In the heart of downtown Little Rock, at the Sells Agency, an intriguing framed print adorns one wall. It’s a labyrinthine pencil maze, the kind where you trace a path from the edge to the center, avoiding dead ends and twists along the way. This artwork may serve as an old advertising piece or simply as a source of inspiration for the creative minds working under this roof. Yet, it also serves as a metaphor for Mike Sells’ life journey, continually seeking a path forward and learning as he goes.
“If I were doing the same thing today that I was doing yesterday—if I hadn’t learned new things since I started—I’d be bored to tears,” he remarks. “One of the benefits of this industry is that there’s always something new.”
Mike Sells has been a stalwart in the advertising industry for decades, boasting a client roster filled with heavyweights and aspirants alike. When you meet Mike for the first time, what you see is what you get, but there’s more beneath the surface, with each layer acquired through design, accident, and often, the hard way. Every lesson learned brings him a step closer to understanding who he is, what he does, and how he does it. As a result, he actively seeks new subject matter to explore at every opportunity.
“In this business, you have to have 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 enthusiast my whole life. Learning about it was a lot of fun, and now we’ve handled marketing and promotion for two world-caliber cyclocross events, with a third in the works.”
Adaptability and Clarity of Message
Mike Sells’ approach has made him and his agency, which includes a second office in Fayetteville, highly adaptable without losing focus. Sells Agency’s creative work is characterized by intentionality and a clear message, virtues that Mike passionately emphasizes.
“I push a lot of people around here crazy about words having meanings and being very specific,” he explains. “Some of my favorite questions are, ‘What are you really saying?’ and ‘Can you say that in a different way?'”
He goes on to say that during meetings, people may say something, and later, he realizes that 80% of the attendees didn’t grasp the intended message, but nobody asked for clarification. Understanding requires asking questions and carefully listening to the words spoken.
The Theater Kid Who Became an Advertising Pro
Mike Sells doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a lifelong wordsmith, despite his career in communications. Surprisingly, math and science came more naturally to him than language, a fact that led him down an unexpected path—he pursued a career in theater.
“During my first year at Hall High School, some friends tried out for a play,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot.’ I got a small role, but I thought it was cool.”
That initial experience led to larger productions, including a role in the Arkansas Children’s Theater production of “Grease.” This proved to be a turning point.
“Somehow, despite my lack of dancing and singing talent, I got a role as one of the T-Birds. I was Sonny Latierri, the only T-Bird without a solo,” he says. “The show received rave reviews from the Gazette and the Democrat. It ran for, I think, four performances, and then it was over. But a few months later, due to public demand, we did a revival of it. I was smitten.”
Mike’s acting work earned him multiple theater scholarship offers, including one from Hendrix College in Conway. However, it wasn’t long before he met a fellow student who would play a significant supporting role in his life—his future wife, Bari.
“We took the same algebra course in our freshman year. I showed up for the first day and didn’t return until it was time for a test,” he recalls. “I wasn’t there, yet I got an A while she was working hard on all the math. She wrote a flawless 12-page paper on Shakespeare the night before it was due and received an A+. I worked on that paper, revised it, visited the professor several times, got corrections, and still received a B-.”
As the senior year approached, Mike faced a pivotal decision about his future. Although he had initially considered pursuing a career in acting, he ultimately chose a different path—marriage. He realized he couldn’t ask his future wife to wait while he pursued an uncertain acting career in New York City.
The Unexpected Journey to Advertising
Mike wasn’t entirely out of the woods yet. He found himself at a crossroads, having not yet charted a career path and no financial stability. But fate intervened through a friend with connections at a Little Rock advertising agency, Brooks Pollard. In short order, Mike secured a job, won the girl’s heart, and earned his degree.
As he ventured into the world of advertising, Mike learned the ropes and navigated between the creative and business sides of the industry. He served as a marketing director for a major bank, an insurance firm, and even spent time at what is now CJRW. This journey included a fascinating detour into the world of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
“One day, I saw an advertisement from the FBI about a hiring fair for special agents at the Holiday Inn West,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘That sounds interesting; I’ll give it a shot.'”
To his surprise, Mike advanced to the final round and was selected for a 14-week program at Quantico. However, the FBI froze hiring, putting an end to his budding crime-fighting career before it began. Three years later, his father, Bob, founded the Sells Agency, and Mike joined the family business. Tired of the corporate world’s fast-paced shuffle and seeking a new challenge, Mike offered to build up the agency’s advertising portfolio to match his father’s extensive PR accounts. The synergy clicked, and Mike has been at the helm ever since, taking over as president in 1997.
Adapting to the Digital Age
Over the years, Mike has witnessed significant changes in the advertising landscape, particularly with the advent of technology and social media. Sells Agency was an early adopter of digital strategies, recognizing it as just another medium for delivering messages.
“We’ve embraced digital marketing because, to me, it’s just another medium,” he explains. “Creating effective messages for an online programmatic, contextually targeted display ad is no different than creating a compelling newspaper ad 30 years ago.”
He emphasizes that the challenge often lies in the excessive hype surrounding certain technologies, which can sometimes overshadow their actual utility. For instance, QR codes were all the rage a decade ago, with clients insisting on using them. However, the adoption rate for QR codes and the number of people downloading specialized QR code readers to access websites was significantly lower than anticipated.
Balancing Tradition and Progress
Mike Sells’ approach of forging ahead only to wait for the industry to catch up may appear to be a collision of old and new thinking, but it’s a strategy that has worked remarkably well for the agency. His approach combines timeless principles with modern context, effectively updating traditional methods for the digital age. This approach may not resonate with everyone, but the numbers speak for themselves.
“Advertising is part art and part science. At the end of the day, it’s a business expense, so it must have a business purpose,” he asserts. “Our average client tenure is much longer than the industry average because we maintain certain service standards that I demand from everyone and try to model for everyone.”
He emphasizes that becoming complacent and failing to adapt to changing industry dynamics is a recipe for trouble in this field, as in any other. Lifelong learning is a fundamental principle that keeps the agency relevant and thriving.
Investing in Youth and Community
In addition to his professional pursuits, Mike Sells has invested his time, knowledge, and resources into Youthful Life, a program that imparts the value of continuous learning to young individuals within a spiritual context. Over the years, he has witnessed how this program positively impacts the lives of countless young people, starting with his own transformation.
“In the 10th grade, my life was heading in the wrong direction,” he reveals. “It’s a miracle I’m alive. I don’t like to talk about it, but for the first two-thirds of my 10th-grade year, I was drinking, smoking, and living recklessly. I was going off the rails.”
Providence intervened as he crossed paths with upperclassmen who invited him to engage in various activities, culminating in an invitation to a Young Life event. This experience served as a turning point in his life.
Mike’s involvement with Youthful Life allowed him to witness the program’s impact on numerous young people. He emphasizes that the program conveyed spiritual messages to him in a way that resonated deeply, transforming his faith into a personal, meaningful connection rather than a borrowed belief from his family or heritage.
Today, after nearly two decades of involvement with Youthful Life at various levels, Mike’s influence and contributions are deeply ingrained in the program’s growth.
“He’s a starter, an initiator, a developer, but most importantly, he doesn’t give up,” says Jud Jones, Youthful Life Regional Director for Arkansas and Louisiana. “When we met, I was in the first few years of rebuilding Youthful Life in Arkansas, and it was very challenging. He essentially said, ‘Hey, I’m going to help you,’ and he did. He’s persistent because he believes in the mission and in people. He’s walked with me through thick and thin, and as a friend, I would do anything for him.”
Mike Sells currently serves on the organizing committee for the River Classic, a September bike ride that raises funds specifically to reach inner-city children.
“When we enter the inner city, resources may be scarce, but the needs are the same,” Mike explains. “We organize this fundraising bike ride to help raise funds, enabling kids from disadvantaged parts of the city to experience the camp just like I did. I love working on this project.”
It’s particularly rewarding for him, not only because of his passion for cycling and triathlons but also because he recognizes the fragility of good health. He has witnessed his loved ones struggle to maintain their health, starting with his wife Bari, who has battled multiple sclerosis (MS) throughout her life and endured challenging periods during the pandemic. With each twist and turn, as they navigate the journey through her illness, Mike gains new insights into faith, commitment, and finding blessings in the darkest of times.
“Our life has helped me understand the importance of having a solid theological framework to navigate life, especially when it comes to health and facing difficult times,” he reflects. “We must expect challenges and understand that it’s not a lack of blessings, but rather, we need to seek the blessings within those challenges.”
Mike’s journey with Bari has shown him that they can conquer incredibly tough challenges while remaining steadfast in their commitment to each other. Their story may inspire others who are going through difficult times, offering them hope that they too can overcome adversity.
“In many ways, it’s just human nature,” Mike says. “I apply the same principle to my cycling. If that person can climb that mountain, I can climb that mountain.”
As the creative force behind the Sells Agency and a dedicated advocate for youth and community, Mike Sells continues to embark on new adventures and share his wisdom, proving that the journey of lifelong learning is one filled with both challenges and triumphs.