Luke Sullivan and the 800 headlines

When I was a fledgling writer, I had the thrill of working alongside ad-god Luke Sullivan. This week, a full decade later, we came full circle when I interviewed Luke on The Naked Career.

Long before Luke wrote Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, he was spouting pearls of wisdom in meetings and hallways. One pearl that always stuck with me: write 100 headlines for every 1 that you actually need.

Two years of hanging on Luke’s every word influenced my writing style, and working style. When I moved to NYC in 1995, I was given a spectacular assignment: a campaign for BMW Motorcycles. As the most junior writer in the office, I was quite aware that I only had a small window of time to prove myself before the more senior writers would swoop in and out-write me. So I channeled Luke as I wrote.

Sally Hogshead\'s 800 BMW HeadlinesThe BMW client wanted 8 ads, and following Luke’s advice, I wrote these 800 headlines. Some won awards, some suck bigtime, but I’m including them all in this PDF in the spirit of full disclosure. (Also in the spirit of disclosure: I’ve never ridden a motorcycle.)

This writing exercise reflects a few of the things Luke taught me:

Radical Truth #33: Work ethic trumps talent.

Radical Truth #34: Applause is approximately .003% of success.

Radial Truth #57: You are not done paying your dues.

After the campaign ran Luke sent a very sweet congratulatory note, which meant the world. But really, the campaign was more of a testimony to his writing mentorship. He didn’t even have to work with me on the assignment to have influenced the result.

35 Responses to “Luke Sullivan and the 800 headlines”

  1. David Esrati Says:

    as someone who does ride a motorcycle-
    and it’s a BMW-
    I’d be interested to see what you think of the current BMW ad- which I have posted- along with my commentary- and a very interesting response by the copywriter who wrote it….

  2. Sally Hogshead Says:

    I like the work that Merkley does for BMW and I’m a fan of the agency. This particular execution wasn’t my fave because it lacks their usual sophisticated wit.

    As the comments after -ouch!

  3. jimboknows Says:

    hard work! what an out-there concept! boring? yes. gets results? mes oui.

    it was either michelle wie or richard branson or chuck porter who said: “the harder i work, the luckier i get.”

  4. karynr Says:

    Actually, Jimbo, it was Gary Player – a South African golfer of small stature who always wore black!

  5. Sally Hogshead Says:

    I love that quote, and have I’ve always seen it credited to Nolan Ryan, the baseball player. However I did a Google search and found it attributed to a gaggle of like-minded folks, including Samuel Goldwyn, Gary Player, and Equus Caballus (a magazine billed as “cutting edge health and nutrition for the modern horse”). Apparently, a lot of people work harder, then get luckier.

  6. Lyle Says:

    I find it mind boggling that you were able to have 800 distinct thoughts concerning the exhilaration of riding a motorcycle. How long did it take to write ‘em all? And did the inspiration come in ebbs and flows?

    I tend to burn out usually after about 30 or 40. Is it sheer force of will that keeps you going?

  7. Sally Hogshead Says:

    Those are good questions. I’ll tell you my process.
    1) Research as much as I possibly can to pack my brain
    2) Carve out several uninterrupted hours
    3) Drink too much caffeine
    4) Put on headphones and listen to music that matches the mood of what I’m trying to write
    5) Jam like a mo fo. This means: Don’t edit. Explore every single possible nuance of language and concept. Write the same headline in a dozen different variations. Associate as many possible conceptual links as possible (in the case of this exercise, you can see I was circling around themes of “German,” “religion,” “passion,” “machine,” etc. because those were all elements of the strategy). Dig down deep deep deep and try to write headlines on every single angle you can imagine.

    As for writing ebbs and flows — YES it totally is one or the other. That’s why it’s so crucial to establish every possible element you need in order to get inside that groove where it just flows. I can’t do that by sitting down for a few minutes. I also find that one day I can write a zillion lines, and the next day — poof! — the magic is gone.

    I guess that’s why it’s “creativity,” and not assembly line procedure!

  8. Lyle Says:

    Thanks for the illumination, Sally!

    I’m gonna have to try this music thing…

  9. Sally Hogshead Says:

    Sure thing. For me music is key in really digging deeper and getting into the heart of an idea. Favorites for this: Air, Moby, Coldplay, etc. All evocative moody stuff to block out the world and listen to your thoughts and language.

    Also, use an online thesaurus to develop new “thought links.”

  10. ippo Says:

    My last partner was from Ad Center and I thought I worked hard…I didn’t know from hard. We didn’t get to 800, but darn near close – some winners, most losers, but great work spawned from it that’s for sure.

  11. Sally Hogshead Says:

    800 is a little crazy, right? I know. I’m a dork. I think it’s less a matter of working LONGER, and more a matter of working SMARTER.

    Find the tools that help you get into that juicy flow, and then keep doing the same process each time. Put yourself on a program of “sessions.”

    Eventually you start to train yourself into getting in the groove — thereby controlling when the muse is switched on or off, rather than passively waiting for her to show up.

    When you keep pushing on a specific area and it’s no longer fertile, find a new conceptual zone. Then chip away at that one. If you’re having trouble staying focused, take a break, feed your brain, and return.

    I also find it incredibly helpful to read subject matter on the area I’m writing about. In the case of BMW, I read magazines, talked to people, read focus group transcripts, and so on. Many of the themes I circled around came out of that.

  12. David Esrati Says:

    Just as a follow up- Merkeley & Partners lost the BMW motorcycle account a while back- went to Concept Farm. From my standpoint- little improvement.
    I think they were better off when they had the car and bike accounts at the same agency- even though the agency would throw the junior writers on the motorcycle side.
    Having someone like Luke Sullivan as a mentor makes a difference- and since BMW auto is at GSD+M- where Luke is now- they’d absolutely get better work.

  13. Ram Says:

    What else can i say? 800 lines. You’ve become an inspiration for a Jr.Copywriter like me.

  14. Gary Michaels Says:

    I would like to make contact with Luke Sullivan. Can you help me?

  15. Jim Says:

    Great advice. Back in the day, when I was at AdCenter, my instructor Jerry Torchia made me write 1000 headlines for Lionel Trains. He gave me between Thursday and the following Tuesday to do it. I ran out of time with only 667 lines, but he took the time to go through all of them and mark the ones that he thought were okay (they weren’t that good). Hard work all around. Pays off.

  16. Sally Hogshead Says:

    Jim, look at you! 667 lines… I’m impressed. Assuming 8 hours a day for 5 days, that’s 16.67 headlines per hour. (Were the .67 headlines only a few words long?)

  17. sarah Says:

    I just read your 800 headlines and I loved it!! I find myself doing the same thing…I like that you didn’t omit even the ridiculous…that i’m often scared to show. Question. What do you do when you’ve run the well dry…so to speak ..and you just feel that you’ve written forever…how do you get a new perspective? or is the key to just keep writing?


  18. David Esrati Says:

    John and Tug over at American Copywriter interview “Jedi Master Copywriter” Luke Sullivan in their podcast 57-
    and Luke brings up this post- and the fact that working harder is one way to rise to the top of your field.
    Download the podcast and have fun. Just be aware- it’s rated R for a reason.

  19. Harry Says:

    Sally, thanks very much for sharing your BMW lines. I reference them almost every time I sit down to write. I had the good fortune of showing my book to Luke Sullivan today. I am currently attending the Creative Circus and we had the honor of hosting Mr. Sullivan as a speaker. Long story short, he liked my headlines! I owe a big debt to you for the inspiration. And a big debt to Luke Sullivan for being Luke Sullivan.

    Kind regards,


  20. Sally Hogshead Says:

    Harry! How cool is that. I love it.

  21. Jason Postelwait Says:

    Amazing. Thank you so much Sally. It’s refreshing (and encouraging) to see the “not so polished” thoughts of proven talent and realize that the process (as well as those initial ideas) are very familiar. I always imagined it being akin to what I learned in Sunday school – “their thoughts are not your thoughts.”

    This article has given me permission to let (more) bad lines reach paper. It’s something a former CD always urged me to: write EVERYthing down, no matter HOW bad. I just thought epic copywriters didn’t have “bad” or “corny” ideas… at least very often :) … I feel somewhat liberated!

    BMW here I come!… someday. Now, time to work on reaching 100 on every assignment :).

  22. Sally Hogshead Says:

    Jason, I wholeheartedly agree about writing everything down; even bad lines can become a springboard for better ones if they have a nugget of an idea, and if nothing else, they can help you get a clear grip on overall tonality by revealing what the voice is “not.”

    In meetings I’m a mondo dork, always typing e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g that’s said, because those seemingly insignificant details can become critical during the presentation of work (”As you said, Mr. Client, you love ads with snipes on them…”) and for parameter-specific tasks such as structuring body copy.

  23. David Esrati Says:

    After working around Sally- I can vouch- the woman types EVERYTHING.
    Unfortunately, laptops can’t seem to keep up with her- and have a proclivity for melt downs.
    Sometimes, just the feel of pen on paper and the connection of disimilar words out of different taglines brings the magical moment when you know you’ve got a keeper.
    The other great thing about pen and paper- is it never crashes.

  24. Lessons for students of advertising | The Next Wave in Dayton Ohio Says:

    [...] ties back to Sally Hogshead’s famous post on doing 800 headlines for BMW Motorcycles to get the right one. Or Chiat/Day’s mantra- “Good Enough, isn’t Good [...]

  25. jessica gwinn Says:

    My ten-year-old (soft and graying, happily dog-eared and underlined) copy of Hey Whipple is now in the hands of an art director friend who had never heard of Luke.

    Shocked, I went home, got my copy and ceremoniously slapped it on her desk the next morning as if to say: this my friend, is the creative Bible.
    Sadly, I never got it back and was forced to buy the new edition a few months ago.

    Anyway, in the manner of six-degrees, I did have the pleasure of working with a creative director who also worked with Luke at GSD&M (idea city). So I got to pick that brain as well. And, as life goes, he, in turn, told me all about the amazing and talented Sally and encouraged me, in the spirit of her, to push harder.

    So…thank you, Sally, for your words of wisdom, humor and hard work. They inspire and motivate even a humble writer like me who is currently (happily, mind you) writing about dog food.

  26. By Sally Hogshead « Says:

    [...] 7) Often, the more concepts you come up, the better they get. At least, that’s usually the case for me. I write a hundred headlines for every one I end up with. Here is a sample list: [...]

  27. Jim @smashadv Says:

    I’m a disciple of Luke Sullivan (Whipple convinced me I could get paid to do this for a living), and whereas I once used to write 100 headlines per ad, I’ve since learned that by filtering the creative brief and following some of the ideas in Felton’s Toolbox, I was able to write just 10 lines for every ad, and all 10 were usually good enough to pass. With one or two being gold. I don’t know how this transition occurred, but it did. And now I’m far more efficient in my creative problem solving. Also, when I wrote 100 lines per ad, it always seemed like the client wanted to see them all. And all that ever did was water down the good stuff – or rather, cheapen the process.

  28. Chip Forelli Says:

    Happily ran across your blog and the umteen headlines you played with re the BMW work we did together. Every time I read one of the headlines in the ads I’m impressed (along with a chuckle). My 15 year old and I I thoroughly enjoyed reading through the list. What was the the process of narrowing it down to the finals?
    CA is publishing one of the spreads again (Half Man Half Beast) in a feature article about my work appearing in the July/Aug Illustration issue. It’s a privilege to include your name again.

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  34. | Please Feed The Animals Says:

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  35. Copywriting Challenge: I Dare You to Choose the Best Headline Out of 100+ Heads | MarketCopywriter Blog Says:

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