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Creativity Squared: Mike Sullivan on Loving a Little Bit of Everything

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GYK Antler’s executive creative director on looking for the big idea, Cliff Freeman's 'Where's the Beef' and the importance of working with business minds

Creativity Squared: Mike Sullivan on Loving a Little Bit of Everything

As executive creative director of integrated marketing agency GYK Antler, Mike’s passion is helping brands tell their story to the world through the power of big ideas. His first taste of this was for the Dawn Dish Liquid ‘Save a Duck’ program. A campaign that started with a tiny TV budget and scheduled to run for only six months was turned into a fully integrated campaign that’s still up and running, over 20 years later. And that’s what excites him about thinking big. As a Creative Director, Mike has overseen a wide range of clients including Proctor and Gamble, Anheuser-Busch, Georgia Pacific, New York Lottery and Liberty Mutual just to name a few. Prior to GYK, Mike spent time at a variety of shops such as Harrison & Star, Havas, DDB, Deutsch and TBWA/Chiat Day.


I’m always amazed at the wide range of personality types you find in the creative field. A lot of industries draw a very specific type of person, whereas Advertising attracts all walks of life. Introverts and extroverts; mathematical geniuses and mathematically challenged; writers and artists; et al infinitum. I believe this is the case because we’re all inherently born with wild imaginations and any one of us can nurture and foster it as we grow older, but not many of us do. And that’s one of the things I love about Advertising; I get to spend the day with people who are constantly seeing the world in new and different ways.

I’d say I fall into the introverted writer category. (And I’m also mathematically challenged.) I’m a people watcher and a culture geek. I love sports, music and being outdoors. I’d say I’m the master of nothing but love a little bit of everything. And I take the insights I glean from my personal views on life and find ways to weave it into my work to help solve complex business problems in a human way. To me, that’s where the fun, excitement and the most powerful work comes from.


When judging work, I take a similar approach (leaving a little wiggle room for the bizarre) nine out of 10 times. I look for the big idea. Does it have a human insight that’s relevant to the audience? Is it tightly connected to the product benefit? And is it communicated in a fresh way? That may not sound revolutionary because it’s not, but it works today just as much as it’s worked throughout the history of great advertising. And it can also be found in the work I’m most proud of having created. 

Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to work on Dawn Dish Liquid. The insight we discovered was that along with being tough on greasy dishes, wildlife experts were using it to clean birds caught in oil spills. So, we created the Dawn 'Save a Duck' campaign, which showed how Dawn Dish Liquid was being used to clean the oil off a duck and was shot by legendary director Tony Kaye. The campaign was scheduled to run for six months and is still running over 20 years later.

I also had the opportunity to launch the award-winning new Powerball campaign for the New York Lottery, “Yeah, that kind of rich.” Similar in approach, we looked for the human insight, which was beyond just becoming rich — it was becoming absurdly rich.


In looking at the creative process, I always start with the product benefit and how that relates to the audience. How does it change their life or make it easier? Or even, does it? What’s the human insight? What’s that nugget of truth? Once you have that, you can bring it to life in any number of ways. You can use art direction, new digital platforms, new and old media, it doesn’t matter. Once you have the insight, you’re a storyteller and the entire executional landscape is simply your playground.

Getting to that insight and to the heart of a big idea changes for me with each assignment. Often times, I like to work alone to get started. After a few days, if time allows, I get together with my partner or my team and share my thoughts while listening to their ideas. At that point, the big idea(s) starts to take shape and together we blow it out. Truth be told, the process of creating great work is only just beginning. Crafting it and tweaking it, until you have to unleash it to the world, makes all the difference between a good idea and a great one.


My love for big ideas and great advertising work started when I was young, with Cliff Freeman’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign. I was 12 years old when that launched and I remember thinking to myself, Whatever this is, I want to do that when I grow up. So, I graduated from college and started my career in the traffic department at Chiat/Day. I became friendly with everyone in the creative department and they became sort of my ad school. A year later, I got my first gig as a copywriter at Deutsch and the rest is history. 

Throughout my career, I’ve continued to follow and work under the best minds in the business to help create, elevate and craft my work. I’m fortunate to have worked with the likes of Lee Garfinkel, Eric Silver, Matt Eastwood and Menno Kluin, to name a few. And that’s made all the difference.

From a client perspective, if you want to get great creative work from your agency, you need to be just as passionate about ideas as they are. It takes both a great client and a great creative agency to create work that’s brilliant and memorable.

For agencies, especially today, find those unicorns who have nurtured and fostered their creativity from childhood and held onto it into their adulthood. They’re from all walks of life and will help you tell the best stories.

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GYK Antler, Wed, 08 Jun 2022 12:35:44 GMT