Joe Merica was a Vegas ‘Mad Man’

There was a time Joe Merica had this town by the tail.

Don’t remember him?

Even his cool name had a finger-popping snap to it that made you think of an endless Happy Hour and the clink of ice in fresh glasses. He was a genuine Las Vegas “Mad Man.” You know, a hip advertising executive with a grand gift of gab, unlimited expense account, a salesman’s heart, a wellspring of creativity, a flair for writing and a seemingly endless number of big ideas for clients great and small.

He was so warm and engaging that it was easy to forget he crafted images for a living as a partner in Merica, Burch and Dickerson and other successful firms that bore his name.

But no one pulls the town’s tail forever. Merica died in his sleep June 28. The father of three was 63.

In the wake of his death, there was an obituary that covered all the essentials. Born in Lakeview, Ore., raised in Northern Nevada. Educated at UNR, edited the Ely Daily Times.

Merica jumped from journalism to politics as the press secretary for a gubernatorial hopeful named Richard Bryan.

Then the peripatetic spirit leaped again, moving to Las Vegas to take a job at Cooper, Burch and Howe Advertising. He later helped create Merica, Burch and Dickerson and later lent his name to the Faiss, Foley advertising agency.

His fortunes rose and eventually fell precipitously, and then he just seemed to fade away. His last stop was a teaching gig at a local high school.

A strange thing happened not long after Merica died. No formal funeral service was held, but a memorial tribute sprung up organically from Merica’s friends and acquaintances from the advertising racket. He gave many successful ad and art types their start. Far from some double-dealing TV character, Merica was a mentor and a friend, the genuine article.

His friends missed the Joe they knew back when he was young and strong and full of bright ideas. They missed that spark of creativity.

The Merica I knew was quick with a story, faster to buy a drink and always appeared as if he’d just come walking off the 18th green after scalping the competition. Which, as it turned out, he often was. Even when he told a joke I’d heard before, I kept listening just to see how Joe would deliver the punch line. For me, Merica was a hard-drinking but harmless advertising hustler with a big heart, a salesman in the great American tradition.

In a web comment, his friend Debi said he was, “Smart. Funny. Appreciative, supportive and always got your back. A heart bigger than Secretariat. And a true gentleman. Those are some mighty big foot steps you’ve left behind Merica. You will be missed, but never forgotten.”

In 1994, Merica gave a recent college graduate named Kyle Reinson his start. Two decades later, Reinson said, “Had it not been for him, my life would have taken a different direction and would not have been as meaningful. I will always remember his laugh and his willingness to give an underdog a shot.”

That doesn’t sound anything like a Don Draper character to me. That sounds like someone who had battled to get where he was, but managed to remain generous in spirit.

Merica’s longtime friend and collaborator Kenny Shore said a hundred advertising executives could say the same thing. Many people received encouragement and a start from Merica. He had his own rules and lived by them.

“One of the things about Joe,” Shore said, “is that he wouldn’t go after somebody’s client. He would go after the ones that were up for grabs. He had a moral compass. And he had a work ethic. ... I miss the guy greatly.”

Andy Anderson, a friend from outside the advertising world, observed, “He was a man’s man, the life of the party, and when he would walk into the room he attracted people with his personality.

“He was a true gentleman. He was very patriotic, bought everything American-made. We’d be watching a football game on television, and when ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ would come on, Joe stands up and puts his hand over his heart, at the television for God’s sake. That’s how patriotic he was. And he loved his kids and was very proud of them.”

And if he stayed on past Happy Hour in a place with no closing time, his friends knew he wasn’t the first and won’t be the last.

In November, a few dozen of Merica’s advertising alums got together at Dona Maria’s to toast their mentor and friend. Joe got to hear some of the many people he’d helped in his life thank him for the kindness in an often unkind racket.

It was only right. They knew Joe Merica when he had the town by the tail.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.