Inside Advertising's New Sober Industry Support Network

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Ian Mirmelstein, founder of SEAM
Ian Mirmelstein, founder of SEAM Credit: Courtesy of Ian Mirmelstein

In 2014, Ian Mirmelstein's life was a mess.

The now senior-VP of digital engagement at Adspace was in a crumbling marriage, and using drugs and alcohol to cope. An intervention got him into recovery and now, three years sober, Mirmelstein is looking to do the same for other industry professionals (this is, after all, one of the soggiest professions).

Earlier this year Mirmelstein launched SEAM, Sober Executives in Advertising, Media & Marketing, a community for industry professionals who choose not to drink or do drugs -- and are looking for like-minded individuals with whom they can connect.

Ad Age talked to Mirmelstein about his past journey and his new path to help others. This interview has been lightly edited for flow and readability.

Take me to where this started.
I was coming out of the end of my marriage and I was drinking and using drugs pretty heavily. I fortunately had some people in my life who saw where I was going and had some background in recovery and I found my way into recovery. Being newly sober in our industry is not easy.

Why's that?
There's just a lot of alcohol present in almost everything we do in our industry. It's kind of everywhere. Instead of putting myself at risk, I just stopped going to happy hours and conferences and company events because I didn't feel safe being around all that alcohol. My career suffered for it.

In what ways?
Our business is about relationships and connections and being out and about and, unfortunately, for people trying to do that and not drink, especially who are challenged by that, it's tough place to be. It's tough to be newly sober and out at an industry happy hour or conference, but it's important because that's where a lot of our work gets done. The social aspect of our business is huge. Our business is competitive, so I felt like I was falling behind.

And that's where the idea for SEAM kicked in.
In August of this year, I hope to have three years of sobriety. I was thinking to myself, "I really wish when I was newly sober that there were other people out there who were sober who could help and who I could connect with, so that if I was going to an industry event, I would know someone there who wasn't drinking too." I started to think about how something like that could be created and made the decision to come out of the closet about my life and my story.

How'd you spread the word?
I did it on LinkedIn earlier this year in a post where I told my story and announced that I was starting this organization with the hopes of connecting people for support. Also, the bigger game is to unpack and dissolve the stigma around addiction. There still is a fear. People are afraid to say I'm sober because they're afraid they'll be judged or seen as weak. There's a whole litany of reasons why people don't. I kind of liken this to what it must have been like to be gay 10 years ago.

How so?
People were afraid to come out of the closet because they were going be judged or negatively impacted at work and they were ashamed of who they were. Fast-forward, and the law of the land is marriage equality and there's a pride that's inherent in people being who they are and I see an opportunity for that to happen in the world of recovery.

Do you think alcohol abuse in advertising is an unspoken topic?
I personally don't have an opinion, good or bad. It's just a reality. Alcohol is a reality. It's not just in our industry; it's everywhere. Our industry has a reputation because of shows like "Mad Men" and I've personally experienced -- and I think everyone in our industry has -- that there's a party and letting loose kind of reputation in the industry. I think that's great and that's okay and I'm not here to judge that or make that wrong at all. But I also believe that it's possible for people to be wildly successful executives in our business and not drink, and that's what I want to be a stand for.

What's the response to SEAM been like so far?
It's been unbelievable. The response from people in the industry that I know and don't know has been amazing. So much love and support has come. My LinkedIn post was read almost 70,000 times, which is incredible and the private messages I've gotten from people who are sober or not are so encouraging.

How about people joining?
The group is now hovering around 50 people and that's just simply from a couple of LinkedIn posts and people's networks. I feel like there are so many people out there that if they knew we were in existence would be interested in connecting with us.

You live in New York. Do you want to expand to other cities?
It's national. We have people in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland. It's a global conversation.

How do you stay in touch?
We're connecting thorough social media and phone calls right now, but I foresee us getting together in person. I could see us connecting at Cannes, CES or SXSW. That is absolutely going to happen because those are the types of event where we need each other.

Did you go to rehab three years ago?
I did not go to rehab, but I did start to do some recovery work. I did a 12-step program.

Is SEAM going to focus on recovery work?
SEAM is not Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. It's not a recovery organization in the sense of providing people with the tools they need to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction. We certainly are not a substitute for getting real help. It's a group of like-minded individuals in the industry who can connect for support

What's the next chapter?
I'm about to launch a project called "I'll Be There." It's very simple. It's a way to connect newly sober people in our industry with other people who have some long-term sobriety. So think of an Advertising Week happy hour and you need someone to be there, so the "I'll Be There" initiative is going to create a network of people who have at least one year of sobriety who are willing to meet someone at an industry event or conference and be there to support that newly sober person so they can get through it without using drugs and alcohol.

So, it's a buddy system.
That's a big part of staying sober in an industry like ours. If I'm going to that happy hour and I can connect with someone there who is also not drinking, that person is kind of my wingman and I know I can be around alcohol and not have to drink to have a good time and socialize and talk business and make connections. That's the hope of SEAM – to build a community that can allow people to do that, especially those just starting this journey.

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