‘The Professor’ takes his final sabbatical: remembering Brandworld’s Mike O’Sullivan—UPDATED

Advertising veteran Mike O’Sullivan passed away on 4 July, bringing an end to his fight against cancer. 

He is survived by his wife Melanie, four children and two grandchildren.  

O’Sullivan was a force in the advertising industry, and was often credited for being well ahead of his time. 

In 2013, his contribution to the industry over several decades was recognised with the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award, which he shared with long-time friend and business partner Bill Peake.

In honour of O’Sullivan, we revisit the story that accompanied his winning of this award

O’Sullivan was never one for following rules. He was more about making new ones.

His career in this industry began more than 40 years ago in media. And even then he was thinking differently. When he worked at Lintas Worldwide, he pioneered placing media for non-accredited agencies and for clients rather than brands, practices that are both standard today.

During his career, he worked on a host of successful campaigns, including the multi-award winning Zespri Green/Gold international branding and MILK publishing series. He also held senior roles both here and overseas with Lintas, DDB and Communicado. O’Sullivan’s advertising roots blossomed into a full marketing approach and he was one of the first (if not the first) to innovatively combine media, creative and marketing skills with programme-making.

He founded and sold Channel I, which pioneered content marketing, cross-medium products such as Food in a Minute, Taste of Chelsea and James Hardie Show Homes. His masthead formats had television at their heart, but they also offered print, online, direct mail and point-of-sale material and were an exciting and (when launched) novel one-stop shop for clients

Through his association with Brandworld, where he served as executive director until his final days, he helped develop successful mastheads like Discover, Eating Well, The Mix and Made to Match, the last two of which were developed through an innovative partnership between Lion, TVNZ and O’Sullivan.

He always pushed the boundaries, producing new formats that favoured content over creativity; he blurred the lines between advertising, marketing and editorial—to the client’s advantage; his understanding of research allowed him to challenge incumbent practices (leading to his nickname, The Professor); he led four companies and transformed them into leading businesses; he mentored many start-ups, budding marketers and business owners; he refused to be put into the boxes that plague the industry; and, unlike the vast majority of ad agencies, he kept sales as his fundamental driver of success, rather than creative awards (in some cases, his campaigns led to sales increases of up to 400 percent).

Many predictions are made in this industry. The vast majority of them are wrong. But O’Sullivan was ahead of his time. He took a punt on branded content decades before it became fashionable and he held his ground until everyone else caught up. So next time you see an ad on TV for erectile dysfunction or athlete’s foot while you’re eating your dinner, you can probably blame him and his old mate Bill Peake.

O’Sullivan’s big smile will certainly be missed around adland. 

  • O’Sullivan’s wife Melanie has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations are sent to Mercy Hospice Auckland. Please follow this link to make a donation. 

  • A farewell for O’Sullivan will be held at Orakei Bay, 231 Orakei Road, Remuera on Monday 11 July at 11am.

Collegues remember O’Sullivan*:

Richard Stevens: “We lost a one of a kind this week…Mike O’Sullivan was a guiding light, a student of effective communications models and mentor to so many of us. A wonderful brain matched with his unbridled curiosity made him a powerful force in the many fields in which he excelled. We will miss the long chats and wide smile of our ‘Professor’ … who is now on that long planned sabbatical.”

But can someone double check, one last time … just to be sure.”  

  • If you would like to add your condolences or memories to this piece, either email StopPress or add your thoughts to the comments section below.
  • One of the contributions previously published under this section has been removed upon request from the author. 

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