Author Archives: mikepalma

About mikepalma

Rainmaker & Headhunter for creative agencies.

7 Lessons learned from Jim Valvano…

…relevant to the agency business and life

images-2Every year around NCAA Tournament time, I think about my old coach, Jim Valvano. He’s become synonymous with the underdog. As one of my life’s great fortunes, I played for Coach V on his last two Iona teams after transferring from Wake Forest. In our two seasons together, we went 52-11, won two ECAC championships and made it to the NCAA Tournament both years. We beat the Kansas Jayhawks, Pittsburgh, St. John’s, Wichita State, Seton Hall and Mike Krzyzewski’s Army squad thrice.

We also beat the eventual tournament champion, Louisville, 77-60 in Madison Square Garden in February of 1980. They0_0_3586_4675 were nicknamed the “Doctors of Dunk.” We were a bunch of tough New York kids without a nickname. That season, we ranked in the Top 20 of the Final AP Poll.

Playing for V was an emotional roller coaster — such incredible highs and lows. There was no “normal.” Everything he did was a challenge to our manhood and our competitiveness. He and I had an unusual bond —  we were both English majors and literary students. We often discussed the frailty of the human condition and the duty of the writer to make language new.

I learned seven key lessons from Jimmy that apply not just to basketball, but to the agency business and life:

  1. “The only two things that are real in this world are Achievements and Relationships.”  V would finish this thought with, “and we get to have both.” 40 years later, this theory has withstood the test of time. Everything else just fades away, like cheap ink.
  2. “Never accept in victory what you wouldn’t in defeat.”  Boy, does this apply to the pitch process. You might get away with less than your best occasionally; but it will surely come back to haunt you when you need it most.
  3. “Dare to Dream.” As usual, V usually had a subtitle to his headlines. For this one it was, “and then out-dream yourself.” Our dream was to beat the #1 team in the country in the 9 o’clock game at The Garden. What’s your team’s dream? Agency of the Year? What’s your personal dream? Marketer of the Year? A One Show Pencil? Go do it…anything is possible if you plan for it.
  4. “Always know the time and score.” Sounds simple, right? It’s not. Your shelf life as a professional has an expiration date. And your value is measured in wins. Never lose sight of the clock and scoreboard. LinkedIn is littered with expert losers.
  5. “Success requires a system.” All great coaches have a system. The system wins and the system loses. The players are just executors of the system. Great players in a bad system often lose. And good ones in a great system almost always win.
  6. “Basketball is a cumulative game.” Life is a cumulative game; so is your career, your agency or your brand: it’s ALL a cumulative game. It all counts — not just the last 2 minutes. A missed opportunity is a missed opportunity.
  7. “Make enthusiasm a habit.” Our industry attracts cynics…don’t be one. Train your enthusiasm, don’t curb it. Foster it. Develop it. Seek inspiration. Find and channel your inner Coach V; number 15 below did.550684_10150977951418433_828174284_n

The Arc of a Great Career: 5 Steps

The great pros come full circle

What is it that makes for a great career versus a merely efficient one? Many people do their jobs well enough to survive many years. They manage to avert layoffs, downsizing and restructuring. Somehow, they prosper. They adapt. They advance. Yet they never achieve their fullest potential. They never seem to be completely satisfied with their lot in their professional lives. They never reach their full promise.

Conversely, there are big winners — the great ones,images

“the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn like fabulous yellow roman candles and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

What separates the roman candles from the matchsticks?

This is my thirtieth year recruiting top professionals in the advertising industry. I’m fortunate to have a large and significant sample size to make observations and draw theories upon what separates the wheat from the chaff. What I’ve noticed is the stars all share a similar arc in their careers. In fact, the “arc” is actually a career that comes full circle.

Nobody asked me, but these are the 5 steps:


  1. STUDENT: We all begin as novices. We all start the same way, in the metaphorical mailroom. Our careers are narratives, coming-of-age stories: allegories. A literal AND a figurative journey unfolds. Call us Ishmael, and our industry the Great White Shark. I remember cutting out the daily advertising columns from the Wall Street Journal and pasting them into a binder. This began in 1990, and by 1997, I filled up 6 large binders of advertising industry content that I studied every weekend. Then, the world went digital and the files moved to jump drives. This is the time we begin building our career skills.
  2. JOB: A speaker at a Mary Kay seminar once spouted, “JOB is just an acronym for ‘Journey Of the Broke.'” This is true. If you approach what you do every day as a job, that’s all it will ever be. You will never make a lot of money, you will always live beyond your means. And your career “cycle” will become increasingly vicious. But, we all start as entry-levelers. Our first “big break” is simply landing a job. Rule #1: Never let your boss beat you to the office in the morning. My first big break came as an assistant basketball coach at The College of the Holy Cross. It’s where I learned how to recruit and where I also learned Rule #1 from the head coach. It was great advice from a work ethic standpoint. This is the point of the arc where we begin defining ourselves.
  3. CAREER: Ah, this is what happens when we get good at what we do — when people value our work and our particular skills. These are the chapters of the allegory where our professional lives take on a direction. A roadmap develops. We stay the course. Our goals are met. We gain clarity. We adjust. We reinvent ourselves. We change, morph, transform. This is the time of our lives when we hit our stride.
  4. VOCATION: I speak often of the “vocation-based” professional mindset. At its core, it’s approaching what you do as if it were a higher calling — as if your career chose you and not vice versa. It’s the WHY we are, not the WHAT. This is pretty heavy shit, when you really think about it. But, when it happened to me, it was truly an epiphany and changed my life. Crazy to think that my work was part of a bigger picture, a grander scheme. Crazy to want to give something back. Uh…not so crazy. What will you be remembered as? What will be your legacy? This is the true mark we make.
  5. STUDENT: Elliptically, it all comes full circle — we wind up where we started. I can’t say it better than this guy:

TS Eliot“We shall not cease from exploration /And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning…” — T.S. EliotFour Quartets

It amazes me how many folks on LinkedIN and the like describe themselves as “experts” at what they do at this final stage of their careers. I’m leery of experts. I want to go out as a student.

The 12 Best Cuban Cigars of 2018

New releases & old favorites made for a very good year

“By the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the fertile land. From it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.” — Genesis 3:19

What the heck do cigars have to do with the mission of this blog? Well, we toil by the unknown-1
sweat of our brow in an industry with a 6-9 month sales cycle (at best). For many ad agencies, one good account per year is both sufficient and acceptable. That makes for a rare opportunity to celebrate the fruition of our labor. What better way to do so than by gifting and/or enjoying one of nature’s perfect organic treats — the Cuban cigar.

imagesHistorically, the cigar represents a time of celebration or victory. From the birth of a new child, weddings, business mergers, World Wars (Winston Churchill, anyone?) and perhaps most common, a victory cigar for a sporting event. Cigars and winning seem to go hand in hand for as long as I can remember. And Red Auerbach is our patron saint.

Year-end “best of” lists are ubiquitous, I know. But there is one in particular that I plug into while monitoring my own Cuban cigar collection: James Suckling’s Havana Insider list.

2018 was special for me as I finally had the opportunity to visit Havana and experience the cigar culture of Cuba firsthand. That September visit inspires this list.

My 2018 list focuses exclusively on regular production vitolas. While there is no disputing the quality of pricey Limited Editions; and special Regional Releases are great too, but it’s like “cheating,” akin to naming a $500 bottle of First Growth Bordeaux as a “Wine of the Year.”

Nobody asked me, but here is my subjective list of best Cuban smokes from 2018:

  1. Quai d’Orsay 50: 2018 marked a glamorous comeback for this marca; born as a regional brand targeted to the discriminate French market. Both the “50” and the “54” (named after their ring gauges) are reblended and repackaged from the original QdO brand. The result is an elegant short cigar. As refined as a Cohiba Robusto and richer than a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure #2, this cigar tops my list. The perfect complement to a glass of champagne. Purchased as a 10 box from La Casa del Habano, Hotel Conde de Villanueva near the Port of Havana. 98 points
  2. Punch Punch 48: A new size and blend for a classic cigar. Double-banded as an LCDH exclusive, it is still a regular production cigar and is priced accordingly. But it’s what’s inside the wrapper that’s special. If you enjoy the Punch flavor profile, as I do, this cigar takes it to a new plateau. Rich, decadent, fresh. Purchased as a 10 box from the La Casa del Habano, Hotel Meliá Cohiba in Vedado, Havana. 97 points
  3. Partagas 898 Varnished: Unapologetically old school. This is what Cuban cigars tasted like 30 years ago. And I miss that. Long and skinny, this cigar bucks the current popular trend of thick, jawbreaker girths. The Lonsdale size is one of my favorites. The 898 is a classic in the earthy, spicy, peppery tradition of Cuban flavor profiles. A rare find, purchased as a 25 box in the 898 format at the un-snooty La Vega at Palacio de las Artesanías in Havana. 96 points
  4. Ramon Allones Small Club Coronas: These babies are little gems. Perfect for your employees or clients that “don’t smoke cigars.” There is no more exemplary small sampling of the alchemy and magic that Cuban soil and seeds can create. Majestic and bold. Not as complex as the RA Specially Selected, but more flamboyant. Purchased from an authorized Habanos SA dealer in Hong Kong. 96 points
  5. Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo de Depute: Woody and creamy, hard to imagine this much flavor can emanate from such a small format. The perfect after-lunch cigar. Good things come in small packages. 95 points
  6. Trinidad Fundadores: Boy, did this cigar make a comeback last year. Long, thin and elegant, these lanceros drip honey. Sweet and rich, maybe the best turnaround story in the Habanos portfolio. A special occasion cigar, like after winning a major review. Purchased as a 24 count varnished slide-lid box. 95 points
  7. Fonseca No. 1: Another old school Lonsdale makes the list. A superb value, the tissue-wrapped No. 1 holds its own in any blind tasting. Unusually flavorful for a mild cigar. Good for the golf course or the 19th hole. Purchased as a dress box of 25 at La Casa del Habano in the basement of the famous Hotel Nacional, Vedado. 94 points.
  8. Partagas Serie E No. 2: Many of these boxes are rolled at the famous Cohiba-dominant El Laguito factory. And the quality/flavor concentration is on par with the vaunted Cohiba Behikes. These are rich, strong, bold after-dinner smokes. Not for the faint of heart. They are sold in 5 and 25 count semi-boite nature cedar boxes. 94 points
  9. El Rey del Mundo Choix Supreme: Inconsistent production and quality control. Admittedly, some are not so good. But, the good ones are absolutely glorious. I smoked a couple that were superior to the Cohiba Robusto. Sweet, mild and harmoniously balanced. When they’re on, they are great. 92 points
  10. Cohiba Exquisitos: What Cuban list would be complete without a Cohiba? These are slim, panatela-styled smokes. A tiny but powerful flavor bomb. Hard to describe grassy and honey flavors in the Cohiba tradition. Readily available. Don’t take them for granted. 91 points
  11. H. Upmann Petit Coronas: Unfortunately, this cigar was discontinued last year by Habanos SA. My favorite Petit Corona in the world. If you can find them, buy as many as you can and stash. No better example of a pure H. Upmann experience. Burns like a champ. 91 points
  12. Diplomaticos #2: I prefer this piramide to the Montecristo #2, and many smokers consider them cousins. Again, rustic old school notes. Yet somehow refined and elegant flavors. A miracle in construction. The “hairiest” wrapper in the Cuban portfolio. Good gracious, if someone said I could only smoke one Cuban cigar moving forward, this may be the one. 90 points


The Best Creative Agency in each State: 2018


It’s that time of year for the Midterm creative agency evaluations. Below are the winners, by state. The single criterion is current creative work; not legacy reputations. The best work right now. In some cases, certain states are omitted. Either no agency met the standard, or I simply didn’t know enough about the creative landscape in that particular state (Alaska, for instance).

The Palma Honor Roll:

  • Alabama               BIG, Birmingham                    
  • Arizona                 Santy, Scottsdale                     
  • Arkansas              Eric Rob & Isaac, Little Rock
  • California (So.)    Anomaly, LA                            
  • California (No.)   BSSP, Sausalito                        !/welcome
  • Colorado               Made, Boulder                        
  • Connecticut         Cronin, Glastonbury             
  • D.C.                       Admirable Devil                    
  • Delaware            Aloysius Butler & Clark, Wilm.
  • Florida (So.)         David, Miami                         
  • Florida (No.)         Bright Red\TBWA                  
  • Georgia                 Fitzco, Atlanta                        
  • Illinois                   C-K, Chicago                           
  • Indiana                  Young & Laramore, Indy   
  • Iowa                       Flynn/Wright, Des Moines
  • Kentucky               Scoppechio, Louisville        
  • Louisiana              Trumpet, New Orleans       
  • Maine                    Via, Portland                         
  • Maryland              RP3, Bethesda                       
  • Massachusetts     The Fantastical, Boston       
  • Michigan              Doner, Southfield                 
  • Minnesota            Fallon, Minneapolis             
  • Mississippi           MWB, Jackson                        
  • Missouri               Barkley, KC                             
  • Nebraska              Bailey Lauerman, Omaha  
  • Nevada                  R&R, Las Vegas                     
  • New Mexico         McKeeWallwork, Albuq.     
  • New York               360i, NYC                                
  • North Carolina     Baldwin&, Raleigh               
  • Ohio                       Brokaw, Cleveland               
  • Oregon                 Wieden & Kennedy, Portland
  • Pennsylvania (E)    Pavone, Harrisburg           
  • Pennsylvania (W)  Brunner, Pittsburgh           
  • Rhode Island          NAIL                                       
  • South Carolina       EP, & Co. Greenville            
  • Tennessee                Tombras, Knoxville           
  • Texas                         McGarrah Jessee, Austin  
  • Virginia                     Martin Agency, Richmond
  • Washington              copacino+fujikado, Seattle
  • Wisconsin                 C-K, Milwaukee                   

The 5 key questions to ask on a job interview

Candidates can control their fate by asking these 5 questions

Ok, I’m fortunate to have learned a few things after setting up 5,000 interviews in my 28 Unknownyears as an agency headhunter.

For one, many employers don’t know how to interview talented candidates. For another, HR sticks too closely to specs and job descriptions. And most importantly, candidates are so eager to talk about themselves that they often fail to ask the right questions.

What are the right questions?

  1. What do you expect me to accomplish in this role?
  2. What current obstacles are there in the way to accomplishing these things?
  3. What are next steps in the hiring process?
  4. Is there anything else you or I need to know?
  5. When can I start? (assuming you want the job, ask for it)

Ask the first two questions early in the interview. Ask question 3 about midway through the interview. Save the last two for your “close.”

Make sure you take notes and write down the answers you get. You are now ready to respond intelligently to the employers’ questions framed in their own language & expectations. Control the interview, don’t let it control you.

Win One Good Account in 2018


The hour is upon us. Grow Agency Grow is officially launched. Our website is live and the betting windows are open for business. Free pizzas to the first 100 members.



2018: The Year of Grow Agency Grow

Welcome to New Business MasterClass

It’s a new year and everyone is back to square one in the ad agency world. New forecastscropped-GrowAgencyGrow_Gradient-1 to meet. New business to get. Do you have a plan for growth? Are you committed to growth? How are you preparing for growth in 2018? Or is this year just a wash, rinse and repeat of 2017?

I’m excited to announce a better way for your agency to approach new business in 2018 and beyond. Next week, Ed Klein and I are launching Grow Agency Grow, an ad agency gag-1new business training & coaching company.

Grow Agency Grow will provide on-demand new business training content through online video lessons. It is the ad agency equivalent of MasterClass.  The videos will be released next week to subscribers. We believe it is a more efficient, effective and modern way to gain winning new business knowledge than attending conferences, seminars, summits and other code names for boondoggle.

cropped-GrowAgencyGrow_Gradient-1Grow Agency Grow launches next week on LinkedIn, so keep a lookout …it will change your agency’s life.