Mike Gardner


Capitol Communicator is running a series of profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic. In this “up close and personal” profile, we feature Mike Gardner, founder and president of Thinkinghire and president-elect of the American Marketing Association-Washington, DC Chapter (AMADC). Photography for this series is by Cade Martin; wardrobe styling by Pascale Lemaire for THE Artist Agency; and hair and makeup by Patti D Nelson and Janice Kinigopoulos for THE Artist Agency.

In addition to Thinkinghire and AMADC, Gardner recent was Chief People Officer and SVP of human resources for Millennial Media Inc, Gardner specializes in providing marketing, advertising, public relations and digital talent to Fortune 500 companies and large nonprofits. In addition, he works with senior-level executives interested in making a career move and helps them develop the tools and plans necessary to compete in today’s highly competitive job marketplace.  Gardner has more than 15 years of experience in marketing and building profitable businesses, having managed programs, teams and budgets for such icons as America Online (AOL), Discovery Communications and Verizon Communications.

Mike, tell us a bit about your involvement in AMADC?

As noted, I am currently the president-elect of AMADC, which means that I will be the incoming President starting this July.  This is a unique situation as I have already served as president of the organization back in 2012, and was recently asked to serve another term.  As far as we know, it’s the first time in our 82-year history that a leader has served twice in this role.  I’m not sure if there’s a reason for that but I’m thrilled to be working with an incredibly talented board of directors who, each day, work hard to make a great experience for our membership- the fourth largest of 78 chapters of the American Marketing Association.

What is the thing you are most proud of?

It’s pretty simple, and has a lot to do with the fact that each day I get to help people make positive change in their professional life.  I am most proud that my life and career experiences have helped so many people rethink their career path, and get energized about doing something with their career that they are truly passionate about.  But, if you asked me what I am uber proud of, it would have to be the support and friend I have in my wife as well as my four children who constantly remind me that the hardest lessons we learn in our life are those that happen on the playground.

Who are your personal role models?

I have been so fortunate to have had multiple role models in my life.  My parents were the starting point, and taught me that you have to work hard, and give as much as you can because what you give comes back to you tenfold and they were right (as is usually the case with parents).  I then had a high school English teacher, Mrs. Campbell.  She was by far the hardest teacher I ever had – scary and also fair.  At one point, during the college search I decided not to go to college.  She took me aside and told me something that changed my life:  “Do you know why I send my kids to college?” she asked. I just looked at her blankly and said “No, why?”.  She told me she sent them to school for herself not for the kids.  She didn’t want them to come back!  “Without a degree, start enjoying washing dishes and make sure you like living with your mother”.  That day, I applied to college and got accepted.   Lastly, I’ve had many people in my professional life with whom I have worked that have lead by example and I still think back on the things they have taught me.

Did your role models offer professional advice that helped you in your career?

Yes!  My first boss, at Discovery Channel gave me some great advice that I still use today.  At the time, I had a particularly terrific day at Discovery Channel and John Hendricks sent me a congratulatory note for something I had done well.  At 23-years old, I was elated!  My boss took me aside and told me to savor the experience.  He advised me to get a glass bottle with a cork and to put this experience into that bottle and to keep it on a shelf.   “Whenever you have a bad day, take the bottle off  your shelf, uncork it and take a whiff of this experience.  It will get you through tough times and you’ll be thankful.”  Still to this day, in my office there is an empty corked glass vial.  Everyone always asks about it!

Another person also gave me some terrific advice.  I was in the process of changing careers and industries.  I was worried and concerned that I had made a bad decision.  She said, “Mike, if you wake up in the night tossing and turning thinking about the fact that you may have made a mistake and it’s only been three months into your new job, roll over and go back to bed.  If later, it’s been six months, and you’re still tossing and turning- get out of bed and start looking for a new job”.  I’ve always heeded that advice and have passed it on so many times.

Lastly, while at AOL, I worked for a guy who has been a professional role model for me. In his position, he was well liked, humorous, smart, respected, open and helped me realize that while work is important, we are not curing cancer.  The simple lesson: It’s important to have a well-balanced life.  Take the time to find time and enjoy all the small, fun aspects of your life and, in the end, life will be so much more rewarding.

Where do you buy most of your clothes to wear to the office?

Since my office is me, myself and I, I make up the rules about what’s acceptable office attire!  It’s all casual – If I’m doing phone interview early in the morning, or an AMA committee meeting, I could still be in my jammies- the Nautica line or Tommy Hilfiger are my favorites.   The stuff I wear in person for a meeting pays homage to designers/lines like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Joseph Aboud, Vineyard Vines and Brooks Brothers.  I also like a Sisley velvet sport coat in the winter, and a Jack Spade bag.  But don’t think for a minute I buy retail. (of course, everyone knows about the Jos. A Banks buy one, get three free sale) I have a frequent shopper card at TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and I am admittedly an outlet shopper.  Anyone who is selling needs to look the part, and why pay full price?- now I’m sounding like a commercial.  Sorry.

Is there anything else we should know about you?

I never obtained a degree in marketing, HR or fashion — my degree was in design.  When I’m not working, I paint abstract landscapes in oil or acrylics on canvas or wood, all inspired by Mark Rothko.  I believe design is all about figuring out how to solve problems creatively and building in a high level of emotion and passion.  Whether you are a creative designer, a marketing strategist, or are trying to figure out your next career move, it takes a certain level of creative problem solving.  Its proven by the fact that everything we do from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed each night – everything we touch was designed by some person who obsessed about solving a problem we didn’t know we had.  That’s great design.  I love the fact that I take it so seriously and apply it to both my personal and professional life.

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