WHAT WE CAN ALL LEARN FROM ADAM SCHLESINGER ABOUT MENTORSHIP.
On Wednesday, my friend and favorite songwriter of all time, Adam Schlesinger, died very suddenly at the age of 52 from COVID-19 complications, leaving behind two daughters, hundreds of perfect pop songs, and thousands of devastated fans.
I could write a book about how much I loved his his sense of harmony and melody, his lyricism, and about the myriad of ways he influenced me, first as a songwriter and then ultimately as a copywriter. And I know I'm not alone. There's a reason he's been described in a bevy of thought-pieces over the last few days as a "songwriter's songwriter." A lot of people—musicians and non-musicians alike—are grieving right now for the premature loss of one of our generation's greatest talents.
But I want to talk about a different, lesser-known, specific legacy he leaves behind for those of us who were fortunate enough to know him: his mentorship.
When I met Adam, I was a dorky, overeager 23-year-old with a full-time desk job, a band after work, and not much else. I posted a cover of one of my favorite Fountains of Wayne songs, "Someone to Love," and it somehow ended up on Fountains of Wayne's website. A few weeks later, I hung out with the band at their show in Hoboken. All of them were incredibly nice to me but I connected deepest with Adam, songwriter to songwriter.
Adam told me I was a great pianist (I think he told me I "banged the hell out of that thing") and noted that he could hear his influence in my lyrics. He was effusive with praise and receptive to songs I would send him over the next few years. I cannot emphasize enough how little I had to offer him when we met, professionally speaking. I was lucky that I eventually went on to have one of my songs chart on the radio, but before any of that happened, I had no equity, no reputation, no leverage. I just had enthusiasm, and my anemic, unpolished catalogue of songs. But for Adam, that was enough.
As a nobody, being validated by my idol was more than enough.
The last time I spoke to Adam was in 2016, over e-mail. By that point, I was working at Apple, living in San Francisco, and doing the occasional musical project for brands on the side. I sent him some hold music I had written that was heavily inspired, as usual, by him. I was afraid he would think I was a failure for selling out. I wondered if he would think I was a hack. But he told me how much he still loved my music, even in the context of advertising, and told me to give him a call next time I was in LA. My confidence soared. Even after I had left the music industry, he was still a mensch, still a cheerleader, still a mentor.
Advertising is nowhere near as competitive as the music industry, but the process of breaking in has some similarities. Getting a creative director to look at your portfolio is akin to getting a label to check out your demo tape. Creativity is inherently subjective, so getting your first job is dependent on your work landing in the hands of a gatekeeper who understands and believes in you. Even if that gatekeeper is unable to give you a job, just knowing they approve of you can make all the difference between quitting and persisting. And of course, no matter what your goal is, persistence is the name of the game. It is heartbreaking to think of all the young creatives out there who might have gone on to be some of our greatest thinkers and innovators if they had only had an Adam when they were starting out.
So for those of you reading this who are fortunate enough—and worked hard enough—to be gatekeepers in the advertising industry, be kind.
Be the person who fills other people with hope.
Be the person who wants everyone to win.
Be the person you would have needed when you were starting out.
Be someone's Adam.