The Unsung Heroes

Nineteen years ago, David Oakley was crushed when he couldn’t get into John Sweeney’s introduction to advertising summer course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But that didn’t stop him. “I said, ‘There are 70 seats in that room, and at least one student will skip every day, and I’ll be in that seat,’ ” recalls Oakley, co-founder of Boone/Oakley in Charlotte, N.C. “I showed up every day, and he’d look at me and roll his eyes. When the midterm exams came, he looked at me and said, ‘OK, you’re in.’ ”

Such was the birth not only of Oakley’s advertising career but also of a mentor/protégé relationship that has remained strong ever since.

Many ad agencies encourage mentoring through internal programs, but often the best matches are those that develop organically. In Oakley’s case, Sweeney has continued to coach him on his career moves, creative work and how to run a business. “It’s funny, throughout my career I always call him when I do something really good,” says Oakley, 42. “I always want him to be proud of me. And whenever I’m feeling bad about things, he’ll remind me of things I’ve accomplished.”

Rich Rico, co-founder of Via in Portland, Maine, shaped his company in the image of his mentor, David Nelson. Both Rico and fellow co-founder John Coleman worked for Nelson for nearly a decade at industrial companies including ABB before founding Via in 1993.

“He has a lot of integrity and is all about respecting the customer and doing what he said he would do,” says Rico, 44. Nelson’s influence can be seen directly, Rico says, in three of the agency’s doctrines: “Create respect,” “Think like the audience” and “Be curious.”

Jon Cropper, executive creative director of channel strategy at Young & Rubicam in New York, is fortunate to have a handful of mentors, including former MTV president Sara Levinson, who recruited him to the music network out of college, and Quincy Jones, with whom Cropper worked while handling business development for the entertainer’s company.

Both have a “core operating system” based in optimism and positivity, says Cropper, who has found such an outlook fortifying. “Any time you’re involved in something that is somewhat pioneering, it takes a bit of an adventurous sprit, a lot of energy and an awful lot of passion,” says Cropper, 33. “At the fundamental level, if there isn’t an underlying real interest and passion for the work, it’s easy to burn out.”

Glenn Dady’s mentor is a floor below and a position above. For 24 years, Dady, a creative group head at The Richards Group in Dallas, has viewed Stan Richards as a mentor. “I don’t think of him as the boss,” says Dady, 52. “In a way he’s kind of become a second dad. … Because his agency has always grown, Stan is always learning, and it trickles down to the rest of us. Things he’s going through now, I’ll go through in 10 years.”

R&R Partners chief strategic officer Mary Ann Mele also considers her boss to be her mentor. Mele, 47, has worked with CEO Billy Vassiliadis since she joined the Las Vegas shop in 1984, and says she continues to pick up valuable skills. “Some of that stuff you can’t put into a syllabus—it’s judgment and instinct,” she says. “It’s an asset to everyone in the company, because he works on so much of the work.”

Indeed, while ad schools are graduating more sophisticated students, one industry mentor, Matt Fischer, says learning from veterans is still invaluable. “Most of the problems I see with young creatives are in execution,” says Fischer, 44, chief creative officer at WonderGroup in Cincinnati. “They don’t know what to do when things start to go badly. They don’t know who to go to. To make sure we have predictable, good outcomes but have enough risk involved to do breakthrough things—that’s harder to teach.”

Among those who appreciate Fischer’s guidance is Earl Keister, who worked under him at Foote Cone & Belding in New York from 1994 to 2000. “He was like my big brother,” says Keister, 40, now a creative director at Atlanta-based WestWayne. Keister has never forgotten one particular lesson about presenting work to clients: “Matt said if you don’t have fun with it, they’re not going to, either,” he says. “Now when I present, I try to have as much fun as I can. And I think it helps.”