Storyteller-in-Chief: Life comes full circle

Steve Kokes and son Cameron in Pacific City (summer, 2016)

The president of Coates Kokes reflects on his son’s decision to go into the ad business.

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When I was 18 and pondering what to study as I entered the University of Oregon, I had one of those pivotal conversations with my dad. Although I was just beginning an undergrad journey, I raised the issue of studying to become a lawyer.

That was my dad’s field of choice. He put in a more than 30- year career with the Multnomah County DA’s office as a deputy District Attorney — the public-sector version of a company man. From my view, he had always enjoyed his job. I sat in on a few big cases. It wasn’t quite like Perry Mason, but the trial work seemed interesting, and decisions usually went his way.

To my surprise, Dad’s advice pushed against the idea of law school. His take was that most people who went to law school didn’t end up practicing law. He said the field was crowded, and while the work could be rewarding, the odds that would be the case for any individual law school grad weren’t that good. 

I don’t know exactly what he was feeling. The prospect of the cost of law school might have been a little scary. Maybe the job wasn’t as fulfilling as it looked. I was never really sure. Ultimately, his advice forced me to think harder about a future career, rather than default to the one that was easiest to see from my vantage as a lawyer’s son.

storytellerSteveI went into U of O exploring my options. By sophomore year, I had landed on journalism with an eye toward the ad business. Then, as now, the J-school had a great reputation, and the more I explored it, the more I liked what I was learning.

As it turns out, I’m a 32-year veteran of the advertising business.

It feels funny to call it that these days. The lines between paid and earned media are so blurred, and most of the clients we work for are mission-driven organizations trying to make this world a little more equitable or sustainable. While we’re still engaging people, and storytelling hasn’t gone out of style, the form of the work and its delivery have changed considerably in this digital age.

Seventeen years ago, my business partner, Jeanie Coates, invited me into the entrepreneurial journey that is Coates Kokes. It’s been a great adventure and one I’m thankful to have the opportunity to embrace.

That said, neither advertising nor entrepreneurship have been easy.

And nothing brings those challenges more into focus like having your child come of age in that same field you chose for your career.

My son, Cameron, fresh off of graduating from that same university two hours down the road, in that same J-school, has just embarked on his first real job in the ad business. After a three-month internship in New York this summer, his career is beginning in Los Angeles —  the same city in which I spent seven and a half years before returning to my home state. It’s a relatively new shop but one he’s excited to join.

Believe me, I didn’t try to engineer this result. Yes, there was some inevitable influence.

In addition to my background, my wife, Madeline, is a veteran of the ad business herself, including a decade at Wieden + Kennedy. Sharing stories at the dinner table, we often touched on some aspect of the work scene. However, we frequently tried to offset that effect with a push to explore alternatives.

When it was time to think about college, we forced Cam to look at other schools. When he chose the J-school over physiology, we made the challenges of a service business in a rapidly changing era as vivid as we could. I also made it clear I could not promise him a job at my company. 

That said, while we threw out plenty of cautionary tales, I stopped short of trying to fully discourage Cameron from this path.

As he now heads off to begin his own career, I’m filled with pride and high hopes, but the subtle trepidation doesn’t completely fade away. I still hear my dad’s voice and wince just a bit at some sense of responsibility for inspiring Cam to take this direction.

Inevitably, his journey will be his own. I started out in account management. He’s going to be a copywriter. He may have picked up some inspiration from parents “in the biz,” but he’s found his own enthusiasm for the field. There will be ups and downs, and certainly he could still go in a significantly different direction or change to another field altogether. He’ll make those calls as they come up.

But as I think about the future of the business, I’m the one who’s inspired by Cameron, and by the young people I see in my company and across the field. As digital natives, they take to change quickly. They feed off each other, and they love to learn — and to contribute. Looking through Cam’s eyes and their eyes, the future looks especially bright to me.

Steve Kokes is president and strategic director at Coates Kokes.