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December 13, 2005
What Luke Sullivan, Ron Huey and Lynryd Skynyrd Taught Me About Advertising
 

After 15 years of writing ads, I am amazed at how much the business has changed since I first sat down in front of a computer to write at the in-house ad agency for a company that makes camshafts in Memphis. It was the kind of place where the receptionist's entire wardrobe was bought with Marlboro Miles. This was before there were ad schools and Lord knows the man I worked for had a lot more in common with Big Daddy Don Garlits than he did with Bill Bernbach. He did, however have a subscription to CA. Amidst all the discussions we had about writing headlines about "tire shredding torque" and putting Daisy Duke look-alikes holding products in ads, myself and my art director partner often sought solace in the pages of old advertising annuals. It was in these pages that I discovered a world that was far away from day-to-day grind of writing ads about rocker arms. A world where writers could truly be writers. I studied the ads written by folks like Luke Sullivan and Ron Huey. And I tried my best to emulate them every chance I got. Weaving interesting lines that combined product benefits with pop culture in such a way that audiences who may not necessarily be captive to the product would read and appreciate. In the years to come, I would experience some measure of success while working with incredible art directors in coming up with ads this way.

Then something happened. A few years back headline driven ads gave way to ads that relied mostly on visual solutions. Now let me say, great ads are great ads however you arrive at them. But it just seems that over the course of time it is the opinion of a lot of people that combining great visuals with great writing is somehow obsolete. In a word, boring. I have lost track of the times I've had discussions with people about ads such as these and heard them say, "it's not fresh" or "I've seen it before." OK, point taken, it's not a new approach. Then again, neither is the visual solution. Go back to the ad Luke Sullivan featured in his book enticing men to enlist in the service after the Lusitania was sunk in the early part of the century. It simply showed a woman who had drowned holding her baby. The line just said, "Enlist." It was "fresh." It was also 1915. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the portfolios of students coming out of ad schools. I’ve seen tons of books from young writers that have hardly any writing in them. And it's not their fault, that lies on the industry and the people teaching them to turn their backs on writing.

So headlines and visuals are basic, they are the old way of doing ads. So too are visual solutions. But either way sometimes old ways are not necessarily wrong. Just like in football there are basics to the game trick plays can be wonderful to watch but they won't get you nearly as far as running, blocking and tackling. Look at Tom Osborne’s great Nebraska football teams. It reminds me a little of the music industry in the early 1970s. You had radio airwaves saturated with the sounds of Pink Floyd, Yes and a myriad of other virtuoso progressive rock bands. Some of whom I love. But a guy named Al Kooper who had played a major role in the career of Bob Dylan saw that listeners were thirsting for basic, three chord rock. Nothing fancy, but something good. A cold beer in a world of martinis. So Kooper went down to Atlanta and discovered a bar band who called themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd. A band whose lead singer, Ronnie Van Zandt didn't even wear shoes on stage. He signed them and the rest is history.

So maybe the next phase of advertising will again come to embrace the art of great visuals with great headlines. In the years since my stint writing ads for camshafts I’ve been fortunate enough to come to know both Ron Huey and Luke Sullivan and I hope they would somehow agree with what I am saying. I wish I could've come to know Ronnie Van Zandt but the closest I will probably come to that is concepting in my bare feet.

Then something happened. A few years back headline driven ads gave way to ads that relied mostly on visual solutions. Now let me say, great ads are great ads however you arrive at them. But it just seems that over the course of time it is the opinion of a lot of people that combining great visuals with great writing is somehow obsolete. In a word, boring. I have lost track of the times I've had discussions with people about ads such as these and heard them say, "it's not fresh" or "I've seen it before." OK, point taken, it's not a new approach. Then again, neither is the visual solution. Go back to the ad Luke Sullivan featured in his book enticing men to enlist in the service after the Lusitania was sunk in the early part of the century. It simply showed a woman who had drowned holding her baby. The line just said, "Enlist." It was "fresh." It was also 1915. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the portfolios of students coming out of ad schools. I’ve seen tons of books from young writers that have hardly any writing in them. And it's not their fault, that lies on the industry and the people teaching them to turn their backs on writing.

So headlines and visuals are basic, they are the old way of doing ads. So too are visual solutions. But either way sometimes old ways are not necessarily wrong. Just like in football there are basics to the game trick plays can be wonderful to watch but they won't get you nearly as far as running, blocking and tackling. Look at Tom Osborne’s great Nebraska football teams. It reminds me a little of the music industry in the early 1970s. You had radio airwaves saturated with the sounds of Pink Floyd, Yes and a myriad of other virtuoso progressive rock bands. Some of whom I love. But a guy named Al Kooper who had played a major role in the career of Bob Dylan saw that listeners were thirsting for basic, three chord rock. Nothing fancy, but something good. A cold beer in a world of martinis. So Kooper went down to Atlanta and discovered a bar band who called themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd. A band whose lead singer, Ronnie Van Zandt didn't even wear shoes on stage. He signed them and the rest is history.

So maybe the next phase of advertising will again come to embrace the art of great visuals with great headlines. In the years since my stint writing ads for camshafts I’ve been fortunate enough to come to know both Ron Huey and Luke Sullivan and I hope they would somehow agree with what I am saying. I wish I could've come to know Ronnie Van Zandt but the closest I will probably come to that is concepting in my bare feet.

This was before there were ad schools and Lord knows the man I worked for had a lot more in common with Big Daddy Don Garlits than he did with Bill Bernbach. He did, however have a subscription to CA. Amidst all the discussions we had about writing headlines about "tire shredding torque" and putting Daisy Duke look-alikes holding products in ads, myself and my art director partner often sought solace in the pages of old advertising annuals. It was in these pages that I discovered a world that was far away from day-to-day grind of writing ads about rocker arms. A world where writers could truly be writers. I studied the ads written by folks like Luke Sullivan and Ron Huey. And I tried my best to emulate them every chance I got. Weaving interesting lines that combined product benefits with pop culture in such a way that audiences who may not necessarily be captive to the product would read and appreciate. In the years to come, I would experience some measure of success while working with incredible art directors in coming up with ads this way.

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With more than 20 years working in the advertising business, Dave Smith has written copy for BBDO, Hill Holliday, Boone Oakley and Ogilvy. His industry awards include Communication Arts, The One Show, and D&AD. Dave is now a freelance writer/creative director based in Nashville, TN. His website is davewordsmith.com
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