. To inspire his 57-member creative staff, Sullivan is importing lessons learned from his own experiences, particularly during his time at Fallon. “I need you to be possessed. Driven. Fully immersed in getting better,” he told the staff at the company’s annual meeting last month. His three-word message was “It’s the work.” “I stole Fallon’s big secret and brought it right to this room,” he said. “It is our mantra, our goal, our Holy Grail. This and nothing else counts.”
He’s right. If he succeeds, Atlanta will finally have a true national creative player, a goal to which WestWayne and Sullivan aspire. If not, WestWayne will be one more agency that wanted to do the right thing, but failed. Then, indeed, nothing else will count.
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