Luke Sullivan’s Rules for Creating Tension in Your Advertising


“Why do you creative types always have to be so negative?”

Luke Sullivan heard that question plenty of times in his 32 years in the advertising industry. Clients wondered why the agency’s copywriters and art directors tended to have such different views of their wonderful products. Account directors wondered why their agency’s creatives couldn’t just follow the creative brief.

“I don’t care where you find your polarities,” he said. “A lot of interesting things seem to happen on the edges of things. There’s energy there. And, when there’s energy, there’s story. When you can build your campaign or strategy on top of one of these energy producers – your story can walk for a long time.”

Let’s hear what Luke Sullivan, one of the most influential creatives in modern advertising – author of the definitive book for creatives “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This,” veteran of elite agencies, and keynote speaker from Go Inbound Marketing 2015 has to teach us.

1) Find the tension.

To create something interesting, you need to start by finding some sort of tension. That tension can be a client’s brand versus a competitor’s brand. Tell Luke you want an ad about Coca-Cola and you set his teeth on edge, but tell him you want an ad about Coke versus Pepsi and “I feel some friction under my creative tires.”

If you’re looking for tension in a specific vertical, tap into people’s existing emotions about the category. “We’re pissed off! That’s where I would start. Number one it would be truthful. Number two it would give me some conflict.”

Tensions can also be images that don’t belong together. “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is a terrible concept filled with beautiful imagery.”

“All drama is conflict. Every comic book you’ve ever read, every sitcom, every movie has conflict at its core. If you don’t start with conflict, you get this [a slide showing a piece of bread]. You want creative? Find me a problem (and a villain). We’re wired to be interested in conflict.”

Creativity happens in response to a problem, not a solution.

“If there isn’t a problem, you need to create one. [Creating conflict] is how we get interest about your product because your product is not particularly interesting to anybody but you.”

He cites Allstate’s Mayhem campaign as a great example of a platform based on conflict where we’re getting that protection message in an interesting way. You need opposing forces in whatever message you’re delivering, and it’s the bad guy who’s the most interesting.“If there’s no tension apparent in your category, make it up. Find a villain.”

2) Platform = a world with its own rules

How do you create awesome advertising? By creating long-lasting storytelling platforms.

Luke defines a platform as “a world with its own rules” and “an idea that creates more ideas.” The first Matrix movie, for instance, has plenty of fascinating rules. You can take the red pill or the blue pill. Time is always against us. Et cetera.

New stories can stem off of these rules. Or you can build off the existing rules that we already know. Coca-Cola’s “taste infringement” is an ingenious and hilarious example of tapping into the rules of law that we’ve learned since we were children.

3) The more rules you can create, the better.

Better rules create stronger and more robust stories, Luke says. But the root of all these ideas needs to be simple. “Will your idea fit on a Post-in note? If it doesn’t, you’re probably not done with it yet.”

Another sign that you have a hot platform is “it just keeps talking to you and it won’t shut up.” You keep thinking “what if we did this?” and “what if we did that?” Sometimes the ideas come so quickly that it’s hard to write them all down fast enough.

4) Find the truest thing

Ask yourself: “What’s the truest thing I can say about this product or category?” Take that truest thing and try to uncover conflicts around it. And that conflict can come from anywhere: your brand, product or category.

Remember that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. You don’t want to start at the end.“If the clients ran the world, nobody would be overdrawn at the bank and all of our hair would be perfect and we wouldn’t have cavities,” Luke said after his talk.

“That’s the end of the story, but that’s boring because we don’t cut right to the end of the story. They lived happily ever after? That’s not a story. To get my interest going … start from a place of unbalance. When you’re behind the eight-ball, how do you get to that happy ending? That makes for a story.”

Element Three is a modern marketing agency for discernable brands. We build trusting, long-term relationships with clients whose destination is market leadership, fusing traditional, digital and inbound tactics to tell bold stories audiences can’t resist. We don’t rely on single tactics, stay loyal to any one medium, or favor one discipline over another. Instead, we go beyond the tried to find the truth about your customers. Using research and participation to deliver seamless brand experiences.

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