A few weeks back I read an essay by my old friend John Bailey, president of JB&A in Detroit. I worked with John from ’77-’81, as a copywriter, AAE and AE for the Franco firm, then Motown’s largest PR shop.
We were good friends, too, and I regret not doing more to maintain the connection with John over the years. Still, I like to brag that his first hire at JBA in 1995 was a new Kent State grad I sent his way.
Connecting to John’s essay in Strategist Online got me thinking about the critical role of mentors in our lives and careers. John was a mentor of mine, but more on that in sec.
When students seek advice about internships or entry-level positions, I tell them to shop not for a job, but for a mentor. Forget the paycheck. Forget the business niche or the kinds of accounts you’ll work on. Find a boss who who cares about your professional growth — someone who’s willing to teach you and maybe take you for beers once in a while.
Here are the mentors of my professional life:
Bill Whitney. An extraordinary writer and editor, I worked under Bill at an obscure trade publication called Tire Review back in the mid-70s. One day, during my first month on the job, Bill handed me a 3×5 sheet on which he’d typed 5 words. He left hastily and without comment. Puzzled, I passed the note to my officemate, who burst into laughter.
Turns out, all 5 of the words were misspellings I’d made in the story submitted that morning. (They looked OK to me!) It was hardly my first lesson in precise writing, but it’s one that stayed with me for 32 years.
In my two years with Bill, I wore out a dictionary and I learned the value, if not the skill, of compulsive proofreading. Bill was a fine writer and did more to influence my “voice” than anyone before or since. Outside the office, Bill taught me the value of a Bloody Mary breakfast after a long night of partying on the road. No one said a great mentor had to be a role model, and Bill never claimed to be one.
John Bailey. In my four years at the Franco firm, John was my primary mentor. I learned a good bit from other Franco vets like Gabe Werba, Joe Bennett, Gerry Lundy and Tony Franco himself. But John was my “main man” from the day he chose me to work on the firm’s largest account, the Stroh Brewery.
John is a talented professional to be sure, but it was his work ethic that made him so effective. He got to the office at 7 a.m. while the rest of us rolled in at 9. A file never gathered dust on John’s desk. He moved projects along quickly and was obsessive in his follow up. His clients loved him because he got results and never dropped a ball.
What I learned most from John was to stay on strategy and to be creative in the process. He kept in his desk a list called “1001 PR Ideas” (As I recall, he got it from a mail-order house for $3.), and after I’d drafted a plan, he’d insist I review that list to make sure I hadn’t “forgotten anything.” John stood by me when I screwed up, which I did often back in those days. A good mentor has your back.
Jerry Brown. Jerry was more of a colleague than a mentor, even though he was 10 years my senior. You learned from Jerry simply by being around him — you know, osmosis. I met him in ’76, and we stayed in touch on and off until his death in the late 90s.
Jerry was among the most creative and insightful professionals I’ve ever met. He was an impatient man who didn’t suffer fools well, and believe me when I tell you, he worked for a few. Jerry and I met briefly at Tire Review and were reunited some years later at a large ad/marketing shop where he was creative director. Jerry was about the only one in that shop who understood PR, so he included me in creative meetings and promoted me to the top brass. His support kept me from being fired more than once. Even back then I didn’t get along with the marketing types. Don’t tell me you’re surprised!
Zoe McCathrin. Zoe preceded me as head of the PR Sequence at Kent State. She liked me, and we had a common bond in our association with Tony Franco. I worked for Tony; Zoe served on the PRSA national board with him back in the 80s. In addition, we were both disciples of Pat Jackson, and that cemented the bond.
Zoe advised me through the transition from PR practice to PR classroom. She also showed me how to negotiate and at times ignore the trivial politics of academe. But most important, she cared deeply about her students and she knew that I did, too. “This isn’t a job for you,” she’d tell me. “It’s a calling.” I hope I’ve lived up her expectations.
Zoe had a loyal following among our alumni group and sometimes, when we all gather at Ray’s Place for a cool one, Zoe’s students raise a glass in her memory and eyes get misty. Zoe died in 2004 at 67, but not before she saw her alums help to endow a scholarship in her memory.
This should really be a meme — one that challenges other bloggers to share stories about their mentors. But since I’ve criticized those online chain letters in the past, I dare not start one today.
So I’ll simply say thank you to John Bailey. And to my departed mentors Bill, Jerry and Zoe, well, we’ll all be together soon enough, won’t we? Save me a seat at the bar.
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Special thanks to Ike Pigott for his post today titled “Timeless.” It inspired me to finish this one, which has been sitting in the queue for 3 weeks. Thanks, also, to Judy Gombita for reminding me of the importance of positive dialog.