Tom McElligott, one of my early heroes.

(This is an article I wrote for Communication Arts in, I think, 2002.)

When I first got into this business back in 1978, I had heroes.

In fact, I had a list of heroes. Their names were all written in the indexes of the 1977 and ’78 One Show annuals. I saw these people as gods. I studied every one of their ads. I memorized their copy. And I dreamed that one day I’d see my name on the list next to theirs.

Having heroes is good. Having them the way I did, wasn’t.

Having heroes the way I did probably kept me from doing better work in my early years. Because when you deify these ordinary people the way I did, you preclude the possibility of ever doing anything as well as they do. They’re gods — you’re just a guy. In an apartment.

With pimples.

There’s no way, I thought, I’ll ever be that good. So the idea of ever doing it as well as they remained only a wild hope, something years in the future perhaps, but certainly beyond the horizon.

My sycophancy also made me do stupid things.

Try this on.

In 1983, I was in New York City interviewing at some big agencies, one of which was the famous shop, Scali McCabe Sloves. After my interview with the great art director Lars Anderson (remember the Maxell ad with the guy being blown back into his seat?), I was boarding the elevator back down to Third Avenue when who should also get on but Sam Scali himself – one of my heroes.

This was only my second trip to New York and so, like a nerd, I had a Polaroid camera. I mean, I had one right there with me.

Without thinking, I said: “Mind if I take our picture, Mr. Scali?”

Holding the camera backwards at arm’s length, I blinded both myself and the famous art director with a cheap flash bulb. As the dazed and, I’m sure, irritated man disappeared into the New York crowd, I figured I had scored The Big One. (“Yes, that’s it! I’ll use this picture in a cool follow-up letter to Mr. Scali!”) A very bad idea I’m sorry to say I immediately followed up on.

I must have had some sense of how much I’d invaded his personal space because a line from the follow-up letter I mailed went something like: “Even if I don’t get the job now, should I do well in the shows this year, I hope you’ll at least remember me as ‘that idiot in The One Show’ and not just as ‘that idiot in the elevator’.” Even now, I shudder to remember this and send my belated apologies to Mr. Scali.

Such goggle-eyed admiration also blinded me to the faults of my heroes. I learned some bad habits from one or two of them, habits I had to break later. Because no matter how cool your hero’s ads are, no matter how many One Show medals are on your hero’s shelf, he or she’s still just a knucklehead who flosses and twangs stuff on the mirror same as you and me, Jack.

This fact came fully home to me one year when I judged The One Show on a beautiful island in the Caribbean. One of my all-time heroes was also invited to be a judge. I was hoping that, as a judge myself, I might be able to saddle up to him, trade jokes, break bread, do something, anything with The Man.

But an hour into the weekend I realized how little I wanted to be around him. Narcissism poured off my icon like cool air onto your feet in front of an open meat locker.

On the last night when all the judges went out to dinner, I finally laid to rest my idolization. There he was across the restaurant, spit-fire drunk and badgering the local stray dog; yelling at the frightened animal, poking at it and trying to get the rest of us to join him. My hero was a drunk and a schmuck to boot.

There was this other guy I knew once. Killer writer. If you saw him in the award books, you’d go, “Whoa, this guy’s great.” But if you saw him in the agency hallways, you went the other way. Because he was an insufferable, arrogant bore. Everybody in the agency hated him and although we tried to be philosophical about his character, the best we ever came up with was: “Well, if you cut him open, you’d find a heart of gold. And if you didn’t, … hey, you’ve cut him open.”

I still have heroes. But I admire them now with my former adoration in reins and a modest amount of esteem for my own abilities. Unclouded by envy, I now try to look only at their work and to learn from it.

My heroes change weekly now. This week, it’s a young writer at Fallon, Tom Rosen, who just did this great ad for BMW. The ad’s on my wall right now; it’s the thing to beat. It inspires me.

That’s what heroes are good for: to inspire, to teach.

Take them where you find them. They’re all over the place. Your career will present you with many heroes to learn from and it will pay to learn how to spot them.

But do your heroes always have to be based on how well they write or art direct? How about how they treat people?

Tom McElligott, my first hero, helped me break into the business. Here he was, the hottest copywriter in all of America, and he took the time to look through my pathetic book, past my bad haircut, and see me as the unformed but passable lump of clay I was. I have been returning the favor ever since, to young people who sit now in my office, over-explaining their books.

Another one of my heroes is my old boss, Mike Hughes, Creative Director and President of The Martin Agency. (I suppose Mike would prefer to be my hero by dint of his writing prowess.) Well, he is a great writer but he’s on my list today for being a kind and gentle person in a tough, cynical business. I still remember my first interview with him back in 1980-something. He lovingly took a picture of his youngest son out of his wallet and said, “Children are a constant reminder that there’s a life outside of advertising.” I have remembered that advice to this day.

Don Just, now a professor at VCU’s Brandcenter (also in Richmond) was the first account guy I ever saw stand up and cheer upon being shown a great creative solution. You cannot imagine the power that kind of reaction has on the creative soul. I would have walked over coals to solve Don’s problems. I hope my own staff would do the same for me today.

The last hero (on today’s list anyway) is my old friend and colleague, Bob Barrie; possibly the world’s greatest art director, certainly the world’s most-decorated one. From Bob I learned many things. One of which was how not to suck. But more important, Bob taught me about the lasting power of resiliency. A client could keep killing his ideas and Bob would always come back with more. He’s a sort of Halloween, Michael-Meyers of Concepts. There is no stopping him. And he never whined. In all the time I worked with him, Bob never whined. Ever.

The fact that Bob was winning One Show pencils in 1982 and is still winning them today seems testimony to the lasting power of resiliency. (It also helps not to suck.)

So, yes, have heroes. Aspire. Want to be better than you are.

But temper your discontent.

Remember, there was a time when even your heroes were quite awful and stayed very late at the agency laying out ads that truthfully and sincerely blew. Remember, even your heroes still have their bad days and don’t always get to great work on the first 40 tries. Remember, heroes can be idolized for many talents; not just for writing and art directing.