The Wisdom of John Durham

By Restoring the Soul of Business Archives
Cover image for  article: The Wisdom of John Durham

I recently was one of a dozen speakers at a "Celebration of Life" event to mark the passing of a renowned and highly respected leader in the marketing, media and digital industries named John Durham. (I had written a tribute to John on his passing ten weeks ago that had struck a chord: "Go the extra mile. It's never crowded.") Each of the speakers was given a specific brief to speak to one facet or time in John's life. I was asked to speak about lessons he left for us leaders in the marketing, media and digital industries.

Hundreds of people -- from students of John's to CEOs and industry pioneers -- attended the event. I heard from many of them about how meaningful they found the talk and noted that John's lessons were essential wisdom not just for the marketing and media industry but anybody in any business.

So today, I am sharing John's wisdom with some significant variations and adaptions given that this will be read (rather than heard) by a very different and wider audience.

Be Distinctive

Companies, brands and individuals which succeed are ones that differentiate themselves. Stand for something. Have a distinct point of view. Provide a different perspective. Craft a culture and a way of working. Build a network [with] diverse teams and let them be themselves and be free to speak out if you want to have a truly different product or service or grow your own skills.

John was so distinctive from his unique viewpoints (Durhamisms) down to his amazingly colorful socks that he became "The Durham."

Be a Source of Enlightenment and Inspiration

All businesses can be tough. The marketing and media business can be tough.

It is very easy to get down and be negative given all the challenges that come with great velocity every day in a business filled with persnickety customers and clients that can be trigger happy in switching providers. We can all be caught in a frenzy of urgency, twisting and twitching with cyclonic vigor in attending to the matters at hand. But never forget that people are looking to leaders to show the way forward.

Despite a topsy turvy career and significant health challenges, John always checked in on folks, had a story to make you feel better and inspired everyone from his students to all of us.

He shone a light on the way forward. And made us feel lighter under our burdens.

Fiercely Defend Ideas

This is a business like all businesses that has gotten more data- and spreadsheet-driven as communications have become more digital and technology enables measurement at a granular level. We all need to better understand and grow our data capabilities, but John reminded us that the key to the marketing and media business is ideas.

We are in the businesses of change, culture, fashion, trends, insights, innovation and human connections. We need to be careful that in our idolizing the technology and data and spreadsheet we do not lose our way by following the wrong star home.

It is ideas and creativity that attract people to the marketing and media industries. If they wanted to work in finance or technology or data they would join Goldman, Palantir, Snowflake or another company where those skills are what differentiates.

Ideas are the heartbeat of our business. The best of them tend to initially be heart-stopping in their difference with what has come before, or so fragile that they need to be defended, protected and nurtured so they can refresh the bloodstreams and future of our businesses.

Look Over the Horizon for What Is Next

John was besotted with what lay ahead. He switched careers and built practices around what would come. He moved from radio to magazines to media companies to agencies to tech companies to a bespoke consulting company working with start-ups.

He would invite me to his class at the University of San Francisco where he prepared students for tomorrow. In the last class we talked about the revolution in marketing that Web 3.0 might bring.

I would not be surprised to find that John might have owned some Bored Apes Yacht Club NFTs.

Tomorrow is where we spend the rest of our lives. Even in the waning weeks of his life John looked over the horizon.

Whenever we are surprised as leaders or companies it’s because somebody made tomorrow tangible today while we were solving yesterday’s problems.

Be Passionate and Care Deeply

John was dignified. John was a cool cat. He was not cold, haughty or chilled but rather warm, approachable and vulnerable.

He was not a reticent, calculating, two-steps-ahead strategic plotter or someone who hedged his positions and blew with the wind.

He cared deeply and passionately. He remembered in a silicon-based, data-driven and digital world to remain a carbon infused, feeling filled and analog human.

John cared passionately about his people, his companies, his work and his points of view. And of course, wine. Very fine wine.

Renew. Refresh. Re-invent.

In a complicated world filled with hurly-burly speed and messy things called people things often go wrong. Snafus of communication and differences in expectations, incentives or approaches will lead to wires crossed and hurt feelings that can sever ties and relationships.

John always counseled to renew and restore and repair relationships even if it meant eating humble pie sometimes when you did not have to or want to. He also noted that we constantly change as people, and we need to see each other from time to time with new eyes.

It is important to refresh and renew both your own relationships and those of your brand and company. Do not put people in a box and think you have them figured out. They change.

Finally, as someone who re-invented his skills to align with new realities and opportunities, John reminded us that the real death occurs when we stop learning. In illness and in good health John practiced a daily resurrection.

Combine Roots and Wings

As we have heard there were at least two Johns. The John of the South, which was the first half of his life which we know just a little of, and then John of the West, which we called "The Durham."

While we may never have understood John's roots. We often do not understand where people come from; their past beats like a second heart within them, just like the roots and the histories of brands and companies have twisted them into their current shapes.

Every successful individual, brand and company is fed by their roots, but they aspire to change, grow and adapt and fly with wings.

Wings without roots often get blown away. Roots without wings wither and die. Fusing roots and wings is the way.

Protect and Guide People

In the end the most important thing John taught those willing to listen was that as leaders our first and foremost job was to protect and guide people since we scale through our people. The best people can get into trouble, down cycles or be upended in some ways and they must be protected. The most talented sometimes lose their way or come to a fork in the road and begin to question themselves, where they were and where they were going and needed guiding.

By protecting and guiding not only would we do the right thing, but it would be such behavior that would attract and retain talent for the long run.

Today hundreds of us from all over the country and all over the world are here because in the end John -- through his Durhamisms, his calls at just the right time and his sharing of wine with wisdom -- made all the difference to our lives. And while he is gone, if we practice what we learned from him he will still be beating in our bloodstreams.

Photographs by Rishad Tobaccowala

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