On one wall of the Sells Agency in downtown Little Rock hangs a large, framed print of a pencil maze, the kind where one draws a line from the perimeter to the center finish, avoiding dead ends and box canyons as you go. The illustration could be a former marketing piece or maybe it’s just another imagination trigger for a creative team on deadline. But whatever its actual purpose, the artwork serves as an apt illustration of Mike Sells’ life journey, always seeking a way forward, learning as he goes.
“If I were doing the same thing now that I was doing yesterday — if I hadn’t learned new things from when I started — I’d be bored to tears,” he says. “One of the benefits of this industry is there’s always something new.”
Sells has been in the advertising game for decades with a client roster laden with heavy-hitters — and those aspiring to be — to show for it. Meeting Sells for the first time, what you see is what you get, but there’s a lot to look at, each underlying tranche earned by design, by accident and quite often, the hard way. Each lesson brings him a little closer to who he is, what he does and how he does it, so he seeks out new subject matter at every opportunity.
“In this business you have to have a stick-to-itiveness and a desire to always be learning,” he says. “Until a year and a half ago, I had never heard of cyclocross as a sport, and I’ve been a cycling fan my whole life. That was a lot of fun to learn and now, we’ve done advertising and marketing for two world-caliber cyclocross events, and we’re working on a third.”
Sells’ approach has made him and his firm (which includes a second office in Fayetteville) exceptionally flexible, which is not to say unfocused. Sells Agency’s creative work is distinguished by its intentionality and clarity of message, the virtues of which are relentlessly hammered home by its president.
“I drive a lot of people around here crazy about words having meanings and to be really precise,” he said. “Some of my favorite questions are, ‘What are you really saying?’ and ‘Can you say that in a different way?’
“I’ll be in a meeting and people will say something, and I think to myself later, 80% of the people in there didn’t understand what they were trying to say, but nobody asked. We have to seek to understand, and we can’t seek to understand if we’re not asking questions and listening hard to those words.”
There’s a lot about Sells that doesn’t satisfy assumptions. For instance, despite making his living communicating messages, he doesn’t fit the mold of lifelong wordsmith. In fact, math and science came more naturally to him, a fact that unfolds into another seeming contradiction: He was a science and math whiz who didn’t dream of going into left-brained engineering or IT, but theater.
“First year at Hall High School, I was hanging out with some folks, and they tried out for the play,” he says. “I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’ I got a tiny part, but I was like, ‘this is cool.'”
That experience led to bigger productions, notably the Arkansas Children’s Theater production of “Grease” the following year, which proved a turning point.
“Somehow or another, beside the fact that I can’t dance and I can’t sing, I got a role as one of the T-Birds. I was Sonny Latierri, the only T-Bird who doesn’t have a solo,” he says. “[The show] got rave reviews from the Gazette and the Democrat. It ran for, I think, four performances and then it was over. Then some months later, we did a revival of it because of public demand. I was smitten.”
Sells’ acting work landed him multiple theater scholarship offers, one of them to Hendrix College in Conway. He wasn’t there long when he met a coed who would come to play the biggest supporting role in his life. From the start, the two displayed a set of skills and abilities that, while dramatically different, completed the other.
“I drove her crazy freshman year, because we took the same algebra class. I showed up for the first day of class and didn’t show up again until it was time to take a test,” he says. “I was never there, and I made an A while she was laboring on all the math stuff.
“Well, she sat down the night before our Shakespeare paper was due and wrote, without any mistakes, a 12-page paper and got an A+. I labored on that thing, rewrote it, went to go visit the professor a couple of times, got corrections and still got a B-.'”
As senior year wore down, the now-serious couple faced their first big test as Sells pondered his next move as an actor.
“At one time the plan was, I was going to move to New York City, wait tables, live in a van down by the river if I had to in order to give acting a shot,” he says. “Part of that was influenced by the fact two people I had been in theater with had both done it successfully. Both of them went to New York and ended up on Broadway within two years.
“Then, I started dating my best friend, and I decided I really loved this person and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn’t think it was responsible to say, ‘I want to get married, but you’re going to have to wait ’til I see if I can make it in theater or come with me.’ It dawned on me this is not really practical. [Acting] was losing its luster, if you will.”
NOT A NICKEL
Sells wasn’t completely out of the woods with Bari’s father just yet. He no longer had to overcome being a wanna-be actor, but he wasn’t flush with backup prospects either.
“I grew up going to Trinity Methodist Church in the George Wayne Martin Sanctuary. Bari’s dad is George Wayne Martin. Talk about pressure,” he said. “I’m two weeks out from graduation. I don’t have a nickel. I got nothing.”
Fate intervened through a friend with connections at a Little Rock advertising firm, Brooks Pollard. In short order, Sells landed a job, got the girl and earned his degree, a fairy tale trifecta that hid the fact a real-world education was just beginning. Over the next few years, his career volleyed him back and forth on both sides of the advertising desk — as advertising director for a major bank and an insurance home office and two tours at what is now CJRW. And that doesn’t even count his brush with becoming a G-Man.
“One day I’m sitting in bed with my wife, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper and there’s an ad from the FBI about a hiring fair for special agents at the Holiday Inn West,” he said. “That sounds cool, I thought, I’ll try that. What the heck?”
Sells advanced to the final round — making the list for a 14-week proving program at Quantico — just in time for the bureau to freeze hiring, ending his crime-fighting career before it even started. A few years later, his father Bob launched Sells Agency and, burned out on agencies and bored with the shuffling pace of corporate life, Mike offered to build up the advertising book to match Bob’s extensive PR accounts. The relationship clicked, and Mike’s been there ever since, taking over as president in 1997.
“He really makes sure that he understands the client,” says Jim Cargill, president and CEO of Arvest Bank’s Central and Southwest Arkansas region. “He’s learned how we operate. He’s learned our language. He’s learned what our objectives are and how we get there.
“He’s very thorough and he’s always very genuinely inquisitive. Because of that, I end up feeling that I’m talking with somebody who really has not just an understanding, but a sincere interest in what we’re doing and how we’re getting it done.”
The years have taught Sells much, especially as technology and social media have mushroomed, something he’s handled with a deft touch.
“We have been earlier adopters than a lot of agencies on all things digital because to me, it was just another medium,” he says. “We create messages to connect with consumers on behalf of a client. Making that happen on a programmatic, contextually targeted display ad online is no different than making an effective newspaper ad 30 years ago.
“The bigger challenge is the hype around some of the technology. It gets ahead of itself. QR codes were all the rage 10 years ago, and every client thought they needed one. But have you seen the QR code adoption rate and how many people are actually downloading that specialty QR code reader so they can go to your website that doesn’t say anything? I mean, let’s all just slow down.”
If Sells’ strategy of hurrying to the front only to wait for the market to catch up seems a dichotomous collision of old and new thinking, that’s precisely what it is, reheating fundamental strategies until malleable enough to fit into modern context. It’s not everyone’s approach, but like everything else that’s kept the agency relevant for this long, the numbers back up his strategy.
“Advertising is part art and part science. At the end of the day, it’s a business expense, so it has to have a business purpose,” he says. “The last study I read said the average tenure of an agency-client relationship was less than two years. Our average tenure with clients is a lot longer than that, and I think it’s because we have some fundamental service standards that I demand of everybody and hopefully model for everybody.
“At the same time, the worst thing we can do is just sit around here and lament that we can’t do what we could do three years ago. There’s always going to be progress. There was a time when television was a radical new thing compared to printed newspapers. At any point, in this business at least and probably in any business, if you stop being a lifelong learner you’re in trouble.”
Along the way, Sells has also invested his time, expertise and resources into Young Life, helping bring that same message of continuous learning to young people in the context of their spirituality. Over the years, he’s seen the program work in the lives of hundreds of kids, starting with himself.
“The trajectory of my life was going in the wrong direction in the 10th grade,” he says. “It’s a miracle I’m alive. I don’t really like to talk about it, but the first two-thirds of my 10th-grade year I was drinking, I was smoking. I had a Camaro and I was driving like a bat out of you-know-where. I was going off the rails.
“I kind of got a wake-up call where it was like, OK, I don’t know what to do, but I know I can’t keep doing this. I found myself in this nowhere land because I had alienated all my previous friends, and it was too dangerous for me to hang out with my current friends. I landed somewhere in the middle.”
Providence crossed his path with some upperclassmen who took an interest in the lost teen, inviting him to play some disc golf and basketball and finally inviting him to a Young Life function. What he experienced there helped put his life back in order.
“I had grown up in church, and I’d heard a lot of church talk,” he says. “I don’t want to say I didn’t hear it, but it was said to me in a way at Young Life that got through. It’s not about me; there’s a God out there that loves me despite what a moron I am. I became a Christian at Young Life camp. My faith meant something to me in that it was mine, I owned it, I wasn’t borrowing it from my family or from my heritage.”
Now after almost 20 years at various levels of the organization, Sells’ fingerprints are all over the ministry and its growth according to Jud Jones, Young Life regional director over Arkansas and Louisiana.
“He’s a starter, he’s an initiator, he’s a developer, but the biggest thing about my friend Mike Sells is that he doesn’t quit,” Jones says. “When we met, I was in the first couple years of trying to rebuild Young Life in Arkansas, and it was very hard. He basically said, ‘Hey, I’m going to help you,’ and he did. He’s persistent because he believes in the mission and he believes in people. He’s walked with me through thick and thin and, as a friend, I would do anything for him.
Sells currently serves on the organizing committee for the River Classic (theriverclassic.com), a September bike ride to raise funds specifically to reach inner city kids.
“When you get into the inner city, the resources aren’t there, but they have the same needs,” Sells says. “We have this fundraiser bike ride to help raise money to allow the kids from the poorer parts of town to have the camp experience I had. I love working on that.”
It’s particularly gratifying, he says, to be organizing an athletic event, not only as a longtime cyclist and triathlete, but because he knows how fleeting good health can be, having watched the people he loves most struggle to maintain theirs. That starts with Bari, who’s battled MS most of her life and who endured some gut-wrenching stretches during the pandemic. With each turn, as the two college sweethearts take on the journey through the disease, Sells learns new lessons on faith, fidelity and how to find God when times are darkest.
“Our life has made me realize the importance of a right theological framework for how to view life when it comes to health and when it comes to going through difficult times,” he says. “We’ve got to expect those and understand it’s not that we’re not being blessed, but we have to look for the blessing inside that.
“What’s the blessing inside MS? Well, we’re closer than we were before this started. We now know we can get through really difficult things and still be cleaved together in marriage. We know we’re committed. And maybe other people who are going through a difficult time can hear about us or witness us and go, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ That’s just human nature. I do that with my bike all the time. If that guy can climb that mountain, I can climb that mountain.”