When I issued an RFP in 2001 to find a firm to handle trade and consumer advertising for Sallie Mae, the Fortune 500 company where I then worked, I didn’t expect it would lead to the finalists becoming two of my enduring friends in the 18 years since.
The “winner” of the competition, Mark Russell and his team at MRA Group in Syracuse, NY, provided outstanding services to our company for several years (including after my departure), and Mark and his wife Sherry have created more recently another award-winning agency, Ayni Brigade, in New York City. (Mark is still a great friend and I promise to blog about him – and Ayni Brigade – in the months ahead.)
Meanwhile, the “silver medalist” in this RFP response, Doug Laughlin and his team at LM&O Advertising in Arlington, VA, smartly did as any wise agency head would do in the months after they weren’t selected: they graciously “understood” the circumstances, and they stayed in touch.
Staying in touch for Doug Laughlin included inviting me to more than a few nice lunches, where he entertained me with stories of his days on Madison Ave. in the 1970s and 80s, working on some of the early military recruiting campaigns, ubiquitous now but then in their infancy due to the end of the draft.
Suddenly one day, a friendly lunch took a turn: “How would you like to come over to our agency, and help me get a little group I started – College Parents of America – off the ground?” There were more than a few complicating factors in my deciding to move on this opportunity, but Doug was persuasive, so I took on the role in the summer of 2003.
By then, Doug and his wife Grace’s two sons – Scott and Chris – were long out of college and in successful careers of their own, but Doug had founded College Parents of America when they were in school – at Princeton and Syracuse, respectively – for one simple reason: “Here Grace and I were, spending all this money on college, and we really didn’t know what we were getting for that investment, nor did we feel that the government was rewarding us for that investment in the way it should.”
Thanks to Doug, I was off to the races with College Parents of America and we had a great seven-year run with the organization, until we turned over governance of it to a group out in Arizona in 2010, coinciding with Doug’s decision to retire and hand off the reins of the ad agency to his son, Chris.
During the period from 2003 – 2009, Doug had gotten me more involved with the ever-growing ad agency – LM&O – and I helped perform PR services for some of its clients, along with serving for a period of time as Management Supervisor of the National Guard recruiting account, a then-mainstay of the agency’s business.
No sooner had Doug and Grace retired to their idyllic home on Smith Mountain Lake in Southwest Virginia did Grace take ill and not long thereafter pass away. Doug was devastated. He and Grace had been planning a long and fun-filled retirement together, and they were still as in love – probably even more – than when they had met decades earlier.
Despite this body blow, Doug got back up on his feet. He was a very proud Dad to his sons, an even prouder father-in-law to their wives, and a proudest-of-all grandfather to their kids. He was a mainstay on the sidelines of their sporting events in Northern Virginia, and he loved having the chance to take his oldest grandchild on a trip to New York City, where they saw shows and soaked in the sights on the very streets where Doug had begun his career.
My wife and I loved spending time with Doug, too, and we are so fortunate that he invited us to visit him “down at the lake,” as he called it. We hopped in his pontoon boat for rides all over the sprawling man-made body of water, and we hit some of his favorite haunts for breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
We liked Doug so much that we even tried to “fix him up” with one of our divorced friends, though we kept that light-hearted by setting the group up as a foursome to see some music at the Birchmere. Doug loved good music and was quite eclectic in his tastes, though B.B. King was by far at the top of his charts.
But more than anything Doug loved people and he loved to debate ideas with them, always being certain to never let it get personal. He joined me early on as a “Never Trumper,” though he did become chagrined early in this presidency when he felt that no matter what Trump did or didn’t do, some people had just made up their minds and wanted the President to fail. Doug grew to dislike Trump even more, but he never wished failure upon anyone and he equated Trump failing with our country failing, something he never wanted to see happen.
While we knew for some time that Doug had been facing health challenges, we did not know that he had slipped considerably in recent months. That’s why we were so shocked to see the LinkedIn post earlier this week that Doug had passed away just prior to Christmas.
I only knew Doug Laughlin for a short portion of his remarkable life – 17 out 76 years – which are numbers that do have a patriotic ring to them, don’t they? Yet Doug had a tremendous impact on me in the way he did business – serious and always courteous – and the way he conducted himself as a person, always thinking of others first and always wanting a disagreement to turn into a win-win for the parties involved.
He loved the United States of America and he served it proudly in the military himself, and then for decades as someone who took pride in his government contracts, especially the one that gave him and his team a chance to recruit individuals to serve in the National Guard, or in one of the branches of the regular military. He would be shaking his head at the futility of the current government shutdown and no doubt he would have some creative ideas on how to solve it.
Many people will miss Doug Laughlin, most of all his family. I will miss him, too, but I will never forget his warm smile, his twangy “Hi Jim” greeting, his great zeal for College Parents of America, and his great zest for life. From Arkansas roots to a Texas youth, from a move to Ohio as a GE brat to college at Kent State, from upstate New York early in his career to midtown Manhattan in his career rise, from buying the DC office of Bozell and setting in motion a successful partnership with Dave Marinaccio and Ron Owens, the “M” & “O” of LM&O, Doug jammed quite a bit in his 76 years.
A modest man, Doug probably answered “not bad” when asked about his life upon arrival at the pearly gates. Now at least a few more people know that Doug Laughlin was not just “not bad,” he was very, very good, as a boss, a mentor and a friend. RIP Doug and see you at the pontoon boat dock again someday. Only next time, please keep your shirt on.