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Interview with

Mike Hughes

Is digital technology destroying advertising? I think our industry tends to over dramatize things and we always exaggerate the rate of change. We haven’t figured out how to make all the things we do profitable. But, ya know, the only advertising worth caring about is still the advertising that is based in ideas. It’s a fabulous time to think about new ways to use media and to create new media. I think a lot of it needs to fall back on the young writers and art directors coming into the business to figure out how to use the tools that are available in ways that get us excited all over again. Agencies always find new ways to describe what they’re doing. We might say we’re brand stewards or we are idea factories. The one that’s going around now is we are brand storytellers, and I like that as a metaphor. We have so many different outlets now—so many different ways to tell the stories we want to tell. I hope we use it for more than just brands. I hope we use it to create interesting new content and effect world changing, world improving, initiatives. Is agency tenure an asset or a liability? It’ll be both. In a sense, its always been both. Our agency benefits from both. Because we’ve been able to grow, we’ve been able to bring in a lot of new people and that’s great, but we also have a lot of people that have been here a long time. We probably have the world’s oldest creative department! I think the good thing about our business is you don’t have to work at it for twenty years to develop your craft, you can get awfully good in a couple of years. Do you think clients are ready for what you call “cures”? No. But I think that they are more open to considering it now than every before. I think it is hard for people when they are given a job description (“you are the chief marketing director” or “you are the advertising director for this company”) within their organizations to reach out and do new things. So we have yet to prove consistently that we can take a broad range of ideas to clients and bring them to life. But, in no time in my history in the business, have clients not been willing to at least sit down and talk about those things.

Do you have any advice on how to sell ‘cures’ to clients? I don’t know if it’s solely based on the relationship but it’s got to be hugely based on the relationship. The one thing that agencies have to do is make it very clear to clients that the agency has both the individual person and the client company’s best interests in mind. I’ve worked with one agency for a long time so I don’t know what other agencies do but I do know that it’s very important that they feel your enthusiasm for their cause. Why is the Martin Agency the greatest place on Earth? We’re not the greatest place on earth but we are trying to be. Our goal is really very simple: we want to be a really good place that does really great work. So the great work we want to do is, extend beyond advertising into my four C’s and it would be work that our clients profit from, people talk about and that our people are proud of. We have to be proud of it, because we think it’s a positive force in society not because it’s some kind of attention-getting gimmick. Being a good place means we want this to be a place where people have a lot of heart, care about each other, and are challenged to do the best work of their lives. We know that we need open offices and other places so that people can get some variety in their lives. So if you want to work at the Martin Agency but you want to live in Europe for a while, or Asia, or South America that we can help accommodate that for you. When we go into those markets what we need to have happen is a mix of our DNA and the local DNA. We don’t need other offices that are exactly like

Richmond, but what we do need is a value system that is similar to what we have here and gives us a wider variety of voices. How would you describe the Martin Agency’s DNA? Some of the things are the clichéd things you hear all the time, we care a lot about our integrity, we care a lot about our respect for each other, honesty and candor, if anything, we are often too humble. I’d much rather be too humble than arrogant, but sometimes a little confidence would help everyone out. And I think probably some of our DNA comes from growing up in a place like Richmond. Because even the people in our New York office say they feel some of the everyday values that come from a city that’s not as big as New York but I certainly hope we get some of the energy from New York too. What is Martin doing to ensure that it remains diverse? In the past year or so, people have joined the Martin Agency from South Africa, India, Uganda, New Zealand, Brazil, all over Europe and all over this country. They’ve joined because of what this company has been in the past but even more importantly because of what it can be in the future. We want this to be the most magnetic company in the world to the world’s best creative and strategic people and we’ll never stop working toward that goal. We’ve just expanded and changed our corporate management because we’re determined to bring a variety of voices to our work, our internal deliberations and in our management. Our new management team includes people from three different generations. It includes men

and women, African American, Whites and Hispanics. I hope it includes gay and straight but the truth is, I don’t know. We’re not close to where we want to be in diversity yet, but we are trying. I talk to a lot of people because I want all of the different voices to speak up. Ya know, diversity, well too many people think of it as well, we need more black or Hispanic people. But what we really want is black and Hispanic people that are kinda like us and that’s NOT what I want. I want diverse voices. And I am worried that I may not recognize those voices. Or those voices may not sound as professional to me as I think they should. What’s the rapper, Big Boi?? Who says his new years resolution is “I don’t know if the funk can get any stankier, but I’m gonna try.” I want our funk to get stankier. Describe the goals of the newly formed Design@Martin My predecessor here as creative director was Harry Jacobs. And Harry’s core strength was he was a designer. He was a fabulous art director and a fabulous advertising guy. My core strength is copywriting and when I took over from Harry I didn’t realize how much of the hiring I was doing. I was really biased toward people with great conceptual strength. What slowly happened was we lost some of our design mojo. And I could see it going away but I didn’t know how to bring it back. When we were able to bring John Norman in, whose core strength is design, all of a sudden, that’s shooting up and it’s becoming part of all we do. What John Norman and I both want, is for this agency to be able to produce work in a wide

range. We are building out our internal capabilities and what we believe in strongly is that everything’s under one roof . We all try to work together we all try to surround the problem. You attribute much of your success to being surrounded by great people. How would you define what a great person is? I like people who have built strong personal relationships either with family or friends. And so I like people who take their parental responsibilities very seriously. I like people who enjoy their work. If I had to choose, I would choose the good person over the great talent because we can learn this business. I know I don’t have a natural talent for this, I have to work hard at it. And so, I would rather have the really good people. You can look up the hill here at the hospital at VCU and, at 3:00 in the morning someone up there is working and they’re probably saving somebody’s life. They must be thinking “Why in the world would those idiots at the bottom of the hill be working at 3 in the morning on advertising!” Well, if you’re going to do that kind of work, you want to do it with the people you care about. And, one of the biggest gifts in my life is I get to do work I love with people I love. How have you maintained work/life balance? Oh I haven’t! What I have decided, it’s not about balance. We think we want balance but what we really want is joy in life. So, yea, I still work way more than forty or fifty hours a week. But I also do wonderful things with my family. I’ve got a wonderful marriage, the world’s cutest granddaughter, and I take off chunks of time to do those kinds of things. And I try to

build into both my personal life and my professional life, the opportunities to do a lot of really cool things. My advice to everybody is to look at your job and figure out, “well, okay, what can you do that’s of most value to your employer that you really love doing? So I don’t care too much about balance, what I care about is joy. What do you love most about Richmond? Sometimes I regret that I’ve never worked anywhere else-that maybe a couple years overseas would have been great. And my wife and I now have an apartment in New York and we love it. And I spend probably 25% of my time there. Richmond has its advantages and disadvantages. It has allowed [the agency] to bring together a group of people who are kinda family oriented. Once someone has a kid or two, this is a pretty great place. And we get our chances to travel and to see the rest of the world. It is good that about four blocks away is where my grandfather’s plumbing company was. I like the people that I work with and I like my competitors too. So we get to live a life that has the comfort that comes from living in a place like Richmond, but has the excitements of a life reaching out beyond Richmond. What book would you recommend to young advertising students? Huckleberry Finn, because probably the work you’re going to be doing when you get out is about America. And because none of us will ever be able to write as well as Twain wrote that. It reveals a lot about character. Also, it is fashionable to say get your nose out of awards

books, I feel just the opposite. As we walk through the doors of Mike Hughes Hall or “My Q’s Hall,” as you’ve dubbed it, you’ve told us to remain curious. What are the things you’re curious about? There are social questions that I would love to help figure out the answers to. How does expensive journalism get paid for in the years ahead? Our education system is crumbling, what can we do to address that and fix that? How can we help scientist talk to the rest of us? Amazing percentage of people in the world believe in things that aren’t true or believe things are fact that aren’t, and scientist, and historians, and journal are letting them get away with that and I’d like to help them figure out a way to solve that. Storytelling and building stories is really interesting to me. How can I help the creative and strategic people here develop skills and outlets. How we bring diverse voices together to make a big difference. There are a lot of things I’m curious about.

Mike’s Four C’s Content: original branded and unbranded programming, including an animated film; Community: using social media to help organizations create communities; Causes: leveraging the agency’s talent to work on causes beyond traditional pro-bono advertising; and Cures or consulting: finding solutions to problems beyond advertising. Source: Richmond Times Dispatch

Mike Hughes Interview  

This interview was conducted for SIXTY magazine, a publication of VCU Brandcenter.

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