A new sketchbook is one hundred, intentionally left blank, pages. My new Strathmore 400 Series 'Sketch' book went with me everywhere, but I never expected it to take me to where I am today. My parents called me down from my bedroom, to join them in the living room, to meet some new friends of theirs from 'the club,' Allen and Susan Kay. "Bring your sketchbook," my Dad said, "I want you to show it to Mr. Kay." Needham, Harper & Steers had just become Needham Worldwide, and Mr. Kay just so happened to be one of the agency's top Creative Directors - actually, more like one of the top Advertising Art Director/Producer executives on Madison Avenue, if not the entire country. Mr. Kay began looking through my sketchbook, in what seemed more like a portfolio review than a friendly gesture on his part because he was a guest in our home. "You should be an Art Director," he said. At fifteen, this was new to me, but he had my full attention when he began to explain how an Art Director works with lettering, photography and illustrations - and puts it all together with ideas, or as he referred to them, concepts. "An Art Director comes up with ideas and puts it all together," is all I had to hear. All my parents wanted to know was if I could make a living.

Clearly, Mr. Kay was making more than just a living, and he invited me to come visit him at his office in Manhattan. Taking my first-ever skyscraper elevator ride to a floor so high the view of lower Manhattan was unobstructed, the doors opened to the quintessential New York advertising agency and I felt oddly like I belonged here. Creatives in suits and ties might be a bit of an oxymoron, but this was all business and the view was spectacular. By this time I'd learned that Mr. Kay was a bit of a celebrity in the agency world. His claim to fame is the Brother Dominic campaign he created for Xerox, which premiered during the 1976 Super Bowl. The New York Times called it one of the top 25 ads of the 20th century. For the record, Mr. Kay is also responsible for giving the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) a human voice and coined the phrase, "If You See Something, Say Something." What I never expected is that he saw something in me. 

My big black plastic portfolio felt like amateur hour in the big-time lair of this advertising legend. Of course, I brought my sketchbook, but all the other samples of my work to date were from art classes in High School. From the time I was fourteen, I’d been flying solo on Decamp Bus 33 from Clifton into Manhattan for more traditional fine art training at The Art Students League of New York. The education I received merely by walking from the Port of Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street, through the raunchy westside of Times Square, and up to 57th Street for my Saturday morning class far outweighed my nude figure drawing sessions. The school's reputation carried some weight on my rookie resume, but it was the experience itself that became the art in my portfolio. As it turned out, Mr. Kay had attended the school as well when he was a kid. When I asked him where I should go to college if I wanted to be an Art Director, there wasn't the slightest hesitation in his answer, "ArtCenter College of Design." I'd never heard of it, but he told me it's in Pasadena, California and it's where he graduated from. He explained to me that ArtCenter doesn't take students right out of High School, even though they had accepted him, so I would need to get my academics out of the way at a more traditional college or university. His suggestion for this was Syracuse University. Naturally, when the time came, I only applied to one school - Syracuse. There was no Plan B. I wasn't cocky, just confident. With my abysmal SAT scores, an upgraded portfolio, and a nice letter of reference from the owner of the little NJ ad agency where I had been working part-time, I was accepted to their Crouse College of Art.


  • Allen Kay

    Mikel, what a wonderful story. I’m proud of you and honored.
    I had to look at my driver’s license to make sure you were talking about me! Yup, two ll’s and and e. Figured you got the right guy. Write on!

  • Michael Katz

    My images are this young artist wandering in the desert of NYC in search of a creative home😉

Leave a comment