Mark “Dill” Driscoll is sitting in a rocking chair in his office, surrounded by photos and mementos of a remarkable business career. With his youthful, exuberant demeanor, even in repose, he carries the posture of a downhill skier just shot from the gate. At 58, when many successful entrepreneurs might be contemplating taking up that rocking chair full-time, Driscoll has just been named the first Terry College Entrepreneur-in-Residence.
Good luck finding him in his own. Ever in motion, Driscoll and his wife and business partner Susan McWhorter Driscoll (BBA ’85, MMR ’86) live on a farm in the tiny south Georgia town of Osierfield, and usually commute to Driscoll’s ignition inc. Atlanta office on weekdays, often via his twin-engine Baron 58. Driscoll says his international travel schedule has slowed, so he travels to other countries for business only “about once a month.”
Still, Driscoll spends most Fridays in Athens, connecting with enterprising Terry students.
Driscoll earned his Entrepreneur-in-Residence title after a few on-campus guest lectures inspired him to set up day-long volunteer workshops to answer students’ entrepreneurial questions. After four years of such guest visits, he proposed bringing Terry students into his myriad endeavors around the world, showing them the importance of “the human touch,” as he puts it, though “human torch” is a more apt description of how Driscoll’s fiery will to succees fuels his unique brand of marketing.
“That’s all business is…the human touch,” says Driscoll. “Students know all the charts and graphs, but they’ve never been to a real meeting. And if I’m going to a meeting, I’m taking them with me. It doesn’t matter how high-level. If I’m meeting with Mike Adams, they’re going with me.”
A pioneer in what he calls “experiential marketing,” Driscoll has made a living by leading people to new products and sports by incorporating real-world experiences into the sales pitch. His first successes included installing an indoor track in his Lake Placid, N.Y., ski shop, to help customers try out Nike Waffle shoes. Later, in 1984, he partnered with Busch beer to bring artificial snow to the Boston Commons. He would go on to found two of his own experiential marketing companies, signing Coca-Cola and the ’96 Olympic Torch Relay as clients. After selling those companies to McCann-Erikson, Driscoll founded ignition inc., a campaign management company that boasts such global clients as the FIFA World Soccer Cup Trophy tour, Delta Air Lines, and Live Earth concerts.
Meanwhile, experiential marketing is growing exponentially. A recent example: Oprah’s season-opening show, featuring 21,000 dancers, was brought to Chicago’s Michigan Avenue as a “flash mob,” a technique Driscoll has also employed.
“It’s about bringing brands to life with human interaction,” says Driscoll. “You create memory points — like seeing the Olympic flame. Everything is a part of that, including the kids on the trucks handing out Cokes.” (Driscoll’s firm holds “casting calls” from a database of about 6,000 for such jobs.) In addition to folding Terry students into the action, Driscoll is also pledging UGA a percentage of profits from ventures he’s involved with, such as the Digital College Network, and a batting-stance tool that pro scouts and the UGA baseball team are interested in called The Fix.
Driscoll’s first job out of St. Lawrence University was as a high school teacher. “Did you see Dead Poets Society?” he asks of the 1989 movie featuring Robin Williams as an unconventional teacher who challenges and motivates his students. “That’s what my classes were like.” (He got the nickname Dill, he says, after becoming fascinated with gangster John Dillinger in college: “He did the impossible. He used to rob banks, and people would actually cheer for him!”)
An avid skier and college athlete, Driscoll grew up in a well-to-do family. His mother, a Ridder of Knight-Ridder fame, “grew up in the Carlyle Hotel,” says Driscoll, who ultimately distanced himself from his wealthy relatives, and put himself through school, often by washing dishes and other menial tasks. He says his zeal to prove himself was something his future wife found attractive when she was a marketing employee for Coca-Cola, and hired his firm.
When she and Driscoll joined professional forces in 1997, creating ignition’s umbrella firm McWhorter-Driscoll, she convinced Coca-Cola that it made sense for her to be liaison for the firm with the company. The two married in 1999 — and spent their honeymoon in Belgium battling the PR fiasco Coke suffered in the wake of what turned out to be a false health scare, after schoolchildren became sick after drinking the product. “It just proved that bad things can happen if you let relationships founder,” she says.
Today, the Driscolls have opened their offices, their hearts, and even their homes to UGA and Terry students — as many as 100 have shown up for Driscoll’s on-campus chat sessions, to talk about “their lives, their careers…anything they want,” says Susan. The two were stunned when one male student wanted to know, “Should I quit school?” But it’s not what you think. He said he had been making more than $6,000 a month, selling jeans over the Internet from his dorm room. “We told him to stay in school,” says Susan, “but also asked if he was paying taxes.” Driscoll directed the student to an accountant, who advised the student on how to proceed.
Driscoll recruits students and “casts” them for roles in front of, and behind, the camera for marketing films and productions for Terry’s music business students. Thanks to Driscoll’s efforts, one of them, Akin Adebowale, obtained an on-the-field, all-access pass to a UGA game, allowing him to film side-by-side with ESPN.
Susan has also gotten accustomed to sudden phone calls from her husband, telling her he’s bringing 10 Terry students home with him for the weekend. After dinner Friday night, the students can take advantage of the Driscoll estate’s horses, ATVs, and just plain distance from their hectic lives. It gives them a chance to discuss what’s going on in their lives — academic, professional, and social. In that country estate environment, Driscoll is able to provide a unique blend of experiential mentoring.
“My job,” he says, “is to create opportunities and get kids on the playing field, then to coach and inspire them. Not do it for them, not grade them, but inspire them.”
“We had a bunch of them over, with a campfire, making s’mores,” says Susan. “They had a great time. Who would have thought a bunch of college students would enjoy sitting around a campfire in South Georgia, making s’mores? But they did!”
Then again, Dill Driscoll has made a career out of letting people know what experiences should feel like before they buy into them. At Terry, he’s allowing students to know what it feels like to be an entrepreneur. Chalk it up to the power of the human touch — as delivered by The Human Torch.