Go West, Middle-Aged Man

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Michael Mark has overcome a certain amount of adversity to get where he is today. The president/CD at San Diego's creative up-and-comer Matthews/Mark not only survived the collapse of Wells BDDP in 1998, he survived a brush with a penknife-wielding psychotic student early on in high school. "It was gym, we were out on the track in our little uniforms and he comes up to me and demands a dime," Mark recalls with exasperation. "I said, `A dime? I don't have a dime. My clothes are inside in the locker, I didn't bring any change out with me like I was gonna buy something. I don't even have pockets.' He actually sliced the back of my shirt and drew blood."Ah, the good old days of school slicings, before school shootings became de rigeur.

Anyway, Mark's got pockets now, and they're getting deeper. Since he arrived in San Diego three years ago to put his name on the shingle alongside that of chairman/CEO Jim Matthews, the agency has doubled its staff to about 75, and billings for last year were around $48 million, making it the largest independent shop in the area, he says. Mark, 43, a native New Yorker, went west with his wife and two kids when he turned 40, propelled by a midlife crisis, he semi-jokes. He was a CD in New York at Wells at the time, which was having an end-of-life crisis, but his departure a few months before the collapse was a coincidence. "I was an innocent. I was working on Heineken and Ford, things were going all right. But I knew there were opportunities out there, I was getting calls, and I figured my next move would probably be my last move, since I didn't want to drag my family around. So I decided to be an explorer for once. I wanted something radically different."

M/M has changed quite a bit too; before he arrived, "the work had a different point of view," Mark says diplomatically. The creative is comedy-driven now, led by some Gen X/Y-savvy golf clients: Callaway balls, Odyssey putters, and Lamkin grips. The recent utterly inspired Callaway "Hit it. Believe it." campaign, written by Mark and directed by Hungry Man's John O'Hagan, features zany but very earnest golfers addressing the camera to speculate about why Callaway balls are so special - it's because they're made with human DNA, they're allergic to sand, or they have microwings, among other bizarre theories. "We were taking such a leap here, it made me nervous," recalls Mark, who's become an avid golfer himself. "These guys just spent $170 million on their factory, and here we are telling everybody there's moondust in the ball. But it got a lot of attention. You go to a golf website, they're all talking about new ideas about what's in the ball. It's self-perpetuating."

So is M/M's increasing TV presence. The new Odyssey putter campaign features a sinister, possibly demented greenkeeper. Earlier Odyssey spots managed to parody pop music styles while scoring copy points - no mean feat for a golf commercial, even though the category may soon rival videogames for edgy humor. The agency is also off the beaten path with its Viejas Casino TV work, themed, "Sure, you can try, but you just can't match the excitement of the new Viejas Casino." It's based on the idea that "you can't guarantee winners," explains Mark. "What we want to illustrate is the thrill that you get from the casino." Hence a man sitting in his bathtub with hundreds of frantic goldfish as his wife feeds them, and a woman behind the wheel of a car as her playmate sets off the airbag with a croquet mallet to the grille. M/M is even taking a different tack in the muscle supplement category with a very funny Designer Protein spot in which a Mr. Olympia type has to strain like a madman to force down the typical protein drink. One ad in the Designer Protein print campaign simply features a shot of a babe and the line, "When was the last time a woman wanted to caress your big, strong sense of humor?" "All the other ads feature guys with constipated looks on their faces, bulging," says Mark. "Market share is up 25 percent." The recent outdoor campaign that put nutrition labels on garbage cans with a plea to support the San Diego Food Drive (see Creativity, The Work, February 2001), was nothing less than a piece of street genius

Not bad for a guy who never thought about being an adman until well after grad school. Mark gradually drifted into a career as a copywriter as he drifted out of a career as a young-adult novelist. He was a political science major at SUNY/Binghamton in the late '70s, thinking about going to law school, when he became a protege of the late novelist John Gardner, who taught there at the time. Mark went on to get an MFA in creative writing under Gardner's wing, and at the age of 26 he wrote the critically acclaimed Toba, a collection of stories about a young Jewish girl in 1910 Poland, loosely based on the life of his grandmother. This was followed by a well-received sequel, but along the way Mark got seriously sidetracked. "I was between books, living in Boston, and I just wanted to get out of the house," he recalls. "My wife suggested I try to get a job in advertising. So I read up on how to put a book together, went to Hill Holliday with some ads and just like that they offered me a job." One thing led to another and a few years later Mark was sent to New York when Hill Holliday opened an office there. In the meantime, his fiction was in a permanent stall. "I got an advance for my third book, I'd written most of it, but I stopped working on it the day before my first child was born and I haven't touched it in 11 years," he says with little regret.

While Mark is thrilled to be in balmy San Diego, by necessity he has his eye on expansion. Most national M/M clients are based in the greater San Diego area, and Mark admits it's a challenge to get clients that aren't. "We're getting calls now from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Our plan has been to get the shop into a place where we can deliver great work consistently, and now that I think we're ready, there's a good chance we'll open a San Francisco office."

What category would he like to get into? "It really doesn't matter," he claims. "We just want clients who will embrace our philosophy of change." Yes, M/M has a client-seducing strategy based on the idea that "Most businesses react to change. We create it," as the sales lit boasts. The agency even throws in a little Leo Burnett-type book of quotes on the subject, with pithy sayings like the oddly prophetic "Money is always there, but the pockets change," courtesy of Gertrude Stein. "We want to create change in the marketplace, and that takes some bold ideas," Mark says. "If you're into change, we want to work with you."

Just don't bring a penknife.

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