Sukle Advertising: The Next Great Idea

Introduction by Rosemary Dempsey, Director of Communications, Great Outdoors Colorado & Generation Wild

Mike Sukle, the creative director and founder of Sukle Advertising, has the power to change the world. His process starts with a human insight or a revealing truth. He taps into a cultural moment, seeing an opportunity or a challenge—and however enormous it is, it won’t be a match. His ideas are responsive, demanding attention and making you stop to consider or feel like a part of something bigger. It’s been the ultimate privilege and pleasure of my career in marketing and communications to witness his creative mind at work. The state of Colorado and its next generation of young people have had the benefit of his big, inspiration-creating, life-changing brain, and for that, I’m so grateful.

What has inspired or motivated you in your career?

The opportunity to develop the next great idea. We are fortunate to have a job where we sit around, tell jokes, and come up with crazy things. Then, we get to turn them into reality. When you hit on the right idea, it’s like magic. Everyone knows and talks about an ad. They look forward to seeing it. And it’s just an ad. But it’s something incredibly difficult to do well. We’re proud of the work we create. I can’t think of anything more interesting to do for my career.

What is your work philosophy?

Work hard, and good things happen. This isn’t the type of career that you can turn on and off. Creating exciting and practical work is hard; it takes concentration and time. First, you must have an idea worth a person’s time to notice. It will speak to a person’s heart and head if it’s good. Secondly, you must produce it flawlessly. There are so many points along the way that a good idea can get screwed up or watered down. All of that takes patience and a lot of elbow grease.

What is it about advertising that you are most passionate about?

Creativity is a powerful tool. It can shape beliefs and alter behaviors like nothing else out there. It’s also at the core of humanity and something we should always strive for.

Who is or was your greatest mentor?

When I started my career as a designer, I had the privilege of working for Tom Bluhm at IBM. Tom was the head designer at the Boulder Design Center. He ingrained a strong sense of Swiss design into my approach. The idea that the content of the work should be the focal point and the design is there to support it is something we still strive for. He was a craftsman, and that quality was always present in his work. But Tom taught me about far more than design. He fought for the work he believed in. He didn’t easily bend to corporate management, who didn’t always see eye to eye with him. Tom was one of the good guys. He was always positive, always curious, and always learning. If you Google him, you’ll find he went on to study at the Basel School of Design under renowned designers Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart. Tom later returned to IBM and became the chief liaison between IBM management and Paul Rand. He also was the chair of communication design at ArtCenter Europe.

My other key mentor, Jim Glynn, is also one of my best friends. Jim is an amazingly talented copywriter. When I started the agency, Jim was a creative director at a competing agency in Denver. Shortly after, that agency made the biggest mistake of their life when they fired him. I was the first person he called. We worked together for years. Jim was one of the fastest creative people I’ve ever been around. He always got straight to the point and created work that spoke to the essence of what we were trying to communicate. He would quickly understand the problem that needed to be solved and address it in a surprising yet simple way. Jim was not only a talented writer, but he was also one of the best strategic minds I’ve worked with. And no writing job was beneath him. He wrote a beautiful short film for us, but he also wrote websites and social posts. Jim just got stuff done and did all of it well. You can learn a lot from a person like him.

Who have some of your greatest past influences been?

Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, Dan Wieden, Alex Bogusky, Ari Merkin, Woody Pirtle, and Paula Scher. And I’ve got to put my parents up there, too. My dad came from Slovenia, survived WWII, ran a successful business, and put six kids through college. My mom worked harder than maybe anyone I know. She helped run the family business. She was an amazing cook and a caring and independent mom.

Who among your contemporaries today do you most admire?

There are so many people creating great work today. We’ve been honored to work with Tore Frandsen, a Danish film director. His passion for making films was inspiring. His work is beautifully cinematic. His humor is authentically Danish. Gold Lions and Grands Prix are all part of his illustrious career.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Zulu Alpha Kilo and its founder, Zak Mroueh. Zak is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and his agency’s work is incredible. They push the limits of creativity well beyond the norm. Take one look at their website, and you’ll immediately see what I’m saying. Not only do they do great work, but they also take a strong stand against doing spec work in pitches. Principled people always rate high in my book.

Who have been some of your favorite colleagues or clients?

This could be an incredibly long list, and I’m certain I’d miss people who should be mentioned. That said, there are two colleagues at the top. They do not get the acclaim that an art director or copywriter receives, nor do they get the primetime stage in front of clients. But the work that our agency produces wouldn’t be the same without either of them.

Michon Schmidt is our director of production and has been with the agency for over 20 years. She’s the reason we get to work with talented artists from around the world and produce beautiful work regardless of unreasonable obstacles. And her laugh can fill a room. The other person is Matt Carpenter, our digital artist. He’s been with the agency for a long time as well. When he first came, we thought we had a competent production artist on our hands. Matt quickly made us rethink that assessment. His artistic, animation, and digital skills are outstanding. His ability to figure out how to create something we’ve never done before is unmatched. Because of these two people, Sukle is a better agency.

As for clients, these folks should really be mentioned under the mentor question. We’ve had the honor of working with some of the brightest minds in their respective industries. They all were fearless leaders who wanted to accomplish something big.  You wouldn’t immediately think that one of the smartest marketers we’ve worked with was at a local water utility, but that was where we met Trina McGuire-Collier. Trina worked for Denver Water and led the campaign that changed Denver’s culture. The “Use Only What You Need” campaign has been acknowledged worldwide for its effectiveness and creativity. Trina was a true believer and one of the best leaders we’ve ever gotten to work for.

Aaron Kennedy, the founder of Noodles & Company, created a legacy that changed the fast-food industry. We worked with Aaron for over ten years and helped his brand grow from two restaurants to over 200. Aaron is a great marketer, businessperson, and human being.

Rosemary Dempsey is the director of communications at Great Outdoors Colorado and one of the funniest people you’ll ever know. She’d be a famous standup comic if she weren’t so good at her job. But Rosemary’s true passion is helping others, especially the future generation. She is the inspiring force behind Generation Wild, a campaign to reconnect kids to the outdoors.

What are the top things you need from a client to do successful work for them?

They must be smart. They need to be kind. And they must aspire to something greater.

What is the most difficult challenge you’ve overcome to reach your current position?

I’m sure everyone else who has ever owned an agency has encountered the same challenges I have: hiring the right people, pitching business, producing exciting work that makes a difference for your clients, etc. As difficult as all of these are, none of them compare with the loss of my son. Cole was 14 years old and a block away from home when a drunk driver hit him. That day changed my life forever. The pain is unimaginable. Since then, I’ve met far too many other parents who have lost a child and are dealing with the grief. I wish I could do more for them.

This leads to another question you asked. “What do you value most in life?” Time with my family and friends. Everything else can wait.

What do you consider your most outstanding professional achievement so far?

We’re a small agency in the Mountain Time Zone. We don’t have brands like Apple, Nike, or Ikea on our roster, yet people around the world have seen and appreciated our work. We’re proud of that.

What about your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?

Solving the really big problems. It’s very satisfying when a client comes to you with something important, and you find the idea that changes the game for them.

What professional goals do you still have for yourself?

Every day, I think the world needs us more than the last. We work for brands and organizations that create positive change, improve people’s lives, and not just make a quick buck. We’re working more and more on climate change issues, and if we can make a dent in that, I’ll sleep better. We believe our work brings people together, and that’s needed more than ever. We need the good to shine through, and creativity is a powerful weapon to do that.

What advice do you have for students starting out today?

You don’t know everything, and you never will. So, never stop learning. Learn from your family and kids. Listen to the opinions of people who aren’t anything like you. Read. Watch movies. Listen to comedians. Ask people what they think about your work. You don’t have to agree with it, but you do have to know how others are interpreting it.

What interests do you have outside of work?

We are so lucky to live in Colorado. It’s a beautiful and inspiring place to live. When I’m not working, I try to spend as much time outdoors as possible: running, hiking, camping, paddleboarding, skiing, etc. Nothing is better in the depths of winter than getting outdoors in the sunshine and blue sky.

What would you change if you had to do it all over again?

If I had to do it all over again, I would take as good of care of our business as we do our clients’ business.

Where do you find inspiration?

This is the one business where you can apply experiences from far and wide. Nature. Good food. Culture. The best inspiration may come from humanity. It’s inspiring to watch people for the good, bad, and funny, or listen and observe kids; they have some of the best jokes. Kids haven’t learned to be boring yet. Right before my first son was born, a photographer and friend gave me the best advice ever. He said when a little kid is getting into the car, it might take them 15 minutes. You can either get uptight and frustrated, or you can simply watch them, and it will probably be hilarious. That was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

How do you define success?

It’s pretty simple: Have we helped or hurt the world? Did we do something that made someone laugh or think? Is our work better today than it was yesterday?

As a creatively led, independent agency, Sukle is obsessed with solving exciting problems. Their clients are the challengers attacking these complex problems and facing significant barriers, all while having oversized aspirations and a belief they can win. For almost 30 years, Sukle’s award-winning creative solutions, driven by intelligent strategy grounded in audience insight and human truth, have delivered disproportionate results to accelerate global change. Never satisfied with the status quo, they push their creative strategy, brand development, advertising, and design to break the mold. Based in Denver, Sukle partners with future-minded brands in the sustainability, health, food and beverage, technology, financial, and outdoor industry spaces across the United States.

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Author: Graphis