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Martin Agency chair shares lessons and regrets from past 40 years

One regret: never having been laid off

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John Adams is a rock star to the VCU Brandcenter. He's the King Arthur to the school’s Camelot. He's the past, present and future of the Brandcenter, as Haik Petrosian, a second-year communications strategy student, noted at a recent Friday Forum, the school’s weekly speaker series that provides inspiration from creative minds.

Adams was the special guest speaker March 21 — a day made all the more special because the Brandcenter, the marketing communications and advertising graduate program that is part of the VCU School of Business, unveiled a plaque honoring Adams on its Wall of Inspiration in Mike Hughes Hall, named for Adams' former partner at The Martin Agency. Only two others share space on the Wall: Harry Jacobs, chairman emeritus of The Martin Agency, and Ed Ney, chairman emeritus of Young & Rubicam Advertising.

“John is … a master of details,” Jacobs said. “He’s very good on his feet, he knows what needs to happen.”

Adams was one of the founding forces of the VCU Adcenter, which opened in 1996 and was renamed the VCU Brandcenter in 2008. Last May, he became chairman of its board of directors. But Adams’ stretch in advertising goes back much further.

Adams is chair of the Martin Agency, inarguably one of the world’s best advertising agencies. In his work with Martin over the past 40 years, Adams has worked on accounts that would make Don Draper drool: Hallmark, Kraft, UPS and Geico, among others.

In his Friday Forum talk,The Advice I’d Give if I Were Inclined to Give Advice,” Adams attempted to share in 40 minutes the most valuable lessons he’s learned in those 40 years. His advice boiled down to seven points:

Hope. “We are in the business of hope,” Adams said. “Clients come to us to help solve great big complicated problems. They hope we can do things they can’t do themselves. They hope we can help make their business wildly successful. … Hope is the thing that makes everything possible. With hope, our clients get to be braver, more courageous, more likely to buy outrageous ideas, ambitious ideas.

Resilience. “You can’t do this business any other way but working hard and putting your heart and soul into it. I’m tempted to say don’t get overcommitted. You’ve got to get overcommitted. You’ve got to put everything you’ve got into it. But the learning from me is that once the decision is made — and you haven’t won, or the budget gets cut, or you haven’t sold the campaign, or whatever it might be — you’ve got to allow yourself to grieve – and I do mean grieve – and then you’ve got to cut it off and move on.”

Persuasion. “Pushing back is really a lousy response because it’s a weak response. Words are powerful. Pushing back is saying what we’ve got to do is dig in, push and prod. In 40 years I have never had success pushing back. When you dig in, the client digs in and pushes back. What does work is getting on the same side of the table and persuading. The art of persuasion is not a contest, it’s an art.”

Strength. “One of the very few regrets that I have about my career is that I was never laid off. … I have spent a lot of time talking to people who have not only survived but thrived in a situation like that. They know in their hearts that they are good and talented people. They push away self-doubt. They buy the ‘cliché’ that this isn’t an end, it’s a beginning. They embrace the emotions that come with this. They take advantage of the moment. … Strength is always there. It’s always there inside you.”

Addiction. “Advertising agencies should come with a warning label: may be addictive with potentially dangerous side effects in your life outside work. This is a business where there’s a lot of rush. There’s a rush of seeing your work go viral. Of being seen by millions of people on the Super Bowl. Or of winning Lions at Cannes. ... You’re not going to get any help from the advertising agency business with this. You’re going to have to help yourself. … But I learned through the years that [helping yourself is] not about giving less of yourself, it’s about giving your best self. Your best self comes about when you have a rich interior life that involves things other than advertising, and when it involves the people you care about the most. So you’re going to have to make that happen.”

Creativity. “Creative thinking is nonlinear thinking. That kind of thinking is a habit. Like all other habits it can be cultivated and it can be nurtured. ... Go to Google and type in ‘creative thinking’ and an entire world will open up to you. Everyone in this room has the ability, the capacity to double or triple your creative output, defined as quality and quantity of new ideas. If you could be twice or three times as creative, what might that do for your career? What might that do for your whole thinking?”

Transparency. “How do we feel about corporations? We see them as faceless, monolithic institutions. We don’t really trust them. We will occasionally see their leaders go to jail. … We’re not crazy about corporations and yet we transact with corporations to the tune of billions of dollars every day. … There is a growing inclination to transparency of corporations. Transparency tends to beget good conduct, better conduct.”

Adams’ speech was followed by the unveiling of his plaque, which reads, in part, “John served as chairman and chief executive officer for half of his 41-year tenure at The Martin Agency. During those years the agency transitioned from a strong regional shop to one of the top agencies in the industry and in 2010 was named Adweek’s U.S. Agency of the Year. In 2000, the Virginia General Assembly named John and his business partner of 35 years, Mike Hughes, Virginia’s Outstanding Industrialists of the Year.”

Yet, for all he’s already done for the Brandcenter — as well as the advertising industry as a whole — Adams still looks to do more in the future.

“Let’s recommit to the mission of this school,” he said. “It is the best of its kind in the world. And let’s commit to making it continue to be a beacon in the world of commerce, but frankly, more importantly, a beacon in the world of ideas.”

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John Adams, chairman and CEO of the Martin Agency, delivers his talk,
John Adams, chairman and CEO of the Martin Agency, delivers his talk, "The Advice I'd Give if I Were Inclined to Give Advice"
Haik Petrosian, a second-year student at the VCU Brandcenter, introduces John Adams
Haik Petrosian, a second-year student at the VCU Brandcenter, introduces John Adams
John Adams with the plaque honoring him on the VCU Brandcenter's Wall of Inspiration
John Adams with the plaque honoring him on the VCU Brandcenter's Wall of Inspiration
Ed Grier, dean of the VCU School of Business; John Adams, chairman and CEO of the Martin Agency; Helayne Spivak, director of the VCU Brandcenter; Harry Jacobs, chairman emeritus of the Martin Agency
Ed Grier, dean of the VCU School of Business; John Adams, chairman and CEO of the Martin Agency; Helayne Spivak, director of the VCU Brandcenter; Harry Jacobs, chairman emeritus of the Martin Agency