Remembering Mike Hughes, who sought ‘messy, unbalanced, unpredictable joy’
Mike Hughes often said he wanted to be known for two things: “outstanding strategic ideas and brilliant creative executions.”
Today, he’s being remembered for that and more.
Hughes, 65, died Sunday after a long battle with lung cancer. As president of The Martin Agency, he was a creative thinker who worked with major companies like Geico and Walmart and was known for being “a big teddy bear of a man.” He was also a friend of Images & Voices of Hope and delivered a speech about work/life balance at our 2009 summit.
“I work with an amazing group of people who know how to develop strategies and ideas,” Hughes said in his speech, which you can read here in its entirety. “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.”
Hughes had a gift for weaving joy into his life and the lives of others. It’s hard not to wonder what the media and advertising industry would look like if there were more people like Hughes in it — media makers who seek hope and opportunity in challenging times instead of focusing on what’s wrong with the world.
“You can’t just accept imperfections, dysfunctions, failures and frustrations,” Hughes said in a video on The Martin Agency’s website. “You have to work constantly, diligently, to right what’s wrong. And here’s the big question: Will you find joy in this frustrating, never-ending circumstance, or will you be one of the bitchers and moaners who are constantly unhappy? You will only find joy in the work itself. It can’t just come from success at the end of the day. It must come from the work, not just from reaching the peak, but also from making the long, hard climb. It can be hard and it can be frustrating. … Joy is what I seek in my life — messy, unbalanced, unpredictable joy. And in my life, and maybe in yours, joy comes from doing the work, throwing myself into it, making progress.”
Hughes, who had cancer since 1995 and had been in stage IV since 2005, tracked his progress and setbacks on his blog, “Unfinished Thinking.” He wrote regularly about his prognosis and condition and aimed to be “completely open” with readers.
In January, he wrote that he was given two weeks to live. Instead of lamenting the news, he focused on the life he wanted to live. He stopped worrying about daily lists of things he had to do and started looking forward to the things he wanted to do. “Tomorrow is going to be great,” he wrote at the time.
Hughes penned his own obituary, which was published on his blog Sunday. In it, he expressed gratitude for his family, colleagues, and others who showed their support.
In the months leading up to this moment, I was astonished at the outpouring of love and caring and respect from hundreds of people. There were handwritten notes, emails, blog posts, comments, letters, magazine articles, personal visits and phone calls. The tsunami of glorious thoughts sent my way has made it increasingly hard to justify my deep insecurity about my place in the world—an insecurity I’ve clung to all my life.
… 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.
Hughes once said that when he found the courage to talk about his cancer, he became a “story beginner.” Once others found out what he was going through, they became “storybuilders” — people who spread the word about a story and strengthen it. Hughes believed storybuilders can enrich journalists’ and advertisers’ work, as he explained in a talk for the Interactive Advertising Bureau a couple of years ago:
“We owe it to ourselves to get very good at this business of storybuilding,” Hughes said. “At its best, storybuilding is more powerful than storytelling because we all participate. It’s not about the wisdom of far-off crowds. It’s about the wisdom of all of us.”
Storybuilders have been spreading the word about Hughes’ legacy on a site called “We All Love Mike.” The site reads like a book of memories and tributes, with virtual pages you can flip through. It’s clear from reading the messages that Hughes was a man who touched thousands of lives — and whose story and impact will live on.