I told you he could write.
And I told you he was funny. Here’s how John Adams introduced me at a One Club event.
The Truth About Mike Hughes
Mike Hughes is not what he seems.
To the world, he is a rare and talented writer and an even more skilled creative director, an icon of advertising. I’ve known the man for thirty-two years now and I love him dearly, but as he prepares to receive this singular and noble honor, there are things that must be said.
Mike’s name isn’t Mike.
It’s James. James is a perfectly good name. Let’s start there.
Mike’s writing is awful.
My first impression of him came from his handwriting, which is like that of a five year old. Mike left The Martin Agency for a few years. I arrived about a week after he left and was handed a pile of his notes and God-awful scribbles for a brochure he had started that I was going to finish. As I looked over his notes, I remember thinking to myself, “What’s wrong with this guy? Why does he suddenly start writing sentences vertically? By the way, there are some interesting ideas here.”
Mike has a big head.
It’s physically imposing. His shoulders are immensely broad to provide adequate support for this head. He doesn’t stand, he looms. His mother, a charming and lovely woman, thinks he is handsome. She is unique in this respect. We’ll leave it at that. A year or so after I met Mike’s handwriting, I met him in person. He was the creative director of a competing agency and our two agencies were collaborating on a campaign for the United Way. We were on a shoot for a television commercial Mike had written. He was in charge and had recruited this beautiful young woman to appear as volunteer talent. As she stood there and he loomed, someone mentioned to me that they were very much in love and were, in fact, engaged. I remember thinking to myself, “What the hell does a woman like that see in this guy? How did he get to be a creative director at his age? By the way, it’s a damn good commercial.”
Mike has no talent.
What he has is more regularly referred to as genius. Not a word to be taken lightly. If it was Edison who identified the ingredients of the elixir we call by that name, it was Hughes who perfected the chemistry: 30 percent inspiration and 170 percent perspiration. The inspiration comes from an astounding diet of current events, literature, business news, film, music, commentary and soft drinks. While I’ve only rarely seen him literally perspire, his work hours are legendary.
Of course, what happens during those hours is what separates Mike from the drudges. He listens more intently than most people are willing to listen. He requires himself to be more inventive in solving problems than most people require themselves to be. He allows himself less comfort and complacency than most people allow themselves. And he periodically shows us all how it’s done by writing breathtaking copy. All this creates a phenomenon that physicists might call bending time. The longer his hours, the faster the world spins for the rest of us. It’s disconcerting, but exhilarating.
Mike intimidates people.
He talks about the kind of advertising he wants them to do. He tells them he wants them to change the world. He insists that they think bigger than they’re able to think. Then, as they sit there unnerved, he tells them what he finds remarkable about them and their work and how knocked out he is by their talent. He admires the things they can do that he can’t do. They leave scared and proud, off to find a wall to walk through for him.
Mike has no taste.
The other four senses are fine, but his taste buds appear not to function: the only explanation for his preternatural ability to swallow a large plate of food with such stunning speed. When you inquire about the meal, he says it was great. He can’t possibly know that.
Mike doesn’t get it.
He has no idea what impact he has on people. When people are with him, they laugh more, learn more, feel more hopeful. They want to be with him and they want to be like him. When he gets notes of admiration from people, he always seems a little surprised. When he’s asked to talk about the effect he has on people, it’s as though a fish has been asked to describe water.
Mike isn’t nice.
He’s called that a lot. “He’s such a nice man.” “Nice” is a pale, diminutive shorthand we often use to describe someone whose character we only glimpse in casual encounters. On the surface we see only courtesy, attentiveness, appreciation. Those things are nice. But when you get to know Mike well, you stop calling him a nice man. You call him a good man, a loyal man, a loving man. The kind of extraordinary man you will meet once or twice in your life.
I’ve known Mike Hughes for thirty-two years. “Nice” is the last word I’d ever use to describe him.
John Adams, chairman, The Martin Agency.