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ivoh | January 17, 2018

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Mike Hughes at ivoh summit: ‘I find joy in making progress’

The advertising industry has lost a giant in the death this week of Mike Hughes, president of The Martin Agency. In 2009 we asked Mike to speak at our annual Media Summit and to share the commencement speech he gave to the graduates of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brand Center graduates. It was as inspiring to the room full of journalist, advertising creatives and artists as it must have been to the talented graduates of VCU when he gave them each a green beret. In his memory, we are posting his speech here:

Mike Hughes

Mike Hughes

I’m always honored when someone asks me to talk about advertising because it makes me think I’ve fooled somebody into thinking I know something about it. But last night Judy reminded me of a graduation speech I gave a few years ago that wasn’t particularly about advertising. And I thought about it last night and I decided I’m not going to show you my slides and my videos, I’m going to talk a little bit about what I talked about at that graduation.

I’m sure one of the reasons I haven’t been asked since then to give any graduation speeches is because of the topic I chose – I talked about me and my experience with lung cancer. You can make for the exits if you want. I’m one of the extremely rare people who have survived with lung cancer for a long time – almost 14 years in my case. Within five years of their diagnosis 99.999% of lung cancer patients are either dead or cured – I’m neither. Depending on how you look at it I’m either very lucky or very unlucky. I’ve had major surgery, major radiation – and I’m now on a vacation from my fourth round of chemotherapy. I’ve been at stage 4 lung cancer since 2005.

What I wonder is, can my experience help me answer a question we all ask ourselves. It’s a question we usually don’t answer very well. The question is this: How do I balance my work life and my personal life? Yikes. I confess that everyone I know who has made a difference in any industry has given a big chunk of his/her life to that industry. I think it could be argued that the huge majority of successful people have all failed at this balance thing. Well, when I got my diagnosis of lung cancer and was told there was an 85% chance that I would be dead within 5 years, I needed to make some choices with both personal and business things. My wife and I aren’t wealthy, but I could have retired. But I surprised myself, I decided that I wanted to spend major time doing major things with my family. But I also wanted to go back to work. We have a wonderfully successful company; you probably know us for those obnoxious Geico commercials, and the wipeboard guy for UPS and Walmart’s “Save Money, Live Better.” But we’ve never gotten the company to the level I wanted us to reach. I wanted to go back to work and see if I could help us get there.

And I’ve never had a better time in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some new-age guy who’s just learning how to smell the roses. And I’m not in denial. I know my condition, I know my prognosis. And so I’m just doing the things I want to do – with my wonderful, beautiful wife, with my fabulous son and daughter-in-law, and now with my beautiful and wonderfully goofy granddaughter and with the people who work at the same company I do. I still work a stupid number of hours – way more than 40 or 50 a week. But I have this gift that makes it all worthwhile: I do work I love with people I love. I think that’s a gift.

But here’s what I want to ask you to help me with today – is that really a gift, or is it something you can develop? Because it’s what we all want – work we love with people we love. All of us work for organizations that are like all organizations – imperfect. We see the dysfunctions up close. We suffer from the organizations failures. We live its frustrations. Of course we can’t just accept those imperfections, those dysfunctions, those failures, those frustrations. We have to work constantly, diligently to right what’s wrong. We have successes and we have failures. This work will never end.

And here’s the big question: will we find joy in this frustrating, never-ending circumstances, or will we be among the bitchers and moaners who are constantly unhappy? We will find joy if we learn to find joy in the work itself. The joy can’t just come from the success at the end of the day, it must come from the work itself. Not just from reaching the peak, but from making the long, hard climb. For me it’s very simple – I find joy in making progress. I’m miserable when I’m standing still or moving backwards. And the only way I know how to make progress is to throw myself into the work. In my case the work may be moving my advertising agency to another level. It might be developing a campaign for a client. It might be developing a better strategy or better headline. Better yet it might be developing a better strategist or a better copywriter. Those jobs are for me hard and frustrating. There are reminders every day of the frailty of other human beings and the abundance of my own personal weaknesses. I don’t think I have a natural talent for these things, I have to work at them. But in that work I find joy.

So let’s return to the original question: how do I balance my personal life and my work life? Now for me it’s easy to see. The question is wrong, it’s immaterial – it reduces a big question to a silly scale – how many hours for this, how many hours for that. Because balance isn’t what we seek. Joy is what we seek. Messy, unbalanced, unpredictable joy. And in my life and maybe in yours, joy comes from doing the work, making progress. The opportunity to do that hard work is given to me every day. I just have to show up and the problems and the challenges are all stacked up on my desk. And they’re all urgent and I have to dive through them. Now for the big irony – I go home at the end of the day and I don’t have that kind of work laid out for me. My wonderful, beautiful wife has taken care of just about everything. And I have the opportunity to delay the things I want to do in my personal life – that’s the mistake.

Delaying the things you want to do in your personal life, setting it aside so you can devote your self, your time, your energy solely to your work. This is also very hard for me. For me work is fun and fun is work. Make sure you build that joy into your personal life. Make it as compelling as your work. In Viva Las Vegas that great educator Elvis Presley wishes there were more than 24 hours in a day. That’s how we embrace life. How I wish that there were more than 24 hours in a day. I work with an amazing group of people who know how to develop strategies and ideas. The ticket for us is to use those talents and skills not just for advertising, but for our lives. We have to figure out how to love those big parts of our lives, and the people who live in those big parts with us. Love. Joy. When you’ve had cancer as long as I have, you’re not afraid to use the big words.

I want to do a little experiment with you. The students I spoke with about my cancer back in ’06 were the new graduates of an amazing graduate school of advertising, the VCU Brand Center. Now I’d like to imagine that all of us here at Peace Village are members of that graduating class or their families. Ok, you with me? You graduates are surrounded today by people who love you. All of us wish for you a life full of work you love and people you love. You’ve all been trained to develop ideas; I never got to go to a school like this. So I’ve learned instead to steal ideas.

My partner John Adams spoke at the first Brand Center graduation 8 years ago. Alot of what I’m about to say I’ve stolen from John. Here’s a paraphrase of what he said. The Brand Center is not like other schools. As a result of that you are stronger, more focused, better prepared, tougher than the graduates of most advertising schools. You’re an elite group. Consider this a school for advertising special forces. Consider yourselves the Green Berets. Now think what that means in the world. You can argue that the greatest institution with the greatest influence on our culture today is not the federal government, it’s not the church but the corporation. And while that may be debatable, what is not debatable is that the 300 billion dollars that is spent to project the voice of the corporation every year makes it a very powerful voice. And it must be a better voice.

So I’m going to ask you, the Green Berets, to save advertising from banality, self-absorption and uselessness. Save it also from mere usefulness. Instill it instead with power. Save it from mere cleverness; instill it with deep intelligence. Save it from mere call to action; instill it with a call to lift ourselves up. This is a job for the Green Berets. And by the way, you’re outnumbered. There are legions of people that don’t share our views. For them the art of persuasion is just another science. It’s fad and fashion masquerading as ideas. For them it is impossible to underestimate the intelligence of the consumer. For them it’s just not worth that much trouble. For them, Advertising is spelled with a lowercase “a” and is practiced with lowercase talent. They are legions. But you are trained for this, you’re a Green Beret.

There’s an interesting fact about the Green Berets – each of them, like each of you, is trained in a specialty. And all of them are trained in the same, second specialty – they’re all trained as medics. They’re all trained to take care of each other. I hope you’ll find ways to take care of each other in the years ahead. To stay in touch and support each other. To remind each other of your goodness and your amazing capacity. The capacity and talent that is inside you.

The director of this school has been kind enough to indulge me in something I’d like to do. As you receive your diploma today, I would be honored if you would accept from me a green beret as a token and as a symbol. I don’t suggest you wear this on your first day of work, you don’t need the Monica Lewinsky jokes. Just keep it on a shelf or in a drawer as a reminder of who you are and how much we all believe in you. Remember, you are good people. You deserve the good things that will happen to you. And you have what you need to overcome the bad things that will happen to you.

One last thing. I’m a life-long non-smoker. I have lung cancer. I can’t waste an opportunity to ask you one personal favor from me. If you do smoke, try one more time to quit, for me. Congratulations, we love you and thank you.