Where Have All the Mentors Gone?

Some recent and mildly frustrating interactions with young marketing colleagues started me wondering about the amazing mentors whose generosity and wisdom shaped my own career. What’s happened, I asked myself, to the time-honored practice of mentoring?

mentorsSome recent and mildly frustrating interactions with young marketing colleagues started me wondering about the amazing mentors whose generosity and wisdom shaped my own career. What’s happened, I asked myself, to the time-honored practice of mentoring?

What happened to the development of a partnership between someone eager to learn and someone older and with substantially more experience? Is this something like the typewriter or the telegram, an idea whose time has “went”? Has all the blindingly exciting new technology created an intellectual gulf between generations often too deep to cross?

Olden Times

While the practice of mentoring goes a long way back in history — “Mentor” was a character in Homer’s “Odyssey” and “guru” — “disciple” traditions are a part of nearly every religion and live on today. Mentoring for business became very fashionable in the mid-1990s. If it was something of a chic label for traditional apprenticeship at the higher levels of business and marketing management, there was no doubt that the mentoring of some exceptional talents served a major purpose in transforming the dusty old mail-order business of the ’50s and ’60s to the glamorous multi-channel direct and data-driven marketing so in-demand today.

Peter's blog post about mentors
Wikipedia says: William Blake’s watercolor of “Age Teaching Youth,” a Romantic representation of mentorship. Blake represented this type of relationship in many of his works, including the illustrations of his “Songs of Innocence.” The original object is currently held by Tate Britain.

Say the names, Dick Benson, Frank Johnson, Lester Wunderman, Bob Stone, Stan Rapp, Denny Hatch and David Ogilvy, to mention some of the superstars, and jaws drop. There you have an Olympian collection of mentors, each of whom nourished the talents of generations that followed.

I was exceptionally lucky to have had Benson guiding me on circulation planning and economics; Johnson instilling the creative discipline that makes it possible to stretch the rules without breaking them; and Lester Wunderman, as my brilliant lifetime guru, not just to extraordinary business breakthroughs, but more importantly to developing an understanding of human values and how they impacted our own lives and those of our customers.

Today’s Meme Culture — As In, ‘Me, Me’

As these and other great names have left the scene, who has come in to replace them? With all this positive history, why do many of today’s younger managers not only shy away from seeking mentors but actively discourage building mentor relationships?

The usual answer points to the gulf between today’s technologies and the mentor’s probable lack of technological knowledge and experience. It’s an often farcical battle between post- and pre-algorithm background and education. It also appears to be the result of this generation’s increasing dependence on Google and other technology to be their mentors, to provide them with “knowledge” without the pushback that might come from a human mentor: apps instead of raps.

Putting too much faith in the apps can have its problems. “Campaign,” the British marketing bible quotes Ebiquity, the leading media auditor’s chairman as saying: “It is a striking fact that today only about 40 percent of digital programmatic advertising investment reaches the consumer, with value being eroded by the multiple links between advertisers and publishers, fraud, lack of viewability and non-human traffic.”

Why, ask today’s digital whiz kids, should I bother with all of that historic crap when the right code will instantly give me the answers I need? It’s a valid argument built on a fragile foundation. It’s the questionable premise that whoever wrote that code was asking the right questions in the first place. How much do the code writers know about the sensitivities of the business and why don’t they prevent the 60 percent loss described above?

Unbox Yourselves, Marketers

In fact, this is probably the best inflection point for the need for a mentor. The computer model can churn out endless bases for building business and marketing strategies; but it will be very unlikely to think outside, instead of inside, the box.

When recently asked by a mentor whether a particular strategy would be worth investigating as a counterpoint to a current and only marginally successful initiative, the answer was promptly negative: It would mean rebuilding the model (extra work) and anyway, the needed data was largely unavailable (unlikely in a world of big data). Historic context and experience derived from dozens of similar situations was deemed irrelevant, even intrusive. The absence of mentors and the desire to seek them out prevailed. What a great waste?

The CEO of a highly successful service and product company shakes his head at this. “It’s not nearly so much the new ideas the mentors bring, but rather their invaluable help in avoiding what could be catastrophic mistakes.”

“Mentors don´t necessarily deal with issues of technology and business models,” said a publisher. “They ask questions and use their experience to find the optimum way to access the decision processes and the way to think about an issue. And they leave behind a better-educated and more effective executive.”

One is forced to ask; what do these digitally-driven young executives read? Beyond scanning Facebook and LinkedIn, what sources of knowledge and experience provide context for their ideas? And if mentors have outlived their historical usefulness, what can fill that vacuum?

Endit …