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Joe Erwin receives Visionary Leadership Award

The elements of every presentation are perfectly in place. The logo, the lights, the brand. You'd expect no less from Greenville's top ad man, Joe Erwin. He's build a 40-year career crafting impeccable messaging to push before the public.

By Stephanie Trotter

Confession #1: “I’m unworthy.”

“Bridge-builder,” “servant-leader,” “community champion” – just a few descriptors others use to describe the 63-year-old. But only one comes to his mind: unworthy.

Compiling a list of entities the executive has served requires a fresh legal pad. Pages fill with dozens of board, committee, and campaign posts, from the South Carolina Special Olympics to the local Chamber of Commerce, the Humane Society to Greenville Revitalization Corporation, Partnership for a Drug-Free America to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Animals, food, literacy, children, education, sports, politics – his philanthropic interests are wide-ranging. Thousands have benefitted from his volunteer efforts, yet he feels unworthy of recognition.

Confession #2: “Education is the one thing that can transform lives.”

Roughly one-third of Erwin’s time is spent on philanthropy, with education as his primary focal point. “It’s the one thing that can be transformative to the lives of people who were not born with a silver spoon,” he explains. “Those born into a challenging existence, who come from homes beneath the poverty line, or from broken homes. The fact is, if they are able to attain a quality education, they can overcome that adversity to do great things.”

Confession #3: “I really don’t want to be known as ‘Demo Joe.’”

When it comes to politics, Erwin knows he’s a blue fish swimming in a red sea. It’s a lesson he learned early in life. “I remember going door-to-door for candidates before I was old enough to vote,” he reminisces. “I spent so much time working for others, going way back to Pug Ravenel.” His fingerprints can be found on many Democratic victories, including Dick Riley’s and Jim Hodges’ runs for governor, as well as former president Barack Obama’s bid for the White House.

Confession #4: “Retirement? I don’t know what the hell that’s about.”

After 29 years, Erwin stepped away from his namesake ad agency, Erwin Penland, to pilot Endeavor, a collaborative workspace for creative professionals. “It was time to find another season, another path to do something else that mattered, and could create joy for others,” he says. “I’m working harder, have more on my plate, and I’m probably having more fun than I ever have in my life.”

Confession #5: “The Erwins are not the Gates.”

“We are proponents for the arts,” he explains. “And it’s not just seeing the arts performed. It’s how do the arts make you feel? He pauses for a moment, then clarifies. “Look, the Erwins are not the Gates. We don’t think we’re solving the problems of the world. But I remind myself, and my young friends, and all kinds of friends, all of us can change the world, by changing the life of a single person. A single family. So, why not try for that?”

Confession #6: “I don’t have time to think about a legacy.”

Young heads pop above cubicles, as Erwin walks through Endeavor. The next generation yearns to soak up all it can from the master communicator. His legacy of giving, through time, money, and action, is already taking shape, but he doesn’t want to hear it. “I don’t care,” he asserts without hesitation. “That’s too daunting. I don’t want to put pressure on myself. I’m going to try to always, or at least 95 percent of the time, do the right thing. I’m not perfect, but I want to keep doing the right thing, and I want to do some things that matter.”

And that, certainly, makes him worthy.

“Every organization needs a cheerleader, a manager, a head coach, and a visionary. Few have one person can serve all of those roles concurrently. Joe has successfully done this throughout his career.” – Rick Davis, CEO, Elliot Davis

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