By Michael J. Mika
Special to Delaware Business Times
John Hawkins walks and talks as he guides us through the offices of ab+c (Aloysius Butler & Clark). He’s intent on showing off the new features of the agency, but stops along the way introducing colleagues and sharing anecdotes about their contribution to the advertising company he helped start 45 years ago.
The team members stop and share a word. They’ve surely done this before. It’s part of the agency’s culture he built with his wife.
This “walk and small talk” meeting style is pure John Hawkins, according to colleagues and friends.
“I’m a relationship guy,” he says. “Because I’m not much on the techie side of business, my expertise is relationship. I’ve always been a social being. I work hard, play hard. It’s my personality.”
Last week, the agency announced a succession plan and divided Hawkins’ duties between two longtime leaders. Tom McGivney, currently a managing partner and chief creative officer, will be promoted to CEO. Paul Pomeroy, currently a managing partner and head of agency marketing, will be promoted to president.
In addition, Steve Merino, creative director and senior managing director of ab+c’s Philadelphia office, will be promoted to managing partner and chief creative officer, succeeding McGivney in this role. Linda Shopa will continue as managing partner and CFO.
“After many decades at the helm of ab+c, I knew the time was right for me to plan my retirement and put our succession plan into action,” says Hawkins. “Growing the agency from a small shop to what it is today has been a pleasure, particularly working with extraordinarily talented professionals and wonderful clients over the years.”
John Clark Hawkins offers many stories as he reflects on the advertising business in Delaware. He remembers the days when DuPont engaged four ad agencies —two national and two local — for its entire book of business. “It created a competitive environment for sure among the local agencies,” he says.
Hawkins admits that the marketing industry has transformed. “We’re standing true. We would still be considered a full-service ad agency with P.R. and strategy,” he says.
He says many clients don’t want all their services, but when it comes to crisis communication and new product development, they reach out to ab+c.
The past 12 months have been an exciting year for Hawkins. Last December, the agency opened a Center City Philadelphia office at 1429 Walnut St., and in March they acquired Davis Advertising Inc., of Bala Cynwyd, an agency that specializes in recruitment marketing.
“The Philly office is very exciting and gives us a space that is attractive to clients,” he says. “The Philadelphia media really pay no attention to Delaware. As an agency we are in top 10 by numbers of people and billing, but we needed the address to continue to grow. Some people we interview for jobs only want to be in Philly market.”
Colleagues and competitors describe the agency’s business culture as a major strength.
Amy Colbourn, a Delaware marketing and advertising professional for more than 20 years, has worked with Hawkins as both a competitor and an employee. She says that agencies strive to be a place that attracts both clients and employees. “John has created a culture at his agency that people want to be part of,” she says.
Agency partner Paul Pomeroy agrees. “He’s always stressed it’s a people business. At end of the day we can do the greatest work, but it’s the people and employees that make it happen. We deal in an industry with strong personalities and things sometimes needed to be smoothed over due to creative or other differences and John had a way to find common group and he did it masterfully.”
“I’ve worked with John for 18 years. Everybody’s first thought about John goes to his personality, warmth, a people person,” Pomeroy says. “What’s missed is that he has a really a phenomenal business mind. You can grow a business through force of personality, but you really have to know how to do business to grow.”
Patrick Callahan, now co-founder of CompassRed, a data and analytics agency, recalls meeting Hawkins when he helped Lee Mikles establish the Archer Group in 2003.
“I had never worked in an agency before; I came from the tech side. I reached out to John and said I wanted to pick his brain,” Callahan remembers. “I laid out every question I had about starting up and he walked me through every step. He made introductions for me.”
“And, he never failed to remind me in a friendly way that we were competitors. He always had his guard up, like a good competitor and businessman.”
Like others, Callahan saw Hawkins and his wife Niki as partners in building the business. She retired as media coordinator at the agency in March and said they always wanted visitors to the agency to feel welcome, like they were visiting them at their home.
“Niki has been the heart and soul of the culture of ab+c since the beginning,” McGivney says. “Those of us who have been here awhile will never forget the memory of Niki carrying in what seemed like hundreds of Acme bags filled with bagels, candy, fruit and other snacks for all of us to enjoy, simply because she thought it was the right thing to do.”
Hawkins enjoys sharing his family’s connection to media.
“I grew up in an agency family — father in radio, mother in newspapers, stepfather was actor in commercials. To me it was a natural. Dinner talk was entrepreneurial and advertising focused which had an early impact on my career I went into banking and worked in marketing and decided I like it better.” he says.
His daughter, Mary Butler Hawkins, interned a summer at the agency, and also started her media career in radio. She is currently a senior account director for Retail-Me-Knot, a national digital, mobile advertising platform. She said they enjoy talking about media business, but now it’s more of a knowledge sharing. She shares digital/mobile media strategies and he shares tips about relationship building.
“He’s taught me the importance of relationships,” she says. “Always be nice and do the right thing by the client, because if they like you, they’ll stick by you. People need to like you. You can have a successful business career by being nice and likable and doing what’s best for the client.”
Next year will bring new challenges, Hawkins says. He opted for a “phased out retirement” that started last year because he said he just couldn’t go out “cold turkey” but says he will be busy. “I’m too restless to sit around.”
He plans to step up his efforts to give back to the community through nonprofits such as Wilmington Leaders Alliance and Canine Partners for Life. He will travel more and says a trip to Africa is still on his bucket list.
“I’m happy for John,” Niki says. “He sees it and feels it now that he’s created a lasting legacy with the agency. John is such an optimist. He’ll do what he always does . . . look at what’s in front of him, and try to manage it.”
Hawkins has his own “15 Rules of Thumb” for conducting business. Not surprisingly, his favorite is about relationships.
“Never hire somebody if you haven’t first had a meal with them.”
He follows the same rule when consenting to a reporter’s request for an interview.
ab+c is a 45-year-old full-service marketing communications agency with 80 staffers at offices in Wilmington, Philadelphia and Bloomsburg, Pa. Established in business-to-business and consumer marketing, the agency brings creative intelligence to local, regional, national and international accounts in a variety of industries. Adweek recently selected the agency as one of its 50 “Top Shops” in the nation.
This year ab+c acquired a Main Line-based agency, Davis Advertising Inc.
to boost one of its growing divisions — recruitment marketing services to help organizations better to reach employees they want. Last year, the agency opened a Center City Philadelphia office to show its greater commitment to Philadelphia. The agency took over an entire floor at 1429 Walnut St. for its Philly headquarters.