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 …

Author: Peter J. Rosenwald

Peter J. Rosenwald is an expat American living and working in Brazil; founder and first CEO of Wunderman Worldwide, International Division of Wunderman agency) and first chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Direct Worldwide; strategist and senior executive in charge of building subscription and data-driven marketing for Editora Abril, Latin America's leading magazine publisher; founder of Consult Partners, active strategic marketing consultancy working in Brazil, U.S. and U.K. International keynote speaker on data-driven marketing and author of "Accountable Marketing" (Thomson), "Profiting From the Magic of Marketing Metrics" (Direct Marketing IQ), and "GringoView" blog author for Brazilian Huffington Post. With an international perspective, my blog's purpose is to share my maverick views of this business I've spent the last half-century working in, enjoying and observing.

20 thoughts on “Where Have All the Mentors Gone?”

  1. This article is titled “Where have all the mentors gone?” and that immediately struck a chord with me because I’ve been looking for one for years. To my disappointment, this article should have more likely been titled “Why do young managers actively discourage building mentor relationships?” As a young manager who knows their way around technology and still very much desires a mentor, I suggest you Google the term “clickbait” because you haven’t provided any solutions to the question your title presents.

    1. ‘Clickbait’ may be slightly overstating your reaction to my title. But so be it.

      Perhaps, Jason, I haven’t provided the answer to your particular need – finding a mentor just right for you. The article was not intended to provide a list of mentors, happily ending your years of search.

      But I can tell you where you can find one. Look at the people you really admire in your industry or outside it – not the bs artists – but people you truly respect and ask one of them to generously mentor not your career but a specific problem or opportunity. If at first you don’t succeed, try again until you find the right one.

      1. I wasn’t expecting you to happily, magically end my search, simply expecting the title to reflect the content.

        That being said, I appreciate your advice.

  2. The generation of “mentors” relied on a marketing methodology based on RFM (Recency, Frequency, and Monetary Value) analysis of a customer, coupled with source code tracking for orders from the “house list” and rented lists based on a A/B testing of promotional offers. Those days are not completely gone, but they are fading. Anyone who has internalized those principles can creatively and successfully apply them to the world of eCommerce and mCommerce, But my concern is that those who don’t have those essential principles as a backdrop will have a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box to guide them in their marketing programs.

  3. Peter, A very thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing. I don’t know if there is a single aspect that can validate your claims. I think it is a combination of separate events that has caused this. I do think the misuse of technology is a primary concern. Many people view technology as the solution to all business problems. They in fact believe that technology is the entire business. They fail to realize that it is simply a tool. While many millennials and genXers rely very heavily on the concept the value of traditional methods and value are not communicated clearly. The mentor generation is also at fault to a degree. They can be very resistant to change and focus on getting things back to the way they used to be. This type is viewed as a dinosaur. The fact that we are both discussing this problem based on age or experience only proves the point. We can all learn new things. Where is it written that a mentor must have years of experience? I also think that immediate satisfaction has a lot to do with the problem. I want it now should not be used in the knowledge arena.

    1. Thanks for that Wally. A lot of good take-away.

      The point of my article was certainly not to define the perfect mentor (I wouldn’t know one if I saw one) but to encourage readers to think about the issue of how experience (old or new) can be used to enhance productivity and profitability and to provide a warning that algorithms are not the answer to everything any more than Aristotle is.

      1. Peter, My response was not designed or intended that way. I don’t know if a “perfect anything” exists. I myself am 50+ and think that there is a lot wrong with how that segment is treated. Just try an get a job! My point as it was poorly conveyed is that failures are usually caused by each side. That in order for any mentoring to be done successfully each side must admit they do not know everything. I was hoping to show that each side of the equation has reasons and difficulties admitting that. To exaggerate the point in a hopefully humorous way “What does that old coot know about marketing?” And “Damn millennials look at their phone for everything! I wish they had to do it the way I had to!”
        This friction is common in every aspect of business and if there is to be growth both sides need to listen and empathize. You don’t actually have to agree. It is the closed mindedness of not listening that is hurting society.

  4. Early in my career (70s-90s) I had several mentors. They’re gone now. I’ve also had the privilege to “pass it forward” with a few of my young manager clients over the years. And they’ve taught me. I believe young and old can learn so much from each other and mentor each other. Thank you, Peter, for a thoughtful post that reminded me of the many direct marketing leaders who I’ve learned so much from over the years!

  5. One of the problems is longevity, which I don’t think has been touched on here. Used to be, you took a job and kept it for anywhere from ten years to life. These days, most especially in ad agencies but also on the marketing side, jobs seem to have a maximum life expectancy of five years, or perhaps it’s three. So there’s no one to mentor you in the organization who intimately knows where the land mines are buried, who’s friend and who’s otherwise, or even what the client did when confronted with a similar problem two years ago.

    Other problems: “Why should I mentor this guy today when I might have to fire him tomorrow?”

    “Why should I listen to her when she may leave tomorrow?”

    “He’ll only take what I teach him and next week take it to another company and say it’s his own idea.”

    1. Great Response Etoain. It brings up other issues. Even though the situations you outline probably occur more than the don’t I do think the sharing of knowledge makes the world better. I think taking ownership of an idea is both good and bad. The value is in the idea and the more it spreads the better. People who claim ownership to a valuable concept when it is not theirs will become exposed. Because they do not understand the entire concept or process. Employment today is very strange. It is odd from both sides. I wish I had that answer! Thanks for post! My question in parting is “if not you then who?”

      1. All good stuff Wally. But it is not the ‘ownership’ of the big idea that I’m concerned with. It’s the difficulty in developing the kind of mentoring relationship that promises honest and unbiased advice across the whole spectrum of issues, ideas and opportunities.
        Etoain raises the ‘fear’ issue: who can I trust in this highly competitive environment? That is, sadly, a fast spreading epidemic in the Trumpian surreality circus and it could poison the basic trust and beliefs that shaped our nation.
        Trust matters most.

        1. So very true. And I do agree with your comments. While it is “difficult” it is not impossible. Like a lot of things in the world today mentorship as it has traditionally been defined has changed. I don’t know if the role of mentor will ever be the same as it was in the past. There are too many reasons to describe here. However when broken down the act of teaching and sharing knowledge based on past experiences still can take place. The results and the time frame and even the acceptance that it has value are different. To answer the question in the post mentors are all over. They have not gone away at least in my opinion. The question is in what capacity I guess.

  6. Mentoring is indeed a 2-way street. To have successful mentoring you need experienced staff that is trustworthy and non-judgemental + new or recent hires who want to learn the business. What I’ve seen is some new hires who aren’t interested in the world (or business) outside their cubicle (or task specifics). I’ve also seen people old enough, experienced enough to be good mentors, but they let superficial differences get in the way. Where I work is unique, I suppose. I’ve been here since 1993 and looking back I know I screwed up a few good mentoring opportunities. But guess what? I don’t do that anymore. My best lead-in? People haven’t changed…since forever, except maybe the length of their attention span.

  7. Alas, there is no right answer to a wrong question! I was very lucky to have 2 mentors earlier in my career, and try hard to continue with the tradition of mentorship. And I believe that it should be about being a good decision maker, not about technicality or something that you can easily Google for. Thank you for much needed piece.

  8. Quite an issue, Peter, thanks for sharing this. I’ll risk sounding as a gruffy dinosaur, but anyway I’d like to point out that I keep meeting young entrepreneurs and company staff who sound as if they think they have invented the wheel. E.g., when I once wrote that metrics where an everyday issue for me since beginning with direct marketing at Bertelsmann in 1977, KPIs not being at any rate a new idea, as implied by a speaker that day, my comment was rated by most of my younger colleagues as a rant. Still, paraphrasing Galileo, “eppur si muove”. Millenials seem to care little about what existed before. They keep pushing forward under the principle that the exponential innovation curve of technology (meaning “information technologies”) makes any prior experience obsolete. Well, they may be losing chances to become even more “agile” by letting mentors solve already solved aspects. Or maybe not: will somebody prove, some day, that the time dedicated to mentoring is costlier than the contingencies brought about by getting around former experience?

    1. Freddy: I didn’t see your very astute comments until today. Thank you for sharing and contributing to the discussion. As a great mentor yourself, you certainly can understand the frustration.

  9. While I’m a tad late to the discussion, I do echo your sentiments! One way I have found to give back was to become a mentor through my alumni association… and have now mentored 3 college seniors looking to launch their marketing careers.

    It’s a proud moment when I get the phone call with an excited mentee shouting “I just landed my dream job and it’s all because of you!” I’m confident those mentees will pay it forward.

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