Mike Hughes, who died of cancer last year at the age of 65, was inducted posthumously into the Advertising Hall of Fame this spring. He had been president of the Martin Agency for almost 20 years.
John Adams, chairman of Martin, and Joe Alexander, chief creative officer, accepted the award on behalf of Mike. I talked with them about Mike and about Martin's creative philosophy as part of a video series with Hall of Fame inductees.
I didn't want a sorrowful interview, so I started by asking what brings a smile to their faces when they think of Mike?
John went first. "He thought his own sort of goofiness and clumsiness was hilarious, and he used to make fun of that all the time. And when he laughed about it, all the rest of us laughed about it. He was a big guy and he kind of moved through a room, and coffee cups and everything else could go flying. But he just had a very rich sense of humor about a lot of things. He could just cut the tension in a room so easily with a funny comment."
Joe agreed, adding; "He came across as kind of a bumbling, aw shucks kind of guy, but, man, if you said something and he saw an opening, he jumped in there."
Mike Hughes' fun-loving nature translated into the work with his clients, especially Geico.
I wanted to know how the agency continues to refresh the Geico campaigns.
"The first secret to any good work is a fantastic, courageous client that says 'approved.' It's the most underrated link in the chain in our business," Joe told me. "It doesn't get enough appreciation. So we have a great client who is very willing to try stuff and get it out there and see if it takes. … So we put a lot of lines in the water and just see what happens, what catches the fish."
It doesn't do any harm that Geico is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. I read that Mr. Buffett has said he never minds writing a check for Geico advertising. And why not? The Geico "Hump Day" commercial has gotten over 23 million hits, and when the spot runs on a high-visibility TV show the insurer increases the staffing in its call centers 20 minutes before the ad airs.
Martin sets out to tap into popular culture. "It's a very difficult thing to do because it's like lightning in a bottle… I think we shoot for it because once you've had some success it becomes a goal," John explained.
But in many ways building buzz is out of the agency's hands. "The successful brands are part of the conversation, but you are just a participant. If you think you're going to control the conversation at this point, you've missed a few beats. So what we're trying to do is basically feed that conversation and let the audience take over," Joe said.
Mike had a big hand in making Martin a good place to work.
When Joe first met Mike, "it was just so refreshing to have a person just talk to you about life. I don't even know if we talked about my [portfolio] at that point, but we were just chatting. It's a tough business, and when you find people who have the same values as you, that's who you like and that's who you're attracted to. And Mike valued family. He worked his ass off, but he really wanted to know what was going on in your life, and we try to keep that going as much as we can."
Mike didn't get enough credit for his creative philosophy, Joe said. "The first thing about Mike Hughes you always hear is what a nice guy, the nicest guy in advertising. But I think the guy had the ability to drive a group of people without being the bully. He actually ruled with a kind of vulnerability, this really enduring vulnerability which I thought was awesome. And he could sit in the room with you and understand what you were going through, and you kind of rooted for each other and I think that was his strength."
"Mike was a copywriter's guy, and really good at the words and really good at the stories and the characters," Joe added. "Mike was a great headline writer and could craft incredible copy. From a creative philosophy, he was driven by messaging and words and emotional connection."
And even with an emotional connection, Mike always wanted the advertising to make sense, John said. "And I think there was a simplicity that came along with that that really drew you into his writing. He was a writer's writer."
Added Joe: "Mike was always pushing to get beyond the commercial and find some other things we can do for the brand to increase the conversation. … Mike never gave up on anything. He was just one of those guys. If he got it and he was fired up, it got done."
Mike, said John, was "just immensely persistent."