After Learjet: fun projects for Piaggio, then the start of a 20-year relationship with Cessna

By Al Higdon
Former Beech and Learjet Communications Executive
Cofounder of the Sullivan Higdon & Sink Ad Agency

Sullivan Higdon & Sink had a role in naming the Piaggio Avanti and later developed some its initial global marketing materials.

In the early 80s, Learjet took on US representation of the Piaggio turboprop, made in Italy, as an addition to the Learjet line-up. Bib Stillwell, then president of Learjet, knew the airplane needed a brand name that would resonate in this country so he commissioned Sullivan Higdon & Sink to look into it.

Our response was to throw the question open to the industry, as a way of involving a broad cross-section of aviation enthusiasts and build greater awareness of the Piaggio.

A national contest throughout general aviation drew thousands of entries for a name. The one selected, "Avanti" ("forward, let's go"), seemed to fit this sleek-looking turboprop quite well and is still used today.

Before immigrating to the US to head Learjet worldwide sales in 1979, B S "Bib" Stillwell was 4-time Australian race car champion and founded a large, successful Ford agency in his native Melbourne. At Learjet he later served as president for 3 years before returning to Australia in 1985.

After my departure from the Learjet program, we were asked by Piaggio, in Genoa, to work with them on promotional materials for the airplane. This we gladly did and produced their 1st really attractive marketing literature.

That was all well and good, and the folks in Italy were great to work with. But Piaggio did not fill the hole I'd left by resigning the Learjet business. But then lightning struck. In 1987 I got a call from Phil Michel, head of marketing for Cessna. Phil is a guy I met and worked with on the GAMA public affairs committee. I knew him to be extremely smart and a sound, strategic thinker who was always a voice of reason in those committee meetings.

Cessna Vice President of Marketing Phil Michel (L) and Al Higdon first met as members of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) public affairs committee, Michel representing Cessna, Higdon for Learjet. A few years later Michel spearheaded appointment of Sullivan Higdon & Sink to handle all of Cessna's advertising.

"I'd like to come talk to you about our Caravan business," Phil told me. Come by he did, and a few days later, on a Saturday morning, Joe Norris, our truly brilliant creative director, and I were in front of not only Phil, but Cessna CEO Russ Meyer and Brian Barents, Cessna's sales chief. We presented 2 ads for the Caravan, created by Joe and Jeff Filby, 1 of Sullivan Higdon & Sink's bright, young art directors. Those ads won us the Caravan business.

First 2 ads created by Sullivan Higdon & Sink in 1987, which earned them the Cessna business in a relationship that spanned the next 20 years. Ad for Caravan on left suggests thinking of the model as an inexpensive, fast and spacious freight hauler. Citation III ad matches it against its nearest competitor, the slower BAe 800.

Within a year we were given a shot at expanding our Cessna relationship to embrace the Citation line as well. After presenting 2 ad concepts for the Citation II and III, created again by Joe Norris and this time Sullivan Higdon & Sink Executive Art Director Jim Kandt, we were awarded agency-of-record for Cessna's jet business. This was a major coup for us, supplanting the former Learjet work many times over.

Between 1971, when we opened the agency, and 1996, when I retired from Sullivan Higdon & Sink at 60, we served 15 clients in aviation. These covered quite a range, including airframe manufacturers, avionics producers, a fixed base network, an aviation finance company, a flight training organization, an aviation credit card provider, an aviation software firm and an aviation fuel additive.

In the 21 years I've been gone, the agency has established relationships with many other fine aviation and aerospace companies, including Pratt & Whitney Canada.

But the standard for me in client–agency relationships, across our spectrum of clients, has always been the 1 Sullivan Higdon & Sink enjoyed for so many years with Cessna.

Al Higdon spent 12 years as a public relations executive with Beech and
Learjet before co-founding an advertising/pr firm that represented more than a dozen clients in aviation, including Learjet and Cessna, over a 25 year period before his retirement at 60 in 1996.