#8 – (M)Ad Man: How the Classics Informed Malachy Walsh’s Career in Advertising

Scott interviews Online Great Books seminar leader and former ad-man Malachy Walsh about his Classical education and his long career in advertising during the fertile “Mad Men” period of the industry in the late 60’s through the 70’s.

Malachy has dedicated his life to learning and literature. Educated at a Jesuit school at Georgetown, he had undergrad exposure to Greek, Latin, philosophy, math, science, and of course the foundational texts of the Western canon. Facing down the Vietnam War as a young college student in the Sixties, Malachy pursued a PhD in English at the Univesity of Chicago to avoid going to war, and to dive deeper into his love for literature. He eventually realized the life of an academic involved a lot of toil, long, dark hours in the library, and scholarly articles — without a lot of reward — so he abandoned his dissertation for a career in the burgeoning field of advertising.

In the ad world he met a lot of similar folks – literary critics, writers, and other creatives – and began working on many classic ad campaigns including Kellog’s Tony the Tiger and the U.S. Marine’s famous slogan “The Few. The Proud. The Brave. The Marines.” As his career progressed he moved into creative strategy, where he was tasked with learning the audience for various products and their motivations for using the product: their desires, their drive to maintain a certain image, and the language they used to communicate what they liked and didn’t like. He found that Socratic dialogue worked best when meeting with focus groups — small groups of consumers advertisers would canvas to learn more about how products were perceived — and it was important to ask good questions about consumers wants, rather than to convince them to like a certain product.

Now retired at the age of 71, Malachy’s lessons from advertising still inform his study and teaching of the Great Books. His mission in retirement is to lead others to engage with the Western canon, and help them build their minds through reading and discussion. He leads seminars for his home group based out of Mount Carmel church in Chicago as well as for Online Great Books. As with his focus groups, he insists on not teaching or pushing his own agenda, but asking incisive questions to challenge new lines of thinking in the readers’ minds.