Advertising alum Mike Wychocki credits college leadership and faculty for career inspirations
Since Mike Wychocki (BS ’83, advertising) graduated from the University of Illinois College of Media nearly 40 years ago, he has helped build and sell two advertising/marketing agencies, traveled around the world, and become Chief Marketing Officer of a global container-shipping transportation company.
In all that time, Wychocki has never forgotten a certain College of Media associate dean and a professor, both of whom played a vital role in his education and professional success.
“One of the things that keeps me connected to the University of Illinois and the College of Media is, at the time, we had a Dean of Students named William Alfeld. He helped me get across the finish line,” Wychocki said. “I think if it weren’t for Dean Alfeld, I probably wouldn’t have graduated.
“Dean Alfeld was one of those kind gentlemen who had a big heart. He would always help me figure something out,” Wychocki said of the late Alfeld, who served as associate dean at the college from 1962 to 1992.
Wychocki, a first-generation college student from the south side of Chicago, was unfamiliar with the collegiate lifestyle and overwhelmed upon his arrival.
He initially struggled with academics and didn’t care for the large lecture-type classes held in huge auditoriums. Thankfully, Alfeld helped him navigate the challenge of introductory courses, and helped identify the strengths and talents that enabled him to thrive in the major.
Wychocki also recalls an advertising professor who had a profound impact on his career—the late Gordon White, who Wychocki describes as “the second most influential person” he encountered as a student on campus. White, who taught classes in advertising creative strategy, also earned his MS and PhD degrees in the college.
“[Professor White] taught me a lot and was very supportive of me. He gave me the confidence to know that I was a good storyteller. And I believe that all advertising starts with a good story,” he said.
“Taking several journalism classes also helped and Professor White explaining how to craft and express a strong message definitely kept me inspired in my career over the years,” Wychocki added. “Plus, Professor White was an actual Mad Men Creative Director at BBDO on Madison Avenue in NYC in the 1960s and he taught us how the U.S. ad market transited from long-format ads in the 1950s to short, clever, and pithy ads just like Don Draper reminded us 30 years later.”
Wychocki also has fond memories of his time working at WILL-TV as a production assistant, production manager, and assistant producer. He said engaging in hands-on learning at WILL was a pivotal decision that helped guide him to choose a path in marketing and advertising.
The advertising education he received at Illinois has enabled him to create numerous career opportunities, including his current role as CMO of EagleRail. About seven years ago, Wychocki started out as a freelance marketing consultant for EagleRail, a global transportation solution that automates short-haul container shuttling between ports and intermodal facilities.
Wychocki describes the company concept as “doing with a 60,000-pound box what Amazon warehouses do with a 60-pound box. Robotically lift it, shuttle it, and set it back down in the right spot.” He developed that elevator pitch seven years ago, and still uses it today.
After just a few months of joining the company, Wychocki purchased majority interest of EagleRail from the company’s inventor and took the lead as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. More recently, he decided to focus on the marketing and sales side of the business and hired his own replacement.
“I always knew my job here was to sell this concept—create this story from the whole cloth. I recently hired my own replacement with international operational and global finance experience and gave myself the title of Chief Marketing Officer,” he said.
No matter how far his career has taken him away from the University of Illinois campus, he will always recall the unique places and traditions that students still enjoy today, such has hanging out on the Quad and “geeking out” to the Marching Illini band perform at sporting events.
If he had any career advice to give current advertising students, Wychocki says it would be to work hard to create, cultivate, and value professional relationships. While a good strategy and creative execution are important, nothing helps you succeed long-term like creating a personal connection with the people you’re working with, whether it’s a client or a colleague.
“I’m a huge believer in positive relationships as currency. I think it is one of the keys to success,” he said. “You have three elements in life that will determine the level you achieve professionally: how smart you are, how hard you work, and how well you work with other people. If you’ve got two out of three, you’ll be a success...and working well with others is the lowest investment and highest return of the three.”
Wychocki also recommends being yourself and understanding your own strengths first.
“If you know what your brand is and know what your strengths are, then you’ll know how to position yourself either for jobs or accounts or freelance opportunities that are right for you,” he said. “Be yourself and find out what your internal brand is. If you want to figure out how to create someone else’s brand, first you’ve got to figure out your brand, and then you’ll be in the best position to succeed.”