I recently came out... as a Chief Marketing Officer. I timed the LinkedIn unveiling on October 11—National Coming Out Day—because I am paradoxically more comfortable discussing my gender and sexuality than I am my professional accomplishments.
The moment was bittersweet. My dad, who was both the first person in my life to come out and my first marketing guru, wasn't around to celebrate.
Bob Ranson was a quintessential marketing guy. He was a passionate student of advertising who created award-winning campaigns for the two tech companies he founded in the early 1980s—one software, one hardware (he sold both). Then he turned into a full-time Adman running a creative agency. Technically many agencies. The branding and corporate structures evolved, as they always do.
My mom, Margee Walsh, was there, too. For many years, the creative agency was a family affair. What was founded Corporate Visions in Atlanta, GA became Ranson Taylor Walsh in Reston, VA. My parents' business partner Tom Taylor served as the art director. Dad was the big idea guy—new business, strategy, taglines, and copywriting. Mom held the place together—business affairs, account management, and proofreading. I imagine she did a lot of editing Tom and Bob. She remembers them being ‘stunningly creative together.’
From time to time recruiters point out that I don't have a ‘typical' background for a CMO, that I lack professional agency experience. It's true. (Except for an awkward ~8 weeks at a digital agency that I conveniently leave off my LinkedIn profile...)
I do have countless hours of agency experience, just not on my resume. When my parents' agency was in a lakeside office park in Atlanta I made buildings out of the larger-than-life cardboard boxes that new photocopiers were delivered in. When the agency was in a large office park in Reston I typed my homework after school on a Macintosh SE in the back ‘computer room’. I fell asleep on the photo studio couch when my parents worked late on client deadlines. My mother taught me how to file account paperwork into the meticulously labeled folders that hung inside massive metal lateral drawers. She is why I obsessively impose strict file naming conventions on all my coworkers. (YYYY MMDD is the only correct answer.)
The agency's biggest clients were often telcos—Northern Telecom, MCI, Bell Atlantic, Sprint. Their Reston office appropriately located on Alexander Graham Bell Drive. And the work required travel. For a time my parents ran offices in both Reston and Atlanta while shuttling back and forth to Research Triangle Park, NC and various regional headquarters. The work and the travel made such an impression on nine-year-old me that I designed a solution: an office park where my parents' red brick office tower stood side by side their clients.
I wanted to be an architect. I used the materials scavenged around the agency to build models and practice drafting. In those days, graphic designers shared the same physical tools as architects. As a kid, my parents' office was a playground full of mat board, foam core, spray mount, vellum, Letraset dry-transfer type sheets, drafting tape… it was the beginning of my love affair with office supplies. I still have the X-acto knife and steel rulers that I inherited from the agency on my worktable.
By the time I was headed to college my dreams had expanded. My dad’s coming out catalyzed my activism at a young age and taught me the revolutionary power of telling queer stories. At UVA I minored in Architecture in order to make space for student organizing, a thesis on the queer history of our University, and filmmaking. When I landed a job at Pixar after college I called my dad to excitedly report: ‘Steve! I walked past him in the atrium!’ Steve Job’s keynotes were church in my house, my dad used to sit me down to watch to the marketing genius’ sermons.
Poetically, my dad died when I was working in the marketing department for a real estate technology company. All the themes converged. I pursued the job because it would allow me to leverage my producing skills for a reliable paycheck, but I only half realized I was stumbling into building an internal creative agency. I regret not reaching out to my dad to learn more from his agency life. I still thought of myself a filmmaker first (still do?), just moonlighting in marketing. His cancer, and my new baby, pulled focus.
When I later reported into ad sales at a TV network, he wasn't around to talk shop. I wanted his primer on CPMs and Insertion Orders; his annotated history of the storied Madison Ave agencies I was meeting with. I ached to call him from Detroit when I pitched to Ford. Couldn't wait to tell him about the insane art collection lining the corporate walls of General Mills. But instead I was sitting at my lonely open office desk in Midtown East drowning in grief. After years of forging my own path, I was back in his world, feeling very alone.
"Honey, you are so much your dad. You are me in your intuitive understandings of things, but you are your dad over and over again."
"Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness, Mom."
I have a lot of my Dad's old t-shirts, including from one his favorite campaigns: ‘A simple "Hello" will do.’
A tagline works best when it pops without full context. This line piques interest and invites engagement. It is clever, friendly, inviting... infinitely more interesting than the typical marketing materials promoting telecom equipment at trade shows. And the line really wins when you learn it is promoting a service called ‘Hello’. An excellent example of applying B2C marketing appeal to the typically unsexy B2B digital signal component business. My mom remembers that they came up with the red shirts and high-contrast yellow color scheme to stand out in a sea of IBM and Dell bluegreyneutral. This was 1986. Peak computer beige.
It is a long running-joke among colleagues that, deep down, I just want to land a great line of copy. I think my Dad would be proud of the tagline I wrote for Luminary: ‘Hear in new light.’
Thank you Abby, Brendan, and Nick for the encouraging conversations this week. Thank you Biz for telling me to just do the thing rather than taking three newsletters to explain the thing. Thank you, weirdly, to COVID for the mild symptoms and creative isolation. Thanks, Mom for jogging memories—and everything, always.
I published this newsletter exactly once in 2022, expect much more as 2023 unfolds. Open to any/all feedback as I experiment my way into a regular rhythm.
Be kind to each other.
Glad you are upping your cadence. Appreciate your perspective, always!