IMG_1901-ReponsetoProbLuke Sullivan, a copywriter, creative director (Fallon McElligott and The Martin Agency), and author of “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads” (affiliate link), spoke about the critical importance of cultural tension to creative ideas at AAFKC.

Ironically, for a presentation all about creative ideas coming from drama, tension, and conflict, Luke Sullivan’s presentation (which he guaranteed wouldn’t suck) was titled, “Leveraging Cultural Tension to Improve Creativity.


How much more boring, uncreative, and corporate jargony can you get? I tweeted beforehand that “Leveraging” should have been replaced with “Kicking the MF Ass of.” With Luke Sullivan’s in-your-face presentation style, that definitely would have been a better title.

Consider this post one big paraquote, i.e. it’s pulled from live tweets and pictures during the Luke Sullivan talk with some additional words to string them all together. That’s a paraquote post!

Creative Ideas, Drama, and Conflict

IMG_1893-ConflictWe are all interested in conflict. It's human nature to be intrigued by conflicts, problems, and drama. When everything is okay, we're not interested. If you want people to be interested in your advertising, you have to find the tension.

All drama is conflict. Everybody needs an enemy. Think about how much Star Wars would have sucked with just Luke.

Bad ass guys are interesting, and they make for a rocking story (Think Mayhem – although Mayhem may be more creatively than financially successful for Allstate). Everybody wants to be the bad guy. Don’t believe it? Kids go out for Halloween dressed as Michael Myers. Nobody dresses up like Jamie Lee Curtis for Halloween!

Figure out who is the enemy for your brand? Who the hell does your brand want to slap the crap out of?

Problems, Tension, and Creativity

Creativity happens in response to a problem. When it comes to advertising, finding the tension to spark creativity can come from a variety of places: your brand vs. the other brand, cultural issues (i.e., we celebrate thin people as ideal but we also love crappy, fattening food), contrasting ideologies and themes, unseemly things in a product category.

If you bake tension into your creative strategy, you set the stage for ongoing story building. It’s imperative you address the tension, truth, and emotion of the situation authentically, though.

Negatives and Anticipation Get Attention

Problems are interesting. Solutions are boring. “Got milk?” works, but a campaign about “Have milk!” wouldn’t go anywhere. What’s interesting is what’s ABOUT to happen in your advertising. Negatives work. That’s why advertising people can be seen as so negative . . . because negative works!

Finding Tension for Creative Ideas

Where do you look for tension when you’re trying to create attention for a product or category that doesn’t have tension? You MAKE UP the tension!

Steps 1 and 2 in finding tension:


Also, look toward conflict. Want to find great sources of conflict ideas? Look back at “The Far Side” cartoons (affiliate link), since all of the Far Side cartoons revolved around conflict.

Translating Uncomfortable Tension into great Advertising

Great strategic creative briefs build in conflict. A bad strategic creative brief doesn't tell you anything new. And if there’s nothing new, it’s simply a boring old rerun. If the creative winds up being bad, everyone in the room who has touched it is to blame. A big reason for bad creative is because a decision was made to throw everything into the advertising. Saying, “We got it all in there,” should always be uttered with a deep sense of shame.

Parting Shots from Luke Sullivan

True communication is what your listener takes away. And, the simpler something is, the less it ages. – Mike Brown

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