I was 26 years old, brand new to the account, and still pretty green when it came to working for a PR agency. I attended a meeting of the various consultants under the employ of the client not really knowing what the hell I was doing, and came away from that meeting feeling condescended to, subjugated, and even a bit bullied by one of the project leads. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned to you, the senior lead on the account and the Chairman of our firm.
As I sat in your office nervously recounting the experience of the meeting, I could see you getting annoyed, maybe agitated. I figured I was the cause of your aggravation – looks like this kid can’t cut it – and awaited my deserved comeuppance for failing to further our work adequately and expected to be re-assigned, or worse.
You said, “Let’s give Mark a call.” Mark was the project lead, and the person by whom I felt bullied during the consultant meeting. I didn’t know how to feel about this turn of events – were you going to apologize for me and promise to get someone more capable on the project? – but I sat in your office nevertheless pregnant with anticipation at what came next.
And what came next I’ll never forget. With the call on speakerphone, you proceeded to jump down Mark’s throat, stood up for me, for our firm, and for our place in this project. The call got heated, but you never backed down and held your ground fully. I was at once relieved and invigorated by your moxie. I’d never had a boss stand up for me like this, and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was not only to have the unqualified support of my leader, but to get to see it in such a demonstrable way.
The next meeting I had with the consultant team, Mark was sweet as pie and from that day forward solicited my input and took a collaborative approach to everything we did together. It was a stunning turn of events, and one I reflect upon frequently when I’m nervous about standing up for myself and my work.
Mike Gaughan, you taught me to have confidence in my work and to stand up for myself. You always had my back and had best interests of your team in mind in everything you did.
And I’m going to miss you so much.
Nearly two and a half years ago, I wrote this piece about my depression and all the many things in my life contributing to my hopeless state of mind. As my situation has vastly improved since then, I wish not to revisit that, only to point to this pertinent section about my wife, and an opportunity with a different PR firm in town that presented itself:
“Sure enough, I set her up with one of my consultants to talk about corporate training. The meeting is serendipitous as this company needs her exact skillset at the exact time she’s waltzing into their consciousness. The company is so jazzed about her, they have to have her RIGHT NOW.
She explains to them that she’s happy to come work for them, but they need to understand that in order to have her RIGHT NOW, she’s going to have to burn a couple bridges. In her words, “So if you hire me, DON’T FUCK ME.” They agree, and proceed to hire her.
Three months later, they fucked her.”
I share this anecdote only because working for a PR agency can be extremely unforgiving, and when the winds of billable hours change (and they can change quickly), one of the easiest ways to stay in business is to lay off employees. This is exactly what happened to Kristin, and the bruises this left in its wake were painful.
A couple of months later, Kristin and I had dinner with Mike and Jeff at Barolo, their favorite spot. I shared this story with them because it had re-contextualized my experience during the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009. At MGA, we were affected like thousands of other businesses, and saw our profitability erode.
Rather than function like a traditional PR firm, they laid off only one employee while everyone else took a pay cut. Mike, Jeff and Cricket Smith (the third founder of MGA) met with each of us individually to explain the situation, assert our value to the team, and solicit our input for how to generate new business. In the moment it’s happening and you find out you’re taking a pay cut, you don’t know exactly how to feel – angry? resentful? bummed out? – but when a couple of years later I saw the alternative path, I became nothing but grateful for the way they handled it.
I shared with them my gratitude and my appreciation for their choice in a tough situation and teared up as I thought about what that choice symbolized in terms of the affection they must have felt for all of us who looked to them for guidance and leadership. They told me it was, in fact, not an easy storm to weather, but that my words meant a lot to them. They could have handled it differently, but they chose this way. I’ll always be thankful for the way they did.
We finished our meal and then proceeded to The Crown Social where we drank, laughed, and told stories well into the night, running up an impressive bar tab in the process. It was a glorious night, and the night where I felt comfortable calling Mike and Jeff not just my former employers, leaders I deeply respected, and professionals I admired… I could call them my friends.
Mike (along with Jeff and Cricket) was a pure humanist. His words, his work and his interactions were always done with intent, and that intent was always about providing something additive to the world. No matter the client, Mike taught me that everything we do should have meaning, should be thoughtful and well-crafted and should be in service of advancing understanding or empathy.
That’s what makes Mike a legend in this industry. He was better at his craft than 99.9% of everyone who’s ever done it, and I am humbled at the opportunity to learn under his tutelage. Having worked directly with him on more than a dozen different clients over the course of four years, I can say with certainty that I learned more from him about how to be a professional communicator than anyone else. But that’s not what I’ll miss about him. Although, that is why I chose him as the very first guest on my podcast.
When I think about Mike, I first think about his incredible, booming laugh. It was seismic. And it could shake whatever ennui you were sticky with loose from your psyche and turn your day around. It was a force of nature and one of the rare sounds I can call up in my head at will. It never fails to make me smile.
I’ll miss that laugh. I’ll miss his incredible zest for life. I’ll miss the way he used to bust my balls, which, admittedly, took me a while to learn that he did this because he loved me. I’ll miss his endless well of entertaining anecdotes. I’ll miss his warm, smiling face.
I’ll miss my friend.
Rest in peace, Mike Gaughan.