Mike Hughes Got The Scare Of His Life-and He Is Still Pursuing His Passion: Advertising
THIS MAY BE A BANNER YEAR for The Martin Agency and its president, Mike Hughes.
The Richmond, Va., shop entered 1999 with its first Super Bowl appearance-an ad for the Yellow Pages-its first work for Kellogg’s and its second major effort for Saab.
The agency is now rolling out its first consumer effort for TV Land, an $8-10 million national broadcast campaign branding the cable channel with spots that give retro favorites a modern twist.
Footage from vintage shows like Family Affair and Dragnet is dubbed with new dialogue. In a My Three Sons spot, grandpa Steve Douglas explains to son Robbie and wife Katie that he cloned their newborn while baby-sitting, creating triplets. The tagline: “Times change. Great TV doesn’t.”
“I always have an agenda,” says Mike Hughes, the 51-year-old president and creative director of the $360 million shop. “Sometimes, it’s just fun. You can see that in the TV Land [work]. It’s emotionally relaxing.” It’s also lean and witty without revealing the punch line too quickly or being too cute. In short, it’s vintage Martin.
Most telling, the agency is enjoying the spotlight under Hughes’ egis, something the 21-year Martin veteran once feared would not happen, due to a cancer scare.
In the past, Hughes framed the agency’s ambition as “getting to play in Yankee Stadium,” shorthand for competing on a national scale. And while the ever-critical Hughes says his shop is getting its turn at bat, a year ago, he wasn’t sure he’d live to see it.
Last spring, Hughes made an announcement to his 400 employees: He would distribute much of his client and administrative duties to senior staff members in order to focus on the work. He would rededicate himself to the job he loved best, something he’d been unable to do since the early ’90s, when the agency’s growth and new business efforts kept him from his craft.
Agency morale was buoyed by the possibilities. “Mike’s decision to concentrate on the creative department gave us a lot of momentum,” says vice chairman Kerry Feuerman. “Then he told us he had cancer. Everything deflated pretty quickly.”
During a routine physical, doctors found a spot on his left lung. Weeks later, a biopsy showed it was a malignant tumor and half the lung was removed. Fortunately, the cancer had not invaded the lymph nodes, but he endured chemotherapy, which sapped his energy for the rest of ’98-the year Hughes hoped to propel Martin to new heights. “You forget what it’s like to feel good,” he says. “I’d been so excited about redefining my job.”
Now, according to his doctor, Hughes is “a guy who used to have cancer,” but cautions he needs to be cancer-free for five years to rest easy. Still, Hughes describes himself as fortunate. “If you don’t have some luck in your life, you’re not going to get there,” he says. “It’s what helped me with the cancer, with [wife] Ginny’s cancer, with [his stepson’s] AIDS. I’m mindful that the good things in my life outweigh those things.”
Hughes also considers himself blessed in his career. That’s why, at the most critical moment of his life, he rededicated himself to the agency. He serves as creative director of the shop and takes a hands-on role with the Brown-Forman, Kellogg’s, Yellow Pages and TV Land accounts.
“I have more energy [for creativity] than I’ve had in years,” he says. “Part of it had to do with the cancer, forcing me to think about what I wanted to do. It became clear that I was doing exactly what I loved.”
Hughes describes his goals for The Martin Agency’s work in simple terms: “You walk around these days and most of the advertising lets you down. I want to be in the group that doesn’t.”
More specifically, he wants the agency to change the business-like Doyle Dane Bernbach’s Volkswagen work or Chiat Day’s Apple “1984”-and expresses disappointment that he hasn’t yet achieved that dream. “I think if you want to be one of the great artists, you must love the process of making art,” he says. “I want the process to be fun and rewarding. It will be inevitable that I won’t reach my goal, but it will be rewarding if I enjoy the race.”
Hughes’ management style is helping. He doesn’t run his 54-member creative department by intimidation. “Because of the way he was, you were always trying to please him,” says Cabell Harris, who served at Martin and now runs Work, another Richmond shop.
Hughes cautions, though, that soft-spoken doesn’t mean he’s a soft touch. “My passion is unmistakable,” Hughes says. “That doesn’t mean it has to come out as temper. But I don’t believe this is a macho business where you have to fight.”
His quiet demeanor doesn’t lessen his rock-solid message. At a planning retreat in Florida in 1986, he delivered a speech to the agency’s creative staff called: “You’re Responsible for All the Bad Work Coming Out of The Martin Agency.” “It was telling us to quit bitching,” remembers Martin alum Luke Sullivan, now chief creative officer of WestWayne, Atlanta. “He made a number of considered arguments to some ad brats.”
In his speech, Hughes told staffers he refused to accept any excuses for shoddy work (bad clients, bad account executives, no support, etc.). “We don’t always have great ads,” he told them. “But we always have great excuses.” It’s the same speech he would make today.
“One test of a creative campaign is asking whether the agency is willing to die on the sword for the work,” says Larry Jones, general manager of TV Land. “He believed in the work.”
“He gets excited, like anybody else,” says Bill Westbrook, president of Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis, who worked with Hughes in Richmond on and off for several years. “But I never heard him raise his voice or put anybody down.” Hughes’ non-tyrannical style, say those who have worked with him, produces better work-and gets universal respect.
A Richmond native, Hughes studied English at Washington & Lee and began his ad career as a copywriter after a stint at The Richmond Times Dispatch. Early in his job search, he interviewed with Martin founder Dave Martin, who turned him down, as did his eventual boss at Martin, Harry Jacobs. Instead, he landed at a small shop in Richmond and thought he’d hit it big. His first job was writing a brochure.
“I really liked the fact you could be handed something not very interesting and have the time to find some way to make it interesting,” he says.
Hooked, Hughes never stayed at one place longer than 18 months, even launching his own small shop for a time, which was where Martin and Jacobs reconnected with him. They decided they were ready to recruit the kid they had once rejected. The irony? The kid wasn’t ready.
“Dave offered me the creative director’s job,” Hughes explains. “I was 28 and the agency was billing around $4 million … That was way too big for me.” Instead, Jacobs convinced Hughes to come in as a freelancer. One year later, Hughes was convinced he was ready for full-time status. “The first day I was there, I looked at a piece of paper
Harry handed me-and I saw my title was associate creative director,” Hughes says. “I was scared to death.”
Hughes fright was short-lived. Joining the agency in 1978, Hughes helped steer the shop away from local business. Instead, it focused on finding the best talent it could, betting that good work for small clients would eventually bring bigger clients-not to mention better people.
“I got a call from Mike who had just judged a show in Minneapolis and had seen some of my work,” recalls Sullivan. “I didn’t know anything about Martin, so he told me to look in the Communications Arts annual. I found this little Richmond shop kicking ass. That was 1983.”
Though Sullivan would not join until a year later, the agency was growing up. Local accounts were being replaced with regional ones and billings were climbing. Hughes had conquered his fears about being creative director, but he was far from complacent.
“That kind of leadership can never be satisfied,” says Jacobs. Praise his ads and he’ll tell you they should have been better. Hand him a gold One Show Pencil, and he’ll fret over the work that isn’t as good. Point out how much the agency has grown, and he can only talk about what hasn’t been done.
But even Hughes can’t rewrite history. In the 21 years he’s been with the agency, it’s gone from a $4 million shop to a $360 million shop. Plus, the agency’s creative work has garnered its share of top awards, placement in prestigious journals and recognition throughout the ad industry. Yet ever the striver, Hughes gives himself a grade of “incomplete.”
“I have this theory about success,” he says. “There are things that make it happen: luck, attitude, brains, hard work and talent. I don’t think I’m talented, but I’ve been awfully lucky, and I’ve worked awfully hard.” ƒ
Get Adweek's Brand Marketing Daily Newsletter in your Inbox
Today's highs and lows of creativity