Take Five with Mike Mellia ’02

Mellia gif


Mike Mellia ’02 creates advertising and films for fashion brands, often with himself as the subject. He currently appears in 12-ft. digital video billboards around New York City for Brooks Brothers and has also worked with clients such as W Magazine, The Gap, Intel, Swarovski, Hearst and more. Mellia’s campaigns have been recognized for outstanding creativity by Adweek, NBC, CNN, MoMA PS1, Fast Company, Vice, The Guardian, Vogue and others. You can follow his adventures on Instagram at @mikemelliastudio.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

As a child I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a famous jazz musician. I was playing jazz piano in a few clubs in downtown New York, and my dad was a jazz saxophonist.

In the second week of my freshman year I decided to challenge myself by running for class president, even though I had no knowledge of politics or public speaking. I was shy and inexperienced, and I was easily defeated. The following year I returned with a more organized effort and won the election for class president the next three years. In many ways this was my first advertising campaign, since I made posters with surreal photos of myself in unusual circumstances with copywriting encouraging students to vote for me.

I remember Columbia had this electricity in the air. Political activism, fast jazz, subversive literature — I was determined to make the College experience of 1998 in New York as groundbreaking as that of Allen Ginsberg [’48] and Jack Kerouac [’44].

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

One of my campaign posters featured a photo of a young girl sitting inside of a washing machine while I reached in to shake her hand. It was captioned, “Want Better Housing?” and encouraged students to vote for me. Of course this was only tongue-in-cheek because the architecture is absolutely beautiful and living at Columbia that first year was one of the most influential experiences of my life. When I was 18, I was young and naive. Suddenly, I was staying up all night discussing jazz, politics, art and literature with brilliant students from all over the world. It was an intense and immediate awakening, like emerging from Plato’s cave.

What class do you most remember and why?

For years I was obsessed with Latin. Imagine larger-than-life orators giving speeches in ancient Rome. I remember shouting those speeches in class, in Latin, while pounding the podium with my fists. In ancient Rome, going to the Colosseum to listen to debates, poetry or speeches was the social media of the year 100 B.C. How many followers would Julius Caesar or Pliny the Elder have on Instagram? I guess after the fall of the Roman Empire, they would have had to delete their accounts.

I always loved this universe. Even though Latin isn’t a spoken language, it’s the basis for many of the Romance languages, like Italian, Spanish and so on. Today, my 3-year-old daughter, Aria, speaks primarily Italian with me and my wife, even though we live on the Upper East Side.

I majored in economics and philosophy, and did a concentration in music. I think everyone should study as many different areas as possible regardless of what you think your career will be. The Core Curriculum was so influential in the way that it teaches you how to think rather than only teaching you one particular area. It also makes you think that anything is possible and that feeling is something we should always fight to hold on to.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I remember hitting golf balls on the steps of Low Library in the middle of the night. It was so inspiring to think of everything that must have happened on that campus over decades and decades.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

That’s hard to answer, because I really believe that everyone’s life is a result of a non-linear, winding story. When I was at the College, I had to work really hard to communicate well because my ideas were so abstract that I would seem awkward to my friends and classmates. Ironically, I have made these feelings an advantage now, in making creative and unusual ad campaigns. I will always believe that Columbia is the best university in the world.