Lunch With Mike Hughes

The Martin Agency Creative Leader Takes Stock, Redoubles His Efforts

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"Advertising is a hurdles track. I love that."

When Mike Hughes was diagnosed with cancer, he took stock of his life - and decided to redouble his efforts to build a culture-changing agency.

Like many agencies, The Martin Agency has had its share of recent setbacks of late - including the loss last month of the Timberland account. But the agency's longtime creative director, Mike Hughes, still has his eye on the prize - which, from his perspective, is nothing less than the creation of work that somehow shifts the culture we live in. On a recent workday, Hughes discussed grand ambitions, dot-com fallout, life-threatening illness, and other challenges, while munching on a bowl of granola at Manhattan's Royalton Hotel.

Berger: How is the advertising drought treating you?

Hughes: The beginning of this year sucked. We thought we were so careful in going after these dot-coms. Most of the ones we work with are still surviving, but none of their marketing budgets are. Two years ago, we looked at our client roster and said, "This would be a good time to part with some of the clients we're not quite right for - because we have all these new opportunities." We ended some of those relationships for the new ones, and the new ones aren't around anymore. So the year started tough. But things have gotten better lately.

Berger: Will it be like the '70s, when the recession supposedly dealt a death blow to the Creative Revolution?

Hughes: Even back then, things got bad and then along came Ed McCabe and others, and they figured out how to do some terrific things. We may see less of some of the weirder flights the industry has been on in recent years. But I think that stuff was all good for the industry, to experiment and try new things. I get frustrated with people who put down the work - I think we should all applaud because somebody tried something new. It eventually got bad with the dot-coms because a lot of not very talented practitioners started trying to do what more talented people, like Dan Wieden and Cliff Freeman, had done. It's the same as in the art world - if you look around and see all the Picasso or Warhol wannabes, what they do is never as good as the original.

Berger: Wieden, Freeman, Goodby, Fallon, and The Martin Agency - these are all agencies that came out of the '80s. Where is the next generation of great creative agencies? Is it still possible for somebody to do what The Martin Agency and Fallon did - start out winning local awards with very offbeat campaigns, then become a powerful national presence?

Hughes: I don't see it right now. Having Goodby and Wieden and McElligott all come along in the early '80s - maybe that was something in the gene pool, and there just hasn't been a group of people like that since then. Another factor is that the big and mid-sized agencies are doing better work now, so there's less of a need for great people to open their own agency. And the third thing is, I think there was a backlash against some of the kinds of things that agencies like Fallon and our agency got attention for. So it's harder now for a startup to do the local tattoo parlor or barber shop campaign, and have a big impact at awards shows. The judges have decided they're not going to allow that to happen as much, and that's too bad. Because some of those little accounts were training grounds. Tom McElligott might have written things for Elmer's Minnows and you think, "Well, big deal, look at the account." But it helped him write fabulous things later, for bigger brands like Lee jeans or Mr. Coffee.

Berger: Speaking of McElligott, a few years ago you brought him back for a short stint at The Martin Agency. What was that like?

Hughes: After he dropped out of the business and went off to Hawaii, I wrote him a note. Then I heard he was interested in doing some project work. He came out and we put him in this tiny, windowless office. He didn't want to deal with clients, he just wanted to write. While he was there, all of the agency's young writers and art directors would go by his office - it became a little altar. He only stayed seven or eight months. It proved to be impossible to keep him from the client, so he started meeting with the client - and all of a sudden he remembered why he didn't want to be in the business. That part of the process was just frustrating to him.

Berger: And you? Do you ever get worn down by the clients, the meetings, the way that people in this business sometimes pull the rug out from under you?

Hughes: I figured out that in this business, the kind of race we run isn't on a flat track - it's a hurdles track. A lot of people see those hurdles and they get disgusted and think, "Gee, I could run so much faster if not for this or that." But that's not the race we're in. I tend to look at those hurdles and think it makes the game more three-dimensional and more interesting. For me, my interest has grown and evolved over the years, and gone through different phases. I've always been in love with the creative part - that's what first got me into advertising. And then I became, to my surprise, interested in the business side of it. And then later, I got more deeply interested in what motivates us as human beings to do things. I went through a stage where that was pretty crass, as in "How do you manipulate people to buy a product?" But I shuddered when I thought about it that way. What I want to do is help people find the stuff that is right for them, and maybe even to enjoy it more. For example, everybody out there who drives a Beetle enjoys it more because of what DDB and Arnold have done over the years - they feel the car they drive is a little cooler, a little more fun. They enjoy it more because of the advertising.

Berger: Do you still find time to write?

Hughes: I'm horribly embarrassed because I think a creative director should stay very involved in writing and creating ads, and I always intend to, but I don't do that as much anymore. And the fact is, I probably couldn't do it as well anyway. When I was a full-time writer, I'd go home at night and think about that ad, or the headline. Now I think about client issues or personnel issues. So that means I wouldn't be as good. I might know a lot of professional shortcuts, but the raw energy and the amount of time spent thinking about the ad wouldn't be there. For me, the mission changed from making great ads to making a great agency, and we have so much to do there. That became clear to me a few years ago, when I went through some pretty serious health issues - lung cancer. 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 percent 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.

Berger: What kind of level?

Hughes: Every once in a while there are companies in this business that have some effect on popular culture in a positive way. If you look at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the '60s, one of the things they accomplished was they conditioned us to demand and expect of corporations' basic human values - to be more honest and responsible. The formality of the relationship between corporations and consumers was torn down, and that was a very positive thing. And then you look at what Wieden did - in convincing even big fat guys like me that there's some kind of athlete inside you, a certain relentlessness that can be used to positive effect. I think that's a pretty good thing for society.

Berger: But did either of those agencies set out to do that?

Hughes: I think it happened by accident. But if you're thoughtful in what you do, those are the kinds of accidents that will happen. You can't set out and say, "We're going to change the way the world thinks about something." That's fruitless. But if you set a standard and do your job well, you have the chance of making that kind of impact on society. I'm disappointed with the work I've done so far in my career, but I keep thinking, next time I'm going to do something really cool.

Berger: Why should you be disappointed - the agency's body of work is strong through the years, isn't it?

Hughes: Yes, I've felt that, but I also think we haven't reached that level where we've lifted the whole industry. So my ambitions are very big about that.

Berger: In terms of health, are you fully recovered?

Hughes: I'm doing great. The first three years are the most scary. I went through chemotherapy for five months. I kept coming to the office, but set up a little couch where I could take naps at work - because I never knew when I'd be worn out. Now I'm not in chemotherapy anymore, and everything looks good. I'm back to working six or seven days, 70 hours a week. But I have to confess I do miss my little bed at the office.

Berger: As you try to take The Martin Agency to the next level, do you think that will involve crossing over into the entertainment area? Everyone right now seems to be talking about blurring together ads and "content."

Hughes: I think it will blur more in theory than in fact. The actual number of people who are great at advertising plus entertainment - I think Dan Wieden can find them better than anybody, but there are probably only a handful in the world. And so while we all like the idea that we might be able to come up with a TV show for our client - and you watch TV and think, "Hey, I can do that" - the truth is, we probably can't do that. It's like all those people who go into MoMA and say "I can do a painting like that." OK, go get the canvas and let's see you do it. On the other hand, I think companies are going to have to build relationships with consumers in ways that haven't been imagined - because of TiVo and other changes. Right now, I'm addicted to TiVo. And I skip the commercials, unless I see one that looks real interesting while I'm zipping.

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