Close-Up: 'Is everyone you work with like Martin?' 'If only'

Jon Steele pays tribute to Martin Cole, the Wieden & Kennedy planning director who passed away earlier this month.

One of WPP's Fellows recently recalled her first meeting with Martin Cole. She was in London for her final interview, and was surprised when a man with the haircut of an Argentinian footballer, wearing brightly coloured shoes and carrying a book entitled Elephants On Acid And Other Bizarre Experiments entered the waiting room and asked for her.

"I remember thinking after the interview," she told me, "if he was what WPP was all about, I wanted to work for WPP."

Martin was a planner who worked for Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Grey, WPP, Santo and, most recently, Wieden & Kennedy. (He was also, at other times, and sometimes at the same time, a successful DJ and recording artist, writer and TV presenter.)

In my opinion, he was a brilliant planner, a view shared by many of his former creative directors and clients. Over the years, I've hired a lot of people who were better planners than me, but Martin was in a different league, both intellectually and creatively. (It's a great testament to Martin that if he knew this - which, because he was a very smart man, he must have - he never let on.)

The young Fellows in the programme I run at WPP loved him; one remembered having the "misfortune" to be in a team on one of our week-long training workshops with a mentor other than Martin. He didn't just mean that his team had no chance of winning. (Which they didn't. Martin always appeared laid-back but was fiercely competitive.) He meant that he wasn't as stretched, that he didn't learn as much about himself or others, and that he didn't have as much fun while doing so as those who had the good fortune to be working with Martin.

Because working with Martin was never really like working. You'd talk about music, design, architecture, football and any one of a hundred other subjects that were nothing to do with advertising, yet, at the same time, had everything to do with it.

Martin's was an agile, energetic mind, capable of both slow, hard grind and massive leaps of imagination. He'd had experiences that most of us wouldn't dare dream about. He was funny. He kept things simple. And he was honest. In a world where far too many people say what they think others want to hear, Martin always told the truth.

A couple of years ago, I took my then ten-year-old daughter to work for a day and, in the morning, we had a meeting with Martin. Afterwards, thoroughly impressed by her first business meeting, Hannah asked: "Daddy, is everyone you work with like Martin Cole?"

"If only," I replied. "If only."

- Jon Steele is a strategist at WPP.

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