The Simple Art of Greatness

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A lot of the guys who write books telling you how to be great are guys who are in the business of telling you how to be great, and their credentials are primarily that they’ve been telling people how to be great for years, both privately as consultants and publicly in books and lectures.

And while I would not dream of denigrating them or their experience, when someone who has built a successful advertising agency from scratch decides to set down his thoughts on the topic, there is a different kind of gravitas in the telling, an added legitimacy that demands that you stop and pay attention.

Jim Mullen founded the ad agency that bears his name in Boston in 1970 and since then it has grown into one of the most well-respected shops in the United States. “Ad Age” ranked it the third in the country in 2011, and “Fast Company” included it that same year as one of America’s ten most innovative marketing and advertising companies.

“The Simple Art of Greatness” was written in 1995, long before those particular accolades (though not before Mullen had racked up lots of hardware and multiple “New England Agency of the Year” awards), and long before Mullen himself retired from Adlife to pursue the racing, wine, travel and art he loves.

And I mention those post-agency pursuits because they’re central to what makes Jim Mullen a part of a curiously different era of advertising person. I don’t mean the George Lois/Jerry Della Femina “wild man” era nor some sort of halcyon age before the internet, cable tv, and mobile phones gave us all attention deficit disorder.

No, I mean that he belongs to a time when people found a home in advertising because they were curious about people and about life. A time when, more often than not, the folks writing the copy, selling the work and placing the ads were the kind of people who had stumbled through college, wandered around Europe, came back broke, worked as an assistant in a university lab, crewed on some rich guy’s yacht, and wrote and painted – all of which Mullen did instead of becoming the doctor his parents had wished him to be.

Because advertising was like the Island of Misfit Toys: you found a home there when you didn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. “Besides” as Mullen writes early in this memoir-slash-guide to success, “advertising is one of the few professions that doesn’t require a license, capital equipment or even seed money. Any creatively ambitious soul armed with no more than a pen, a pad of paper and a paid-up telephone bill can instantly anoint himself a legitimate professional.”

A lot of those people, I will readily concede, were screw-ups who did lousy work; search the internet and you will find a ridiculous amount of it preserved there. But the ones who weren’t, the ones who generated genius, the ones like Jim Mullen – created agencies as unlike the corporate monoliths or techshops that thrive today as Wells Rich Greene was from Lord Thomas.

That’s because Mullen’s basic curiousity about life and people was fundamental to the agency he founded, the people he hired and the work they all created. Especially the people he hired. “The entire premise of this book” Mullen writes in chapter three “hinges on the concept that the most reliable way to achieve long term profitability is to create long term employee relationships based on fairness, loyalty and trust.”

Again and again Mullen reminds you that there are people at the center of business. That the people in your agency have lives and dreams and families and if you treat them with the respect that deserves, you will do great things. You will create great work that the people with lives and dreams and families who are paying your agency will want more of, because it will resonate with all the people with lives and dreams and families they are trying to sell to.

Does the current incarnation of the Mullen agency still follow the precepts its founder laid out here nearly twenty years ago? Or are those ideas incompatible with the hyper-connected, instant-gratification society in which we find ourselves? That’s for larger brains than mine to contemplate.

But on one level, it sort of doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s possible. Mullen’s great success and great work demonstrates that.

And this book shows you how.

The Simple Art of Greatness by James X. Mullen was published by Viking on 03/01/95 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here).

One thought on “The Simple Art of Greatness

  1. Although I have no direct connection to the advertising industry, I frequently read Martin’s reviews because he writes really well and always teaches me something. With this (predictably excellent) review, I found I actually had something to add.

    In 1994, I visited my sister, Erika Brown, who worked at Mullen at the time (she now co-owns Cercone Brown in Boston). The agency had just won the BMW account, and Jim had rewarded himself with a BMW M5 sedan, a car I quietly lusted after. Erika mentioned to Jim that her brother the car guy was swinging by, and Jim told her to introduce me when I arrived. After a warm welcome and quick tour, Jim insisted that we take his M5 when we went to lunch, and then he arranged a tour of a nearby vintage Mercedes/Bugatti restoration shop, where many priceless old cars were housed. I still remember driving that M5 and gawking at gorgeous historic cars, but mostly I remember a wonderful man who went way out of his way for an employee who happened to have a sibling come by for a visit. He was really something.

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