Martin Agency President Mike Hughes Passes Away

Richmond Agency's Longtime Creative Leader Ends Battle With Lung Cancer

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Mike Hughes
Mike Hughes

Mike Hughes, the longtime creative leader and president of The Martin Agency, passed away today after his longtime fight with lung cancer. He was 65.

Mr. Hughes joined the agency in 1978 and served as its creative director for 30 years, adding president to his title in 1995. In that time, he helped shape the agency into a national player, turning out work that became famous not just in advertising, but in pop culture. Among those were campaigns for Geico --including those starring the Cavemen and the Gecko, and other notable work for, the JFK Museum and Library and Oreo.

"We are incredibly broken-hearted at his passing," said Martin Agency Chief Creative Officer Joe Alexander. "We are a family. And we've just lost our dad."

Below is a tribute to Mr. Hughes provided by the agency.

At the beginning of this year, Mr. Hughes stepped away from his agency duties -- his doctors had given him two weeks to live. But he "rejected that prognosis in favor of his own timetable," said The Martin Agency Chairman John Adams in a statement. Indeed, Mr. Hughes remained full of life and vigor till the end, over the last 12 months posting his thoughts about life, death and everything else on not just one, but two blogs, Unfinished Thinking and Unfinished Thinking II. On the former, Mr. Hughes even made his final post --posthumuously, in an autobiographical obituary.

Over the last year, although Mr. Hughes was in hospice, agency staffers said that he remained committed to the job, stopping by or meeting with the team at his apartment behind the office and lobbying for awards and accolades for the shop.

Galvanized by the news
"Mike was my friend and business partner for 35 years," added Mr. Adams. "Mike helped build the creative reputation of The Martin Agency and we will miss him terribly. And while Mike would understand our grieving, he would be impatient with it, preferring that we celebrate life instead, rather than mourn death."

Indeed, when Mr. Hughes' first learned he had cancer in 1995, the news galvanized him into making The Martin Agency better than ever. In a 2001 interview with Creativity, Mr. Hughes said, "The day I was diagnosed, USA Today had one of those little charts about the odds of survival for people with lung cancer -- and it said 87% of the people diagnosed with it were dead within five years. I'm reading that and thinking, 'Well, I guess this is one of those times in your life where you figure out what you want to do.' I'm not rich, but I could have retired -- I love to travel, my wife and I have a great marriage, and we could have done that. But I surprised myself, because I decided I wanted to really see what I could do with our company, see if we could go up a level or two."

Cultural conversation
Since then, The Martin Agency's work has continued to become part of the cultural conversation, with campaigns for brands like Geico and Oreo, but it's also helped to change the face of advertising and inspire important discussion, as evidenced by its work like the Emmy-winning campaign for the JFK Library and Museum, "Clouds Over Cuba."

Outside of the agency, Mr. Hughes was a prominent supporter of the advertising business and industry talent. He was a former director of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, served on the board of The One Club for Art & Copy, was a judge at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity and was the founding board chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University's Brand Center. He has also been honored in the One Club's Creative Hall of Fame and the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.

Mr. Hughes was a lifelong non-smoker. On his Unfinished Thinking blog, he posted a revealing, moving letter to the son of a good friend, in an effort to convince him to quit smoking.

Former journalist
"My dad started smoking in the pre-World War II days when all the young guys were doing it," he wrote. "Three packs a day. As much as he loved the taste of the Camels and Kents he smoked, he came to hate the habit. It made him quit the sport he loved (tennis) and it undoubtedly hastened his death in the mid '80s. He tried to quit many times. But a three-pack-a-day habit developed over many years doesn't go away easily. He didn't live to know that the second-hand smoke he left in his wake was almost certainly a big reason his only son -- a lifelong nonsmoker -- developed lung cancer."

A native of Washington, D.C., Mr. Hughes started out as a journalist, working as a reporter for Richmond newspapers in high school, college and thereafter before moving into advertising.

He is survived by Ginny, his wife of 38 years. The couple have two sons, Jason and Preston, the latter of which is deceased.

The Martin Agency will be holding a private ceremony in honor of Mr. Hughes on the afternoon of Dec. 17 and is finalizing plans for a public memorial service.

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