My father, who was in the Air Force Reserves, was relocated here in 1960 from Columbia, SC, where I was born. I was about to enter the first grade, and like many American families, we moved to the suburbs. When my parents built our four-bedroom, two-story house on Wooddale, it was one of the first houses on that street in the Parkway Village subdivision. For me, upon reflection, it wasn't a particularly stimulating environment, but it was a safe suburban existence.
We were middle-class, which in those days was on a lot lower end of the spectrum than it is now. There were three children: my brother, my sister, and I was the baby. I had friends in the neighborhood, and we rode our bicycles and played with Troll dolls; I took flute and piano lessons, went to the opera and symphony, read, took short family vacations in the station wagon — very typical childhood for those times. But looking back, I feel as though I was under-stimulated. I was always a little bored.
My mother loved to take care of our yard with flowers and gardens. She was an educator. She went back to school to get her master's degree when I was in sixth grade. Then she got her Ph.D. in English about the time I graduated high school. She actually moved down to Ole Miss to put in a year of residency! She became chairman of the English Department at State Technical Institute at Memphis.
My father ultimately became a Lieutenant Colonel. He was gone a lot in my early childhood, but when I was a teenager, he took early retirement and became the househusband while Mother went back to school. He really cheered her on in getting a higher education.
I remember as a teenager telling him that I thought I wanted to be a flight attendant. He said, "Why don't you be the first female commercial pilot?" He had high aspirations for me. And I had the role model of Mother working, too, when I was a teenager, so I was very much drawn to work.
In high school, I was more interested in working than I was in joining any clubs or school activities. I taught piano and worked at Goldsmith's. To me, money meant independence.
I decided I wanted a career in journalism during my sophomore year at Memphis State University. I had to declare a major, and I really didn't know what I wanted to do. But I knew I had some talent for writing, grammar, and English — all of that came naturally to me, having been coached by my mother my whole life. I could barely complete a sentence without her correcting me! In my later years, she used to call me to correct my grammatical errors she found in newspaper quotes.
I also took an advertising 101 class in the journalism department because I had started dating Jerry Ehrlich, who was an account executive for John Malmo Advertising. I met John Malmo there when he gave a presentation to the class, and I introduced myself.
Around the same time, one of the advertising professors asked if I would like to train for the business manager position at the school's newspaper, The Helmsman. So all of this came together just in time for declaring my major, and I chose journalism with an emphasis in advertising and public relations.
Jerry and I married in my junior year. My parents were not pleased that I was marrying so young, but I reassured them that I would still get my degree. I thought I was in love, and marriage also represented independence to me. We bought a little bungalow on Evelyn in Midtown for $18,000. I graduated in 1976, and I still didn't have a clue what I wanted to do with myself.
I went on job interviews with local advertising agencies, and one of them pointed me to one of their clients, Libertyland amusement park, which was about to launch. I became Libertyland's first director of sales and guest services in 1976.
Opryland USA recruited me to Nashville in 1977, as a sales rep. Jerry was good enough to move with me. By 1979, I was the park's advertising and promotions manager.
At a 1980 industry conference in Memphis, I was working the Opryland booth, and the city's Mud Island booth was across from us. The city was hiring managers to facilitate the park's creation and opening. John Malmo, who was the agency of record for the project, was helping put the booth together. He said, "You would be perfect as the first marketing director at Mud Island. I'm going to put your name in the hat."
Memphis, at that time, was at an all-time low. Downtown was dead and deserted; Beale Street was boarded up; and The Peabody hotel had closed. But I just couldn't resist marketing such an unusual attraction. It was a very heady time for me because everything was so new and different. I just loved it — I like to launch things. Plus the city needed to protect and preserve that muddy sliver of land at the city's front door.
Jerry wasn't very pleased. He wasn't ready to uproot again to move back to Memphis. So I suggested that we commute between Nashville and Memphis, and we did. And that was the beginning of the end of our marriage. Mother was right: I was too young and immature to be married.
I started at Mud Island in the fall of 1980, working long hours to develop the initial marketing plans and build a 20-person staff. It would be almost two years before the park opened in 1982, but there was so much that needed to be done. I began to become familiar with the city and how it worked from a civic viewpoint. The day Mud Island opened — July 3, 1982 — I was divorced and, returning to my maiden name, became "Cynthia Ham."
By 1984, I had become Mud Island's general manager. But although political forces were expecting the park to be operationally self-sustaining, the park was never designed to generate enough revenue to break even. It was designed to be run by the city's Park Commission, just like every other city park. So we were grappling with that issue of trying to balance the budget, and it was very clear to me that this was an impossible proposition. The park just didn't have enough revenue generators built into it. Politics had docked at Mud Island, and I realized it was time to move on.
John Elkington had just opened Beale Street, and he asked me to be its first marketing director. The historic district was only about 15 percent leased, and marketing it in an attempt to return commerce to a place that didn't have much for sale was a challenge. We developed a lot of events to draw crowds.
By 1985, at 32, I had grown restless and weary of working. I was still not certain what I wanted to be when I grew up. What else was out there? Was the grass greener elsewhere? One day, my girlfriend Charlotte — who was Tennessee's assistant commissioner of tourism — and I were at a conference in Reno, sitting by a pool. I looked at her and said, "I don't want to do this anymore." She looked at me and said, "Me, either."
We saved our money for about a year, and in 1986, quit our jobs and headed out on the road for almost a year to just live in the moment with no responsibilities. We hit 22 states and traveled more than 10,000 miles, from Florida to California and Vancouver, British Columbia, to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We were Thelma and Louise without the guns! The highlight was when we went camping with real — and polite — Colorado cowboys. I crossed the threshold of adulthood during this trip because I came to realize that I could find contentment in my own backyard.
In 1987, back in Memphis, I sent word among my friends that I could use some help with my move into a Midtown apartment. Jeff Sanford was the only one who showed up! He rode with me all over town as I picked up stuff I had farmed out to family and friends. He was so funny, and we laughed all day long — and the next, and the next. We married in 1992.
I consulted and freelanced for a while. Jeff was on the Memphis in May board, and 10 weeks before the 1987 festival celebrating China, the executive director resigned. Jeff thought I'd be a good fit, submitted my resume, and then recused himself from the decision process. They hired me as interim director, and I stayed 10 years, with the festival growing every year.
In 1996, after the festival's successful 20th anniversary, I needed to try something new. So I left the festival and started freelancing from Jeff's office. Out of the blue, Ward Archer called and asked me to head up public relations for his advertising and PR firm, archer>malmo. Fourteen years later, I am one of four principals who own the 105-person, multi-award-winning marketing communications agency that is the largest in the region. I am so very proud of our work, our people, and our culture. We're very serious, but we don't take ourselves too seriously!
The biggest challenge facing marketing communications agencies today … evolving with the technological revolution that constantly changes how products can be marketed.
Of all the career challenges I've taken on, the most daunting was … Memphis in May. It was so multi-faceted: local, state, national, and international government relations; interacting with foreign embassies, and different cultures; raising money; and dealing with the risk of weather. And we didn't have emails — or even fax machines!
Growing up, my parents stressed … independence, self-reliance, and understanding that I should always be able to take care of myself.
I believed in Mud Island despite Downtown's decay because … I think I understood the vision, the need, and the potential for the Memphis riverfront. Memphians had turned their backs on Downtown since the '60s. So to be a part of something that was so unique to Memphis, so much a part of how Memphis should be defined — the river — really captivated me.
My first real leadership role … was in my junior year as the business manager for my college's newspaper. I liked being in charge! I liked being accountable and responsible for making sure that the newspaper got out twice a week. And I loved getting paid to do it!
During Mud Island's grand opening, I thought … It was all just dazzling to me. It was so exciting to be a part of something that was such an important amenity for Memphis.
My first event as Beale Street's marketer … New Year's Eve, 1984, when John Malmo and I came up with the idea to "Bury Your Blues on Beale." We had an open casket that represented the outgoing year. We instructed people to bring whatever they wanted to put behind them, and put it in the coffin. We had a eulogy and funeral parade, and it was unbelievably successful.
One of the achievements I'm especially proud of … Memphis 101. I designed it as a new business tool for archer>malmo to reach out to executive newcomers. It's a crash course in why Memphis is the way it is, but we also have a comprehensive, leave-behind textbook. The Leadership Academy integrated it into their curriculum. I think the course has helped engage a lot of people in taking an interest in the city.
I'm not very good at … doing the same thing again and again.
The biggest changes I made at Memphis in May … saving and growing the Beale Street Music Festival and producing the quarter-million-dollar International Tattoo at The Pyramid during the salute to Russia.
The Beale Street Music Festival almost ceased to exist in 1987 because … In its earlier years, it was not designed in a manner that was self-sustaining. The Memphis in May board in 1987 was going to cancel the event, but I suggested the same model that I used when marketing Beale Street: I'd get a sponsorship from D. Canale; sell $5 wristbands to enjoy the bands in the clubs; and use the proceeds to pay back D. Canale. I did that in '87, '88, and '89, enhancing the event each year. Ultimately, in 1990, with help from Pitt Hyde and Mid-South Concerts — a concert promoter who shared the risk — we brought it to Tom Lee Park with multiple stages. The model has been wildly successful since. That's the kind of economic and cultural impact the festival is intended to have.
In the face of adversity I … summon my inner strength through sheer will.
My yearlong "Thelma and Louise" sabbatical taught me … that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side, that the wanderlust I had was not very satisfying, and that deep down, I was a pretty traditional person who needed roots.
Personally, I thought the name "Mud Island" was … fantastic. It was authentic, differentiating from any other place, and it was uniquely Memphis. It was real.
The most challenging Memphis in May production … was when we selected the Soviet Union for the honored country in 1993. When the country collapsed, we honored Russian Federation instead. I went to Russia twice. The first time, Leningrad was Leningrad. The next year, it was St. Petersburg. The government people I worked with had no clue if they were going to have a job the next day. It was such a momentous time!
Traveling to New York City is a several-times-a-year must-do because … we have friends there, and the urban environment is very stimulating to me. I love the walk-ability and accessibility — anything you want, you can get in New York. Once, I had keys made there because it was easier to walk down the street to do it there than it was to get in my car here and drive out east.
My biggest pet peeve … poor use of the language.
People might be surprised to learn … that I was in the R.O.T.C. Saberettes, the marching drill team, in high school. I was Saber Queen in 1972 and rode in the Veterans' Day parade downtown with my little crown, roses, and red crushed-velvet dress!
As chairman of Central Station's grand reopening … the biggest challenge was making sure that we really did the event right while making sure we didn't do it for naught in terms of fundraising.
The number of Opryland shows I watched in the two years I worked there … maybe 10 per week. I can still sing some of those songs! And I enjoyed it every time.
When I decided to quit a successful career in 1986 and hit the road … I asked myself, "What is the worst thing that can happen to me? Starve to death? No. Go to jail? No." I thought, "I have to take this chance. It's now or never."
My biggest fear … Failing. Fear of failure is with me every day throughout my career, but it also drives me.
The Beale Street Music Festival was worth fighting for because … Memphis music is such a part of our heritage. Memphis in May had already claimed the food category when the festival's earlier leaders created the barbecue contest to celebrate our indigenous food. We also had a wonderful event — the Sunset Symphony — that celebrated culture and the arts and drew attention to the river. I felt that we just couldn't lose the opportunity to recognize and celebrate our music heritage.
Wine or beer … Definitely wine. White.
I wish my parents had … guided me a little bit more vocationally. But they were intent upon my forming my own opinions, coming to my own conclusions, and being independent.
My love of international travel came from … my 10 years at Memphis in May.
The greatest satisfaction from my work today comes from … the strength of the archer>malmo partnership, the phenomenal people who represent the agency, and the entrepreneurial opportunities we are exploring by investing our creative capital in digitally driven business.
When I need to clear my mind, I … sit on my porch and watch the river.
My final 2 cents ... While Memphis and I did a lot of growing and evolving together, I credit Memphis with helping me find me. And I realize that Memphis and I are really a lot alike: imperfect and restless but fiercely independent. Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis, said it best: “If you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything.” And that is my mantra — so much so that it is printed on my business card.