Storied marketer David Hawkins reflects on a 50-year career that is far from over
When Mad Men premiered on TV in 2007, David Hawkins’ friends were curious to know if he was as fascinated as they were by the comings and goings at Sterling Cooper, the show’s fictional New York ad agency.
Why not, they wanted to know? The program—an American period drama about life inside a high-powered Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s—depicted a life and times not that far removed from one he had lived.
“Exactly,” he replied. “I know what’s going to happen.”
Many of the bad things that ultimately happened to the TV ad men, Hawkins admits today, almost happened to him. Although he arrived in the ad business five years later than those fictional TV counterparts, he quickly learned how the business worked.
Hawkins was barely 22 when he became the national ad manager for Nikon Minolta Yashica in Montreal, overseeing a budget of $2.5 million and a staff of six, not to mention dealing directly with four different advertising agencies: two in Toronto, one in New York and another in Montreal.
The pace was never-ending (100-hour weeks were common) and the travel disorienting. Once, he landed at an airport at 11 o’clock at night and had to ask a ticket agent where he was. “Winnipeg,” the agent explained. Whenever he’d visit one of the ad agencies, he remembers, the bottles would come out early. Later, there were drugs. Hawkins himself never indulged, never smoked, “never even tasted alcohol.”
Which may be one reason why he could see that agency lifestyle with a clear head. “You’d look around the office and there was no one over 40. I didn’t want to be an old man by the time I was 40. I was 27 years old and I was already burned out.”
Which was when David Hawkins quit. It was 1974. “It was time,” he says now, “to reboot my life.”
But Hawkins didn’t simply reboot; he made what today he likes to call a “political statement.” Four years later, in 1978, he established his own agency in the middle of Nowhere, New Brunswick (actually, in the university town of Sackville, population 5,000), and built a successful business from nothing that, by the time he sold it in 2001, boasted 68 employees and another seven regular freelancers, and was billing $40 million a year in gross billings and generating about $6 million in fees.
Today, David Hawkins is 70 years old and making another political statement—this time, it’s that you don’t need to pack it in just because you’re 65. But we’re getting ahead of our story.
The story of David Hawkins begins in Montreal where he was born in 1947, the son of parents who’d met in the armed services during World War II and were “very service focused.” In his early years, the family bounced from Windsor to Detroit to Oklahoma before finally settling back in Montreal when he was seven.
“I would not characterize myself as a good student,” Hawkins admits. Not to put too fine a point on it: he was expelled from three schools. “I failed every year of high school except one.” He attended McGill University “only briefly. I found school colossally boring, the teachers astonishingly oppressive.” When he was 15, he challenged the principal of his school for failing to deal with a teacher who’d thrown a blackboard eraser at another student, hitting him on the head. “It was a social justice/civil rights thing,” he says of his principled stand. He was expelled anyway.
He doesn’t believe his own discomfort with academics is unique in his current world. “Many entrepreneurs,” he suggests, “are people who didn’t fit anywhere else. I learned how to deal with people believing that you were a failure, not worthy,” he says now. “I remember telling one teacher, ‘You’re wrong. I’ll show you.'”
Hawkins did finally find his own personal refuge while working weekends as a teenager for his father, a Montreal-based entrepreneur who manufactured and sold housewares. One Saturday morning, his father instructed him to make an appointment to pitch a customer on the company’s new line of plastic hangers. The customer was brusque, told young Hawkins he didn’t need whatever he was selling and then made him wait for close to an hour before he deigned to even speak with him—and then made him wait even longer while he went to lunch.
“I think my father may have set it up with him in advance,” Hawkins says with a laugh, “but I don’t know for sure.”
At any rate, while Hawkins waited for the man to return, he remembered how his father had responded when David accompanied him on an earlier sales visit to Eaton’s. The buyer there had seemed equally uninterested—until his father offered to clean up the store’s housewares section. After he finished, the buyer bought.
When the buyer young Hawkins was trying to sell returned to find his own racks cleaned up, he finally relented. “OK, let me look at some of your samples.” He too bought.
“That was the lesson my father was trying to teach me,” Hawkins says now. “You always have to focus on serving the client. Always.”
When he was 20, Hawkins landed a fulltime job in Nikon Minolta Yashica’s Montreal advertising warehouse. “The moment I went to work,” he says today, “I knew I was in my space.” Within two years, he was the company’s national ad manager. “It was a marketing role, but also creative too.”
By the time Hawkins quit five years later, he wasn’t just burned out by the pressures of the job. He knew he’d also had it with the noise and pollution of big city living, and, worse, he had to come to terms with the reality his seven-year marriage, which had produced three children, was also disintegrating.
Hawkins decided to go back to school—”I was under-educated”—and ended up at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Why New Brunswick? He’d been to the Maritimes a few times in his ad manager job, he says, and had even spent time with famed New Brunswick photographer Freeman Patterson, who’d recently switched to Minolta and endorsed its cameras. “I liked the lifestyle in the Maritimes.” Why Mount A? “My sister had gone there, and so had a lot of kids from Montreal. I knew it had a good reputation. Also, I wanted to try a small liberal arts college…”
Hawkins considers those explanations. There may also have been, he tells me today, a deeper reason for his choice. “Sackville was the place that most closely replicated the feeling of safety and security I had as a child when I used to spend time with my [maternal] grandparents in Chatham, Ontario, another small, leafy place.”
He pauses again. “Mount A,” he says finally, “saved my life.”
In truth, Hawkins spent only one year as a student at the university, studying religion and philosophy and dabbling in art history, but the year turned out to be significant for another, much more life-changing reason. He met Lorrie Bell, the woman who would become his life and work partner. Ironically, they’d gone to the same high school in Montreal but didn’t know each other then. It was David’s girlfriend at Mount A who finally introduced them in Sackville, the community Lorrie’s family had moved to in 1969. Lorrie was working in a local bookstore.
After his year at Mount A, David decided he needed to make a living again, and moved to Toronto to set up shop as a freelance writer, designer, producer and ad manager, but Sackville—and Lorrie—were never far from his mind.
He returned two years later. “I came home,” he offers simply. He and Lorrie built a 16-by-22-foot home on the Tantramar Marsh and, in 1978, jointly launched Hawk Communications to “prove you could create a business in Sackville, New Brunswick, with zero dollars and no government funding… I was very private sector-focused,” Hawkins explains today, adding proudly: “we built it one brick at a time.”
His first client was a lawyer in Sackville, a friend of his father-inlaw’s who needed new stationery. “‘I’m not sure what they do,’ my father-in-law told him, ‘but I think they can do that.'” They could. “Mostly, we got clients by word of mouth,” Hawkins says of the early days. “And most of our early work focused on graphics.”
While Lorrie, a weaver by training, mastered graphics, David handled business development and the creative side. As the business grew, they hired an office manager, Carol Chapman, who became a key employee (“absolutely a top, top, top producer”) and is still with the firm today.
One of their first major clients, perhaps not surprisingly, was Mount Allison University, the town’s best known employer and community raison d’être. Mount A had a communications staff, but no marketing department. Hawkins had already dazzled the university while still a student when he was asked to photograph author Margaret Atwood, who happened to be having lunch with the university’s president. The president wanted to be able to present Atwood with a framed photo of the occasion before she left the campus a few hours later. No problem, said Hawkins, who—in that predigital era—not only took the photo, developed and printed it, but he also framed it and brought it back to the university in time for the president to present the memento to Atwood. “It’s all about serving the client.”
When Hawkins returned to set up his own shop, it was only natural for the university to turn to Hawk for communications work.
As luck would have it, Atlantic Wholesalers, which operated 74 Save Easy grocery stores in the Maritimes, was also based in Sackville, largely because of its central location close to the main inter-provincial highway routes. While the company’s small marketing department could produce sales flyers and other straightforward projects, Hawkins pitched them on a broader branding scheme. Since 60 of its stores were in small rural communities, he suggested finding a country music star who could serve as the voice— and face—of Save Easy. Hawkins initially pitched the idea to Anne Murray, “but she was too expensive,” so the company chose Caroll Baker, another popular country singer and TV entertainer from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, instead. Hawkins took her to Nashville to record “beautifully produced” jingles for the chain, and then sent her around the region making personal appearances at local stores. “She was very popular,” Hawkins remembers.
When Atlantic Wholesalers eventually morphed into Atlantic Superstores, “we were there to introduce Dave Nichols [President’s Choice] to the region too.”
And then there was Sabian, a small-town New Brunswick manufacturer, this time of worldclass cymbals. When Hawk took over the firm’s marketing in 1987, Sabian already had a respectable eight per cent of the world’s cymbal market. Hawkins suggested they ask superstar musician Phil Collins, who’d previously endorsed their chief competitor, to become the face of a new Sabian campaign.
“Everyone thought that maybe Phil was too big a star to approach and that maybe we could not afford him,” Hawkins remembers. “However, we had created a global ad concept featuring the drummers… We wanted to honour the drummer. This was an entirely new idea.” After providing him with some Sabian cymbals to try out—Collins was impressed—”we thought we’d just show him our advertising concept to kinda get his reaction. And he loved it. Then, we suggested that maybe he would like to be a part of the campaign… Phil just loved all of this. He really wanted to be seen as an artist, a musician, more than just a super-star… It was a spectacular campaign and hugely successful and opened the door for Sabian to sign on many other very competent, signature drummers around the world.” Thanks in no small part to that campaign, Sabian’s market share grew to 32 per cent.
But it was a 1981 photographic assignment for John Bragg’s nearby and rapidly expanding Oxford Frozen Foods operation that almost accidentally led Hawkins to what “is still our largest and best client,” McCain Foods Limited, the New Brunswick-based privately owned multinational company that is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of frozen French fries.
Hawkins had taken a photo for an Oxford promotion piece featuring blueberries in a field in the early morning. McCain communications staff liked the photo so much they wanted to use it too. “Someone called me and said, ‘We’d like to include it in one of our communications. Why don’t you just bill us $500?’ I said, ‘No, Oxford has already paid for it. They own the image but I’ll clear its use with them and, if they’re OK with it, you can use it for free.’ For some reason, the McCain guy then offered me even more money,” Hawkins laughs. “My answer was still no. I’d already been paid for it. That totally blew them away.” And that soon led to yet another call from a McCain vice president, who told Hawkins, “Well, we have another job for you, and we will pay you for this one.” Hawkins laughs. “We still do work for them all around the world. We’re very much aligned with them.”
Although McCain is headquartered in Florenceville, New Brunswick, more than 350 kilometres from Sackville, “we would never say to McCain—or any other client—’Oh, stop by the next time in you’re in Sackville.’ We’d go to them.” At one point, the company was so busy with clients all over the region it maintained a fleet of 19 company cars just so staff could go to wherever their clients were.
“It comes out of that dedication to service,” explains Hawkins. Can you sense a theme developing here?
Something similar happened in the mid-eighties when Hawkins teamed up with Atlantic Insight magazine publisher Jack Daley in what was supposed to be a one-off joint venture to produce an advertisingfunded travel guide for the New Brunswick government. Two months before it was to be printed, however, Insight went bankrupt.
Failure to print and distribute the guide—the government’s only provincial visitor guide at the time— in time for tourist season would have been a disaster for the province and for those advertisers that depended on the tourist trade.
“Don’t worry,” Hawkins reassured clearly worried tourism department executives. “We’ll take it on ourselves.”
How will you do that, asked a tourism department official who understood very well that Hawk, whatever its ambitions, was really “just a four-person shop in Sackville?”
“‘Don’t worry,’ I told them again. ‘We’ll deliver.’ And we did. Annually for 30 years after that. And always in two official languages. Later, we added hunting and fishing guides too.” That service thing again—coupled with more than a little business savvy.
During his many years in business, David Hawkins did more than hone his marketing and customer service skills. He became a businessman too.
Today, he remembers a series of lightbulb moments along the way. There was that time on the train back from Montreal in 1978, for example, when he began ruminating on the incredible success of New Brunswick’s most successful entrepreneur, K. C. Irving, and wondered if there were lessons he could apply to his own operation. Hawkins knew Irving had built his empire through vertical integration, owning all the key links in the chain and making each one a profit centre. What about the many elements of his own business, he wondered: photography, graphics, typesetting, printing, public relations, communications? What if…?
In 1980, Hawk bought its own typesetting equipment for $24,000, no small sum in those days. Instead of wasting days bussing material to Halifax to be typeset, then proofread, then edited, then corrected, and shuttling the pages back and forth between Sackville and Halifax several times before the job was done, Hawk was able to do everything faster and cheaper in-house. To make the investment make sense, he says, “we began by finding typesetting clients and then using the equipment in our own work.”
Hawkins did the same with almost every aspect of the business—except printing, which it still made more sense to contract out—creating a web of inter-connected and profitable businesses that served the interests of the larger business.
That was another lightbulb moment. “I was walking along the sidewalk in Sackville one day in 1982—I can show you the exact piece of sidewalk I was walking on at the time—and I suddenly realized I needed to decide whether I was in the revenue-stream business or whether I was building a company.
“At the time, the business was based on me. It was a personal revenue stream like a doctor or a lawyer… like my father. What I needed to do was to think of what I was building as a business that wouldn’t just be dependent on me.” That meant a commitment to investing—in people, in equipment, in a company structure that could eventually go on without him. “Lorrie and I owned 95 per cent of everything. If we were going to have a real business, we agreed we would need to reinvest almost all of the profits after our salaries back into building the business. And that’s what we did.”
And the business grew and prospered. Until…
“I hate to say what I’m about to say, but we got too big for Sackville,” Hawkins tells me.
Hawk had maintained a small satellite office in Moncton since 1984, a year after Hawkins himself officially became part of a team promoting that city’s advantages “during a very challenging time economically,” which only became much worse when CN, the city’s largest employer, effectively pulled out of Moncton.” Hawkins calls that, “The bomb. Thousands of jobs would be gone. It was shocking.” His group doubled down on their efforts to reposition the city for the future. “We did some amazing promotional campaigns throughout that era and well into the ’90s and just kept building, building, building,” Hawkins says proudly. “As Frank McKenna put it, the ‘Moncton Miracle’ emerged and carries on to this day.”
Hawkins’ Hawk Communications itself became part of that miracle when it relocated to Moncton in 1996. “We’d grown—a lot,” Hawkins explains over lunch at the Blue Olive, a restaurant beside the office building in Moncton where Hawk moved, and just around the corner from his current offices in a former funeral home. “We had five different offices in Sackville. We needed to bring everything together, and Moncton was just more central. It was also a happening place where clients came willingly. We no longer needed 19 cars. We reduced our own travel by 80 per cent.”
Still, the company continued to invest and re-invest in growth. In the late 1980s, Hawkins recalls, the company decided to leave the analog world behind, pouring “a couple of million” into the brave new world of “computerizing everything.”
It wasn’t always easy—and sometimes some of those investments didn’t necessarily seem such a smart idea during the short term.
At the bottom of the 1992 recession, for example, the company owed $3.2 million. “It was tense,” Hawkins admits. “You had to be prepared to cope with that, and your psychology had to be in alignment with that.”
Hawkins and Hawk weathered that financial storm, and many others but, by 2001, he admits, “I was tired… Lorrie and I were both tired.” It was time to prove the business they had built really could outlast them.
On October 3, 2001, they sold the company to Judith Irving. (It has since been re-sold.)
“Initially,” Hawkins says, “I just needed to turn off.” Thanks to a four-and-a-half-year noncompete arrangement with Hawk’s new owner, he had little choice. Gradually, he began to fill the spaces in his days with volunteer and board work, then opened up shop on his own once again as a consultant before being lured back into the agency business fulltime as the New Brunswickbased vice president of Colour, one of Atlantic Canada’s largest and most successful marketing communications firms.
After a four-year stint at Colour, however, Hawkins was eager to re-launch his own marketing and communications consultancy. At that point—he was 64—it would have been easy enough to begin to wind down and disappear gently into retirement, he acknowledges, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up business building. “In my head,” he says, “I wanted to start again when I was 65.” Another political statement.
And then along came Brad Leblanc.
In 2007, John Thompson, the CEO of Enterprise Greater Moncton, called Hawkins to ask him if he’d be willing to meet with—and perhaps mentor—an 18-year-old local wunderkind named Brad Leblanc. Leblanc had created his first business (a neighbourhood DJ service) when he was just 11 and had been a serial entrepreneur ever since.
“I recognized something in Brad,” Hawkins says today.
“We hit it off,” agrees Leblanc,” and it has been an adventure ever since.”
It has. In 2010, young Leblanc came up with the audacious idea of organizing an Atlantic Dream Festival “celebrating the hidden entrepreneur in all of us,” and then larded in an even more audacious dream: persuading billionaire industrialist Richard Branson to be the event’s keynote speaker. Leblanc surprised everyone, including his mentor, by not only getting Branson on board but then also signing up other luminaries as speakers, including former New Brunswick premier and Canadian ambassador to the United States Frank McKenna; entrepreneur, venture capitalist and CBC host Kevin O’Leary; Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes; even CBC radio host Stuart McLean.
To make all of Leblanc’s ambitious dreaming become event reality, Hawkins “played Yoda to Leblanc’s Luke Skywalker,” as writer Alec Bruce put it in an article in the September-October 2010 issue of Atlantic Business Magazine, “helping to arrange important meetings, greasing some crucial wheels, handling public relations, and generally providing sage and cogent advice.”
Two years later, Leblanc recalls, “I was having coffee with David, dreaming of what’s possible, and I proposed we start a new kind of agency—one that focuses on entrepreneurs and clients who are looking to make big things happen. He was all in.”
Today, Hawkins is the CEO of a 14-person agency, now known as Brainworks Razor. “We divide and conquer the running of the business,” says Leblanc, who serves as the agency’s president. Hawkins, who has his own consulting office down the hall where he and Lorrie also continue to serve as independent consultants, is “at the agency almost every day [and] plays a critical role for the team,” Leblanc explains, handling the legal, financial and process side of the business. “He’s also highly involved in helping develop the strategies for many of our clients and campaigns.
“I still remember one of our first projects was with a very small car dealership in rural Nova Scotia,” Leblanc adds. “We were organizing a grand opening for them, and David drove four hours each way to be there to support the client and us in our early days as an agency. That speaks to exactly who he is.”
That’s just one of the lessons Leblanc says he has learned from Hawkins. There are others. “‘Nothing is impossible,'” he begins, rhyming them off. “‘The importance of systems and administration (David calls this the missing third); pushing limits is important; you can do anything from Atlantic Canada…'”
As for David Hawkins’ own future, he says he still has “more building to do over the next three to five years.” And then there will be succession planning and eventually “some stepping back. I’ll have to decide how much I want to be involved—how much they want me to be involved.”
And then too, of course, he could decide to make another political statement.