Mike Hughes: Architect for Advertising

Three and a half years ago, A+A interviewed Mike Hughes, The Martin Agency’s president and creative director, for a pair of posts. Though diagnosed 13 years earlier with lung cancer, he was still at work at the Richmond, Va. ad agency that he’d guided to greatness.

He stayed there until January of this year, when, given just two weeks to live, he went home to hospice care. In fact, he stuck around for almost 12 more months, until Dec. 15. As always, he made maximum use of his time on this planet, authoring two blogs – one, called “Unfinished Thinking,” about the mysteries of life and death.

Mike was an early and enthusiastic supporter of A+A, always willing to put a little wind in our sails with a few kind words of encouragement. And he was humble, though he denied it. He emailed me after the post below was published in May 2010, to say: “BTW, I would have made a horrible architect. Ginny won’t even let me see a house before we buy it.”

The Martin Agency will hold a private service for him today; a public one is scheduled for Jan. 3 in Richmond, at a location to be announced.

Today and tomorrow, we’ll look back on the career of Mike Hughes:

If he were a patient man, Mike Hughes might have turned to architecture for a career.

Instead, he helped fast-track a small Southern ad agency into a top-tier, nationally-known communications firm.

He’s president of The Martin Agency, named 2010 “Agency of the Year” by ADWEEK. That magazine called him one of the industry’s nine best creative directors, while its competitor, Advertising Age, heralded Martin as fourth best agency in the industry.

If his firm’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of the institutions permeating popular culture today, that’s because Hughes and company worked overtime to inject them into America’s mainstream consciousness.

Think of the GEICO caveman and its diminutive gecko. The UPS white board. And the Walmart mantra that urges us to save money and live better.

Chances are, Mike Hughes had a hand in each.

“If we had patience, we’d be architects,” he said. “But ad people are impatient people. We’re remembered much more for our successes than our failures. And unlike architects, our unsuccessful work disappears.”

He got his start in Richmond, Va. An English major at Washington & Lee, he turned reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and News Leader upon graduation. “I thought I wanted to be the features editor at Life magazine,” he said. “But that meant moving to New York, and I was nervous about that.”

In the early ‘70s, he started making the rounds at local ad agencies, looking for a job as a copywriter. He interviewed with Harry Jacobs at Cargill Wilson & Acree, but got turned down. He talked with Dave Martin at Martin and Woltz. No dice. Finally, he spoke with Larry Kaplan, copy chief at the Clinton E. Frank Agency – and bingo – he was hired.

By then he was in his twenties. He began to take huge steps across town, working at one agency and then another, eighteen months at a stretch. Then, when Harry Jacobs offered him a job at the firm he and Dave Martin had formed, he took it.

“When I showed up, I thought I’d be a copywriter,” he said. “But Harry showed me a piece of paper that said ‘Associate Creative Director.’”

“He told me: ‘Develop an eighteen-month plan.’”

The Martin Agency would never be the same.

Tomorrow: The Agency of the Future

For more on The Martin Agency, go to http://www.martinagency.com/

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