Industry remembers Steve Hancock

Friends and colleagues pay tribute to the former TBWA\Chiat\Day Canada president, who passed away on June 24.

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Steve Hancock, one of the founding members of Chiat/Day’s first Canadian office, the first president of TBWA\Chiat\Day Canada and one of the first to bring the account planning practice to the country, has passed away.

Peel Regional Police say Hancock, 58, was struck by a car while riding his bike with a group of other cyclists in Mississauga on the evening of June 7. He died in hospital as a result of those injuries on June 24. He’s survived by his wife, Karen Simpson, and their three children.

Hancock started his advertising career in London in the 1980s and was recruited by what was then known as Chiat/Day to establish the account planning and strategy service in their San Francisco office. In 1988, he was tasked with doing the same in Toronto as part of the management team that established the agency’s first office in Canada. He stayed on until 1992 as VP and director of account planning, during which time Chiat/Day was named Agency of the Year twice and produced CASSIES-winning work for clients including Nissan and Canadian Airlines, an account it won shortly after opening in Toronto that helped establish its foothold here.

Hancock was then transferred to the agency’s New York office, but he would come back to Toronto in 1994 as managing partner, helping to lead the office with with Jay Bertram and Michael Shedlich, co-managing directors, and Ira Matathia, president of the Toronto and New York offices (or Chiat/East, as it was then known). In 1995, after the Chiat/Day network was acquired by TBWA, Matathia was moved to focus exclusively on New York, while Hancock was named president of the new TBWA\Chiat\Day Canada.

He held that position until the beginning of 2000, when he left the post to launch Adbeast, a digital platform for those in the ad industry to manage assets and collaborate on projects. He left the company 12 years later after its acquisition by DG, becoming an independent consultant, focusing on startups and tech companies.

Late last year, Hancock was named to the board of directors for VidWrx, a Vancouver-based video production company, and was appointed president and COO in January.

Matathia says that he, “like everyone,” is “devastated” by the loss.

“I’d known Steve a bit when I arrived from New York, and knew he was highly rated by both Jane Newman and MT Rainey, both legendary planners and, subsequently, presidents of Chiat/Day agencies,” he says. “As I came to know him, Steve’s many talents – his obvious smarts, his sense of Canada and Canadians, his wit, his sensitivity, his business acumen and his superlative creative judgement – were readily evident. The quintessential strategist, an invaluable component of Jay Chiat’s vision of how to build a great agency, with a seamless, co-equal partnership of creative, strategy, internal/external management and client.”

Matathia says Hancock’s planning smarts were behind much of the work that established Chiat/Day in its early years. He says his insight into the car market led to original Canadian work being produced for Nissan, instead of a U.S. adaptation, and embraced Canadian Airlines’ status as a challenger brand “before they were the fashion.” Hancock also worked on breakthrough campaigns for Shopper’s Drug Mart and a platform for Labatt Dry that included what Matathia calls “the best mnemonic device I’ve ever seen.”

Jennifer Wilson was one of the early hires at Chiat/Day Canada, coming on board six months after the office opened, and was the first Canadian account planner Hancock trained. She says an early “Wing Walker” campaign for Canadian Airlines they worked on together, which showed someone walking across the wing of an unspecified rival airline to get onto a Canadian Airlines flight, resulted in the company stealing 18% of Air Canada’s business-class passengers. Wilson and Hancock also worked together to convince Canadian Nissan dealers to adopt the corporate advertising in a campaign that eventually won one of the first Effie Awards.

“One of the best things about that time in the agency was the level of integrity of the work and the clients,” she says. “They didn’t pitch for new business that they didn’t believe in, which was really exciting and I find had a deep influence on my career. He was the inspiration and mentorship and support that created my career, in a nutshell.”

Geoffrey Roche was a creative director at the young Chiat/Day Toronto. He left the agency in early 1991 to launch the agency that would bear his name, but remained close with Hancock.

“Steve Hancock was a bright spark in the agency, a truly brilliant strategic thinker and an amazing force to be reckoned with,” Roche says of working with Hancock in the early days of what was Chiat/Day’s first international office. “We often butted heads over the ‘work’ but it always came down to making it better. That, and since Steve was a Brit, most everything he said seemed that much smarter. I hated that part too. I remained friends with Steve over the years and saw him blossom as both a businessman and entrepreneur in a very tough environment. He went on to do many great things in the industry and had a lot of admirers because of just how hardworking and resilient he was. Including me.”

Wilson also says Hancock was a great friend outside of the work, mentioning that he went above and beyond to find a way to get her to come back to work from maternity leave while also being able to pay for daycare. None of those options worked out, but he welcomed her back with open arms when an opportunity did open up some time later.

Matathia adds that the friendship of someone like Hancock, who was trusted so much by the agency, not only made his own transition into the Canadian market for the first time that much easier, but also helped with his recovery from a skiing accident in 1992 that kept him out of the office for an extended period of time.

“Steve’s leadership made it possible for me to stay connected to the agency, while focusing on my recovery. We’ll not see his like anytime soon.”

Both Matathia and Roche also talk about what a big family man Hancock was.

“His kids are amazing and Steve was immensely proud of them. Lunch always included pictures,” Roche says. “Even in his personal life Steve faced down some pretty tough challenges and set an example of just what was important at the end of the day – deal with it and get on with life and enjoy every last minute. And Steve did. In spades. That’s why I’ll miss him so much because Steve, simply put, was a great human being.”