fter more than 40 years helping companies with their advertising campaigns, Jack S. DeLeo, president and chief executive officer of Hitchcock, Fleming & Associates Inc., is retiring.
DeLeo, 60, started in the industry as a 19-year-old when he was a night school student at the University of Akron. He wanted to be an illustrator for the art studios in town, which were mostly working for the rubber companies.
In 1973, he was hired by Bob Fleming at what was then called Akron Advertising Art Inc. Among DeLeo’s duties were to be a delivery man to Goodyear. Bob Gray, who retired in 2003 from Goodyear as manager of creative services after 37 years with the company, said he could see DeLeo was a bright young man who listened and got the work done right.
“I thought, ‘Well, put a suit on this guy and a tie and get him working,’ ” recalled Gray.
Gray said recommending DeLeo to Fleming was “self-serving” so “he became the liaison between me and the agency.
“It was like giving me an assistant at [the agency] and someone that was doing the work,” said Gray.
Gray and DeLeo would go on to work closely over the years as the agency, which later became known as Hitchcock, Fleming (HFA), would grow and serve Goodyear, along with other ad agencies. Goodyear is still among its big accounts, DeLeo said.
Gray said while DeLeo’s predecessors, including Fleming and Cy Hitchcock, had leadership roles in their day, “the real change in the advertising business was on Jack’s watch.
“He’s very, very likeable and was always looking for new business, which is the lifeblood of any advertising agency. He did it better than anyone I know and that’s what propelled him,” said Gray.
HFA now employs 88 at its headquarters on Wolf Ledges Parkway in Akron.
DeLeo was grateful that Fleming took a chance on the kid who never finished college because his career took off. “I think you could do it then, but I wouldn’t recommend it today,” he said of not finishing a degree.
The advertising world in the 1970s was different from now. “I was in those Mad Men days with ashtrays full of cigarettes, and martini lunches,” he said, referring to the popular AMC cable television drama about life at a New York agency in the 1960s.
“It’s been exciting to see that grow,” said DeLeo, whose last day will be Monday.
The Akron native was raised in Stow and now lives in Munroe Falls. He said agencies formerly illustrated everything or photographed it themselves. With the Goodyear account, a person had to retouch a tire on an ad by hand, which would take “days and days” and can now be done quickly on a computer.
Benefit of technology
“Technology has been the major difference,” he said. “We are so fast now and dealing with the West Coast and clients out of town or in Akron, but with technology, it’s no big deal where you are.”
The industry has moved from its focus on print, radio and television to social media, and websites and other ways of marketing.
“Our younger people here wouldn’t imagine how we used to carry portfolios, or we called them pizza cases. Now we carry a little stick to the clients,” DeLeo said, referring to a memory stick.
He recalled when agreement were “a handshake and you did the stuff on the golf course. Now no one plays golf.”
DeLeo still believes in face-to-face meetings. “I’ve beat it into my team that, ‘A stranger would fire you, but a friend will at least warn you before they fire you.’ ”
A few years ago, HFA won a pitch to take over Akron General Medical Center’s advertising account from an out-of-state firm. Dr. Tim Stover, now Akron General Health System’s president and CEO, was in on the decision when HFA was selected and worked closely with DeLeo.
Stover said he was impressed that DeLeo was always there.
“He doesn’t send somebody. He’s not running this organization from his house. He’s on site and part of the creative team, but he leaves the expertise up to the special areas,” said Stover.
DeLeo and HFA convinced Akron General to incorporate social media, such as Facebook, before it became popular, Stover said.
Stover, who became friends with DeLeo and his wife, said “it’s just amazing to me how much this guy has done for our community.
“The guy is incredibly creative … he’s got that side of his brain developed [that] I don’t even relate to. He personifies the whole class issue with his typical round glasses everyone knows him by,” said Stover. “He’s a very magnanimous person, but he does it by backing it up ... doing things in the community you wouldn’t even know about and he doesn’t want people to know about,” said Stover.
DeLeo is a past recipient of a community service award from Greenleaf Family Center and in February, he will receive the Ambassador of Service award from the Akron Rotary for years of work with the Akron Rotary Camp. DeLeo is also a board member for the John S. Knight Center and works with the American Cancer Society and Arthritis Foundation.
In the last year, DeLeo has been grooming five vice presidents and two senior advisers to take over as a team. He also recently hired a new creative director.
“I was the last of the little family members who grew up working for the Hitchcocks,” said DeLeo. “I knew I wanted to keep some of the value the company has always had for 74 years.”
DeLeo said he thought of the people he would take with him if he was to start a new firm and came up with his partners.
With the exception of one, the team members have 15 to 25 years with HFA. The two senior advisers have 24 and 35 years.
The six partners are:
• Keith Busch, vice president/client development.
• Dale Elwell, vice president/account services.
• Maggie Harris, vice president/account services.
• Kevin Kinsley, vice president/client development.
• Matt McCallum, vice president/talent development.
• Tracy McCutcheon, executive creative director.
The two senior advisers are Chuck Abraham, executive vice president/chief financial officer, and Shirley Shiver, vice president/strategy and insights.
In the past year, DeLeo let the team run the agency and brought in a coach for team-building.
The six partners make decisions in their specialties, but as a team, they share responsibility for larger decisions. In cases of a conflict, they allow three days to convince everyone to come to an agreement. If not, Abraham, who was DeLeo’s main partner for 25 years, will make the decision.
DeLeo will remain a board member but will no longer be a financial partner. The five partners will be majority owners and McCutcheon, who started recently at HFA, will get an investment opportunity later.
DeLeo said he hopes to start painting again and wants to work on some invention ideas.
Looking back, he said he was most proud of his work with the American Association of Advertising Agencies and serving as chair of the Cleveland Council Board of Governors.
He said 10 years ago, he urged the presidents of competing agencies in Northeast Ohio to work together. They made a pact not to poach each other’s staffs while still competing.
Jim Nash, managing partner of Marcus Thomas LLC in Cleveland, said DeLeo deserves credit for reviving the area association.
Now the Northeast Ohio advertising community can work together “to attract business as opposed to fighting amongst each other for the scraps,” Nash said.
“Jack, probably given where he started and where he is now ... has one foot in the Mad Men era and one in the fast moving social media, multi-platform area. [He] has successfully stood in both understanding the principles in the Mad Men era are the same as now, however, the platforms are new,” said Nash.
The new HFA team takes its responsibility seriously, said Busch.
“Culture is very important. It was taught to Jack and he’s taught it to us,” said Busch. “Our goal is to play a significant role and someday be able to turn it over to someone else.”