What does the ideal mentor look like?

What does the ideal mentor look like?

It’s not who you know, it’s what you learn from who you know.

When the tributes flowed for Australian advertising legend (yes, that is the correct term) Neil Lawrence after his sudden and tragic death recently, the word almost universally used to describe the man was ‘generous’.

I was never fortunate enough to have worked together with him on a specific project, we just shared offices in a couple of different venues and drew pay-checks from the same advertising-industrial-complex. All we really did was talk, now and then. And yet, if I was forced at gunpoint to choose a single word to describe Neil, ‘generous’ is probably where I’d land too.

He never “made a point” of finding out what you were up to, he just did. When most creatives would rather have a tooth extracted than share the glimmer of a concept they were working on, he’d always want your reaction to a campaign idea or line or sketch he had in progress. He’d ring you up and tell you there was someone really interesting sitting in his office, that he thought you should meet, right now.  

And he did this with pretty much everyone he knew. Which was everybody. He was interested and he was engaged. Which made you interested and engaged too. In today’s screen-and-selfie world, that’s very bloody generous indeed.

It’s a people business, after all.

The personal loss felt by so many who were genuinely close to Neil is difficult for me to imagine. As an industry though, we were shocked and saddened, I think, partly because we suddenly realised how few people like Neil there are left in this business.

Perhaps we realised there were very few people like Neil to begin with. People who pluck bright young things, seemingly from nowhere, then give them big, interesting challenges and the encouragement to soar. People who welcome anxious, self-doubting industry stalwarts back into the fold after incredible personal struggles and give them the confidence to climb even higher than they did before.

People like Neil do it partly, I believe, because they recognise how much they can learn from the bright young things and how high they can climb with friends by their side. It’s a generosity that multiplies itself.

So what do we do with all of that?

My immediate reaction was to want to be more like Neil. Specifically, I wanted to make an effort to be more generous with the people I work with and with the industry that, for all its frustrations and base commercialism, has given me the keys to a life worth living. My limited experience with Neil (and with a decent handful of other people in this industry just like him), was as the perfect kind of mentor: the one you didn’t realise you had.

These mentors show up in the guise of friend and colleague, but their role is to help you figure out how to get better at the thing you probably spend more time and energy on than anything else you will do while you are on this planet: your work.

For creatives, unless you enrol in in something like an ADMA school and put yourself deliberately in the orbit of someone like, say, Rob Morrison (another certified industry legend I happen to know, who is also astoundingly generous with his time), the chances of finding yourself the mentor you need at the time you need one are, well, just chances. On the flipside, many experienced ad types I know would love to help someone out, but are rarely formally asked.

Can technology improve the spread of generosity?

Serendipity has a habit of finding you at the most useful occasions (when it doesn’t, we call it distraction). It found me just a few weeks ago, when an ex-agency-colleague announced he’d left his big agency job to start something based on an idea that had simply refused to leave him alone: a platform and marketplace to help creators find mentors, called Seasoned*.

That same ex-colleague called me even before I could get to him: he had attracted a few ‘early adopter’ creatives to his platform and he thought I would be a great match for one of them in particular. Within days, I was up and running with a framework and instructions to help me find my feet as a mentor and make sure the process didn’t simply evaporate after a couple of ‘get to know you’ coffees.

Making good things happen more often.

“The best mentoring happens naturally through work, but it just doesn’t happen often enough.”
Matt Delprado was most recently the CD of Profero Sydney, but fell into the same trap a lot of talented creative people do in big agencies.

“When you get good at your craft, you get promoted out of the craft and into management, which is when the training in most agencies ends.”

He started Seasoned partly to solve his own problem, but it’s working because it’s solving the problems a lot of us are facing. “We’ve all heard the wisdom of hiring people better than you. If you do that, as you should, how are you going to train them? I think we could be helping a much broader range of people practice the skills of mentoring and guidance, before they’re pushed into management roles they’re untrained for.”

After a few experiments with the structure, Matt has landed on the analogy of ‘finding a personal trainer for your craft’. You pay a modest fee for regular mentoring sessions which, just like a trainer, works as an incentive and a commitment: your desire gets you started but your wallet keeps you (quite literally) invested in the process. Similarly, the mentors take it much more seriously knowing that someone has paid for their time and their wisdom. It’s had that effect on me already.

That’ll learn ‘ya.

It also got me thinking about my craft, and the help I might need to take it further. And, boy, do I need some help. Having decided earlier this year that the risks of relying on a multinational organisation to keep me on their org chart for another fiscal year were greater than the risks of becoming an entrepreneur, I’m now swimming in the deep end of business, ha ha!

My previous experience with managing the cashflow of an agency was limited to stamping my little feet whenever the finance department took longer than 48 hours to reimburse my taxi receipt. So I’m asking Matt and Seasoned to find me a mentor to teach me how to run the business end of a business.

My hope is that they’ll find me someone from the management world with the same generous spirit so many people encountered when they spent time with the likes of Neil. In a very small way, I’m hoping to offer a similar experience to my mentees as well.

* Seasoned pairs people who make things, with mentors to guide them. The platform is now in beta and accepting applications for both mentor and mentee positions. More at


If you’re feeling fiscally generous and would like to honour the memory of Neil Lawrence, consider supporting The Centenary Institute, which offers an annual prize for young, innovative scientists, affectionately named “The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize”.

More reading:

How to find (and keep) a good mentor
Job seekers: 5 golden rules to finding a mentor
Grow your influence by becoming a passionate connector of people


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