JA Business Hall of Fame: Martha Bartlett Piland
…which perfectly accessorize a business suit that might have come straight off of the runway at “Fashion Week,” everything about Martha Bartlett Piland screams creative.
TREATS If you have met with Martha or attended one of her speaking engagements, you know one thing: she always brings treats. This custom stems from an incident during her middle school years when a group of girls on the school bus kept picking on her and saying mean things. When she told her mother about it, the advice she received was “take them candy bars.” To her amazement it worked, and she has been offering people treats ever since.
“You can return meanness with kindness. That is what my mother taught me,” Martha says. “So I take that into life."
STYLE She also brings an effortless sense of style. Her closet contains an eclectic mix of vintage items passed down by her mother, trendy high-fashion pieces from her travels and treasures she has found at stores such as TJ Maxx.
“It’s not where you shop,” Martha says. “It’s how you put it together.”
Paying homage to her early retail days, Martha actually merchandises her own closet. Clothes are organized from long to short and by color. Even her shoes are displayed by season and shade.
“It’s like a surge of energy every time I go into my closet,” Martha laughs. “It makes getting dressed every morning feel like I am shopping.”
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, raised in Dayton, Ohio, until middle school and spending her high school years in Augusta, Kansas, Martha appreciates diverse points of view. She also understands that sometimes the path to your end goal takes a detour or two.
DREAMS After graduating from Washburn University with a communications/public relations degree, Martha dreamed of working in an agency where she could put her creativity to work. Unfortunately, no jobs were available at the time, so her first detour led her into a retail position at Dillard’s. While some people would view this as a roadblock, Martha saw it as a chance for her to be what she terms an “intrapreneur.”
“I looked for ways to contribute in a meaningful way,” Martha says. “I did special things with merchandising to make certain displays stand out. I sought out opportunities to shine.”
And shine she did. In fact, Victoria’s Secret recruited her to be the store manager at the “new” mall in town.
Even though she excelled in the retail environment, Martha hadn’t lost sight of her dream to part of an advertising agency. When a position opened up with AdMark in Topeka, Martha jumped at the opportunity.
“I would have swept the floors, anything, just to work there,” Martha says.
She spent the next few months seeking ways to set herself apart, to prove she was a good hire. That effort paid off and Martha earned a position on the agency side of the business, where she spent the next eight years following her dream.
DETOUR Then came the next detour.
Having grown as much as she could within the agency, Martha decided to look at the world of advertising and public relations from the client side. She landed an opportunity with Heartland Health, a fledgling insurance company. For Martha, the transition from working in an extremely creative environment to a corporate one was a huge culture shock. The company didn’t have a marketing department—she had to build one. It didn’t have extensive creative resources—she was the “creative.”
Even though Martha’s creativity helped turn that fledgling insurance company into a household name, she missed the creative energy that permeated agency life.
Her “light bulb” moment came at dinner one night, when her husband, Gary, encouraged her to open her own agency.
And just like that, she found herself back on the path to fulfilling her dream.
ENTREPRENEUR MBPiland opened for business in 1998. No clients. No employees. No office. Just Martha, fueled by her husband’s faith, working out of a home office.
“Even though I worked at the house, I was at my desk by 7:30 every morning, with a suit and heels on,” Martha says. “If I wanted others to take me seriously, I need to be a serious business woman.”
Branding her company as a “fat-free” business model that provided full service creative without the extra cost, Martha’s biggest challenge was telling her story to bigger clients. She knew she could perform—she just needed people to believe in her.
“I lived the mantra, ‘plan your work and work your plan,’” Martha says.
That philosophy paid off. Within two years she opened an office space and hired employees to help manage the growing agency.
“Being an entrepreneur teaches you that you can do things you never even thought possible,” Martha says. “Having things be my decision, for good or bad, is empowering and energizing to me.”
MENTOR After two decades of building her creative legacy, Martha has discovered her true purpose in life: to mentor and teach. Whether it is helping a client understand that engaging customers is all about sensory experiences, or immersing advertising students in agency life so they can see how the “real world” operates, Martha looks for ways to help others succeed.
She also has some valuable advice.
“Never cheat or cut corners. Always do things that are worthy of your best self.”