It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was not supposed to find an imposter instead of my stepfather.
For better or worse, my stepdad has always been a larger-than-life character. And people like that are not supposed to have their voices taken away from them. Or their ability to eat. Or the simple pleasure of taking their dog out for a walk. They are not supposed to be confined to a bed, connected to various tubes, IVs and oxygen tanks.
When I arrived at my parents’ house and first saw him, I thought:
This CANNOT be the same guy I’ve known for 39 of my 43 years. The same guy who has always been the biggest presence in any room. The guy who alternately inspired, challenged, and occasionally intimidated me. The guy who influenced my life more than I ever had the guts to tell him.
The guy lying in this bed…is not that guy.
So what place does this story have on an advertising blog? Well, as it happens, my stepfather was in advertising. Not the agency or client sides, though. A lifelong magazine guy, he was what he referred to self-deprecatingly as a “page jockey”.
Back in the glory days of print advertising – before the fragmented landscape in which we practice our craft today – there were a lot of people like him. Men and women who spent their professional lives paying sales calls to agencies and advertisers, counting their successes in column inches and page commitments.
For my stepdad, the same personality that made him successful outside of work was what brought him success inside of it.
In the days before hyperactive emailing, GoToMeeting, and spider phones, he took care of business with a potent combination of firm handshakes, fluid conversation, and the occasional cocktail. But most importantly, he spent hours becoming an expert on the print industry he represented, each of his clients’ businesses, and the advertising industry in general.
Knowing he’d been on the sales side of the business, I naively assumed there was little I could learn from him when I got my first agency gig. After all, I thought:
What kind of industry knowledge could a sales guy offer a creative guy?
Weren’t we on different sides of the ball?
The simple truth is that you don’t spend hours inside of agencies without picking up a few tricks of the trade – and a keen insight into how agency dynamics really work.
And that’s what he shared with me whenever I stopped being too arrogant to ask.
The value of face-to-face communication with colleagues and clients alike. The priceless benefit of knowing your clients’ businesses and industries inside and out. The importance of listening and filing away information for recall later.
The kind of stuff that builds relationships.
Relationships that – at least in my small corner of the advertising world – develop trust and respect and ultimately lead to ideas that are the shared property of you and your clients. The trust clients have that you’re not pitching an idea just so you can put a trophy on your shelf. That your ideas have a reason, a strategy, a business goal. That you and your colleagues always have your client’s back.
My stepdad kept it all in perspective, too.
He worked hard, but work stayed where it belonged. It started when the train doors closed at 6:30 in the morning to take him to Manhattan; it ended when they opened back in my hometown of Princeton, NJ at 6:30 in the evening. The rest of the time, we were the relationships that he cared about.
My brothers and stepsisters.
In this era of round-the-clock access via smart phones and tablets, I can’t always live up to that example. But I wish I could. And I’m getting better. At the very least:
I’m glad that I had someone to show me how it could be done.
An aggressive form of thyroid cancer is now an unwelcome part of our relationship – but this is no eulogy. The man’s a fighter. Recently, one of his nurses said, with a small laugh and a familiar roll of her eyes:
“He’s a handful.”
Of course he is.
He’s still my stepdad.