Cancer has claimed another one of advertising's good guys.
Mike Hughes, the patriarch, president and ultimate creative leader of The Martin Agency, died Sunday of lung cancer, some 15 years after he was first diagnosed with the disease. He was 65.
Hughes, whose agency put Richmond, Va., on the map as a destination for major marketers like Geico and Walmart, was known as much for his paternal ways as his celebrated creative instincts. He nurtured staffers even as he challenged them, defying the industry stereotype of the tyrannical, egotistical creative chief.
Hughes, a big teddy bear of a man, also eschewed formalities, right down to his final months. Rather than keep his worsening health a secret—he was told last January that he had just two weeks to live—he blogged about it, which triggered an outpouring of warm messages from advertising veterans, Martin Agency employees and agency alumni.
In recent weeks, Hughes even penned his own obituary, which was posted Sunday and serves as his final blog post. "After many unexplained delays, I have finally lived up to my prognosis and have at last departed this life. It's been a life I've loved," he writes.
In typical Hughes fashion, he turns the spotlight outward, thanking his family, friends and colleagues for everything they gave him.
"A special call-out is due to the magnificent, crazy, elegant, messed-up, damn-near-perfect gaggle of creative partners who have put up with me for so long," he writes. "Hundreds of writers and art directors have come through the doors of the agencies I’ve been lucky enough to serve. A huge number of those writers and art directors taught me valuable lessons—not just in advertising, but in how to live a meaningful, all-in life. The greatest joy in our business comes not from a gold medal or a place in the industry hall of fame—it comes from doing the work and from doing it with people of integrity and ambition and good humor."
He concludes the post: "I hope each of you enjoys every minute of your life. You've all contributed so much to mine. And one last favor. Keep me in your thoughts. I love you."
Martin's current chairman, John Adams, a friend and colleagues of Hughes's for 35 years, penned a brief remembrance on the agency's website Sunday. It reads, in part: "He would understand our grieving, but would be impatient with it, preferring that we celebrate life rather than mourn death. We'll try."
The agency is also collecting memories of Hughes on a special site called We All Love Mike.
On Hughes's watch, Martin became known for strategically smart, approachable and disarming advertising. Geico is a classic example. Rather than create a typical warm and fuzzy mascot for the insurance provider, the agency put forth a tiny green gecko, which doubled as a pun on the company's name. What's more, the gecko speaks with a Cockney accent.
Through the years, Martin introduced other quirky characters to Geico's advertising, including a sensitive caveman, a pile of money with eyes and (currently) two folksy guys who compare the good feeling of saving money on car insurance to odd joys like being a camel on hump day. Regardless of the character featured, the ads worked hard to deliver brand messages, making Geico synonymous with cost savings.
Hughes was born and raised in Richmond, and worked first as a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He turned to advertising and joined Martin in 1978 as an associate creative director. In the course of the next 35 years, he rose through the ranks to take on a string of broader roles, including creative director, chief creative officer and chairman.
He also served for years as chairman of the board of Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter.
Hughes's death comes seven years after DDB worldwide CEO Ken Kaess succumbed to cancer at 51. In the aftermath, colleagues described Kaess as an upbeat, energetic and down-to-earth leader with a rare espirit de corps.