How Agency Sullivan Operates To Deliver A Full Brand Expression
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
As Partner and Executive Creative Director at Sullivan, John Paolini sets the tone and vision for the firm's creative work. Today, he is an active participant in Sullivan’s design challenges—closely working alongside strategists, writers, designers, and technologists to build brands that shape perceptions and change behaviors. We caught up with John to find out how his love of design was first formed and since evolved (Spoiler: It involves the theft of a 1982 TGI Fridays menu). John also shares what Sullivan is looking for in prospective hires, and what separates Sullivan as an agency. "Over the last decade, we’ve expanded into what we call brand engagement. Since we were already working across all these different mediums and channels, it was a natural evolution to start thinking in terms of the larger brand expression. But it was also a big and exciting shift that’s opened up many new opportunities for the agency.”
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. How did your path lead you to ECD & Partner at Sullivan?
My path started with the theft of a TGI Fridays menu in 1982. That was the first moment I remember being completely drawn in by a design experience, the stitched spine, speckled edge paper, its faux leather-binding, the gilded titled “The Unabridged Dictionary of Food & Drink.” I was overcome with the urge to just take it. I waited until my dad went to the bathroom and hid it in my jacket. The menu heist ignited a lifelong love for design and branding that continues to this day.
That original experience eventually led me to a career working at some great studios where I honed my craft and learned how to be a professional. When I got my first branding job, I experienced first-hand the power of design, and how it can transform experiences, viscerally pulling people in without them even realizing it. But I also immediately noticed a problem. We’d create these beautiful systems that were thoughtfully and meticulously packaged into guidelines, and then we’d hand it off to an internal communications department or another agency that was tasked with executing it. It almost always ended the same way. The client would come back asking for more templates and more rules that only resulted in frustration for everyone and ultimately less effective communications. In essence, the story was getting lost in translation.
So then here comes Sullivan. At the time I came on, Sullivan was doing communications strategy and design. The approach was deeply rooted in a UX mindset, which gave me and my work a chance to truly bridge the gap between brand ideas and the work that actually lives in the real world.
Last year, we launched an event series called Overshare, where we interview successful creatives about their career challenges. What were a few definitive moments or turning points that had an impact on who you are today?
That’s tough. I don’t know that there was any one definitive moment or turning point. More like a series of rolling experiments in which you graduate to the next level of confidence with your work. It has made me able to be less precious about the design. At the core is this desire to find “the” idea—the one you can believe in. These aren’t really moments you can define—I wish I knew a secret formula that would get you there. But you know it when you’re there.
Describe Sullivan in 3 words.
Curious, innovative, creative.
What separates Sullivan from other agencies? How have you seen the identity of Sullivan evolve over the more than 13 years you’ve been there?
Sullivan used to work in a very narrow communications strategy lane. Over the last decade, we’ve expanded into what we call brand engagement. Since we were already working across all these different mediums and channels, it was a natural evolution to start thinking in terms of the larger brand expression. But it was also a big and exciting shift that’s opened up lots of new opportunities for the agency.
Which Sullivan campaign are you most proud of?
Cornell Tech. Our work to build the campus brand and multiple student-recruiting campaigns. We work in the same neighborhood as their temp campus, and it’s really gratifying to see people walking around with the t-shirts and see your work live in the world. There’s even someone walking around with a “T” tattoo!
What about the culture of Sullivan makes it an ideal place for potential hires to work?
Sullivan is a place where you can make a real impact. You’ll work with a great team of seasoned creative leaders, but our roles are really pretty loosely defined—any person at any level can speak up, or affect the direction of the work. If there’s something you want to learn, we try to make sure you have that opportunity. If there’s a responsibility you want, take it. We don’t cordon designers off or force people into specific disciplines. One day, you’re working on a high-level branding assignment, and next week maybe you’re trying to crack a user experience on the web.
What are you looking for in a potential hire that’s unique to Sullivan?
Talented, opinionated people who aren’t jerks.
Most significant creative or entrepreneurial inspirations?
There’s so much great work out there. I say, "design is not fixed, so your inspirations can’t be either." Ultimately, what I really love is people who are passionate and believe in their own ideas.
That being said, I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to fonts and typography. I’m really hot for Knockout right now.
What do you do when not working?
I’m currently working to curate my collection of design ephemera into a book called “Honestly Stolen.” I’m also in the middle of a ten-year home restoration project.