McLean was an industry icon

Don McLean passed away on July 12. Many of you would have known him, but for those who didn't, Don was the owner of The Partners' Film Company, one of the oldest commercial production companies in Canada. He and six original partners began the company in 1978, and Don helmed it right until his death.

Don McLean passed away on July 12. Many of you would have known him, but for those who didn’t, Don was the owner of The Partners’ Film Company, one of the oldest commercial production companies in Canada. He and six original partners began the company in 1978, and Don helmed it right until his death.

I had the pleasure of beginning my career at Partners’ in the heyday of the ’80s and I can truly say it was the place to be. There was a spirit, a buzz and a healthy competitiveness that Don fostered with his sometimes gruff but always nurturing hand. It was a creative machine that operated at a dizzying pace and I was awestruck and totally hooked. We worked like dogs but we loved it.

I am however, only one example of a career that he kick started; the list is endless. He loved nothing better than finding and launching new careers. That is his legacy. Directors such as Marco Brambilla, Jeremiah Chechik and Bronwen Hughes began with Don and moved on to have successful careers in the feature film industry. Steve Chase, who is one of the most sought-after directors in North America, started with him and remained loyal to Don throughout his career. Don also supported many Canadian legends, such as Bill Irish, who directed beautiful, award-winning spots like Canadian Tire’s ‘Bike Story.’

On the post-production front, he launched many creative boutiques such as Panic & Bob, Axyz Editing, Crush and School to name a few. The same holds for production as he was the hand behind successful companies such as Industry Films, Imported Artists and Untitled. Don even launched support service companies, like RDS Wardrobe and Absolute Locations. His influence went deep within the industry and although many of the companies are now independent, they started with his help.

At his memorial service last month, many spoke about the influence he had on their lives. He was a mentor to some, a partner to others, a trusted advisor, a friend. He inspired creativity and compassion in those who worked for him. It was always about the work and the people; the other stuff worked itself out. At the end of the day, he was always there.

When I made the leap to the agency side, my relationship with Don took on another layer. He was a person agencies could rely on for anything. We called for advice, we called for favours and sometimes we called to complain, but in the end he always had time for any query and was deeply interested in what we were doing. He was collaborative and passionate to problem solve any board we had. ‘How can we achieve the idea?’ ‘Who would be best?’ ‘What do we need?’ and ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make it work.’

What lessons did I take away from Don? You’d better know your stuff. It was the cost of entry and he demanded it, or you faced the bellow from his office (really all bark, no bite). Perhaps more importantly, he taught me that anything is possible. He had the ultimate ‘can do’ attitude. In this business where we create magic every day, Don didn’t shy away from any challenge.

I can’t think of Don without thinking about his kind and generous spirit, particularly towards kids. The Partners’ Christmas party was the event to be at. I knew many agency folks who would borrow a kid or treat a cousin or niece just to go. It was magic. It was such a gift to the industry.

Don’s love of children went beyond just a seasonal display. He often spoke about his kids and grandkids, and one of my last conversations with him was about his planned cruise with his grandkids. There were lots of questions about how mine were, followed by gifts for each of them.

The advertising industry would not be what it is today without Don. His passing is truly the end of an era. No other person has done so much to build the infrastructure that we all enjoy and I can’t see another like him. His desire, drive and ability to nurture new talent is unmatched. He gave so much. He was at the heart of the production community and we all owe him a lot.

Our industry will have to find ways to carry on his legacy of developing new talent. I know I am one person who will always have him in my thoughts.

Cynthia Heyd is SVP/director of creative services at BBDO Toronto. She can be reached at cynthia.heyd@bbdo.ca