July 7, 2014 | last updated July 7, 2014 8:14 am

How a colorful illustrator found ad-world success

Steve Laschever
Steve Laschever
Joseph M. Hoke, one of the creative and entrepreneurial anchors of Avon's Mintz & Hoke advertising-public relations firm, recently entered two Connecticut ad-creative halls of fame.
Joe Hoke's creative focus nowadays is on consulting and illustrating.

Joe Hoke's ad favorites

At one time, the public didn't believe the Special Olympics was a legitimate sporting event or that the participants were real athletes. The shock value of the picture headline combination jolted people into seeing a new reality. Attendance doubled. Donations increased 30 percent. For the first time, Connecticut newspapers featured stories on the event in their sports sections. And the campaign became the national model for changing public attitudes.

Joe Hoke's ad favorites

Other cars featured beauty shots. Volvo took the opposite approach. This shot of a dirty Volvo going through awful driving conditions, with the headline "Drive it like you hate it," was about as different as you can get. It positioned Volvo as the tough one and helped Volvo become the biggest-selling imported compact car in America.

Joe Hoke's ad favorites

The picture-headline combination tells the story. And the growing size of the headlines add to the sense of urgency. Calls to American Cancer Society for screenings jumped almost five times. And the client says the campaign saved at least one person's life.

Joe Hoke opens the front door for a visitor to the office-studio half of his home in Canton's Collinsville section, and steps inside.

"Here's what I wanted to show you,'' Hoke says, motioning to the natural light bathing the tidy spaces where, nearly 15 years into the latest phase of his five-decade work life, he spends most days painting acrylic scenescapes and doing communications consulting with his business and life partner, Leesa Lawson.

On an easel in his art studio that occupies one of the rooms rests his part-finished rendering of a snowy streetscape. Scattered about are more than a dozen others — some of which Hoke may eventually let go.

"It's a little more realistic than impressionistic,'' he says of his style. "I don't work too hard at selling them, but people ask if they can buy one.''

Hoke, who began his advertising career as an illustrator, has come full circle. For nearly three decades, beginning in 1971, Hoke plied his deft strokes as the colorful creative and operations half of Avon advertising house Mintz & Hoke, ultimately building his shop into a New England powerhouse. Eventually, Mintz & Hoke put Hartford and Connecticut on the creative map and exposed American consumers to some of the most effective marketing pitches ever conceived.

It all culminated for him in recent weeks, when in a rare feat, Hoke, who turns 74 on Aug. 6, was inducted not only into the Ad Club of Connecticut Hall of Fame in May, but weeks later, in June, into the Connecticut Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. Hoke's blue-chip peers in the Art Directors' hall includes enshrined logo-designers for the Whalers, IBM and ABC network. AdWeek in 1990 named Hoke one of the industry's most influential from the preceding decade.

Those who over the years worked for, or collaborated with, Hoke and his late ad-business partner, Alan Mintz, say such accolades weren't surprising, if just a bit overdue.

Hoke is admired and respected, they say, for his myriad of professional and personal contributions to the industry, including his seeding of a current generation of pitchpersons and uber-communicators with his granite notions about how best to serve clients and their customers.

One, fans say, was his advocacy of "street-smart advertising,'' which meant routinely going into the field to canvass ad clients and their customers, plus the use of rigorous consumer research to discern precisely their needs and motivations. With that data, Hoke and his creative team crafted ad messages that prompted a behavior or attitude change — a concept Hoke termed "jolt and break'' — favorable to his advertising clients.

"I embraced it because, as a creative person, I always wanted to get outside the 'ivory tower','' he said of M&H's Avon office on Tower Lane.

Image ads his firm churned out in the late '80s, early '90s portraying Special Olympians up close as athletes, and the Cuprinol wood protector from the mid-70s are oft-cited examples of Hoke's effectiveness.

Andrea Obston, who heads her own Bloomfield marketing-strategic communications firm, never worked for Hoke, but "always admired him as a pure marketer.''

"The idea that Joe infused into me as a marketer … is that to effectively market a product, you have to understand what the customer wants,'' Obston said. "What Joe never lost sight of is that it is about the customer. It's so basic that it really was the foundation of [his] agency.''

Obston recalls an exercise from one of Hoke's many "creativity classes'' in which he sketches a lopsided, wheeled contraption, then asks: "What do you think of my wheelbarrow?''

Invariably, most participants devolve into a discussion about its flaws — and therein was Hoke's lesson, she said.

"That immediately stifles creativity,'' Obston said of the focus on the problem rather than its solution. "He brought us to understand that something that's different from what we know isn't bad. It should be considered.''

Hoke's fans also describe him as a clear, strategic thinker, with a knack for quickly determining the core of an issue, then creatively building a solution around it.

"He was all about work that stood out and stood for something,'' said Bill Knight, a Hoke protégé who in 1988 launched his Adams & Knight ad agency in Avon.

Bill Cronin, who took the reins to his family's ad shop, Cronin & Co., around the time M&H opened, says Hoke always was more friend than foe.

"We have lunch together and we tell each other war stories,'' said Cronin, who sold his shop to employees in 2008. "His quality is that he and [Mintz] did a really good job of bringing together the two pillars of success: Strong creative and strong strategy.''

Lawson, who worked several years in M&H's public-relations section but never reported directly to Hoke, said he's just as effective today as he was starting out 46 years ago.

"He has stayed up on the latest technology,'' said Lawson, a copywriter and award-winning humor essayist who also spent time at Obston's firm. "He's aware of how best to use the technology. He loves the business. He never wanted to leave. He's just as passionate today as when he got into the business.''

Hoke's soft-spoken, collegial demeanor, Lawson said, belies an intense competitive streak that enabled him to lead M&H alone after buying Alan Mintz's stake in 1989, and through the lean times, with minimal layoffs.

"He's competitive, but he's a gentleman," she said. "Believe me, he's got a killer instinct."

The secret, Lawson says, to how Hoke crams so much into his days: He doesn't sleep. No insomniac, she insists, but he can function well on as little as none to a few hours of shuteye daily.

"He's never tired and his mind never stops working,'' she said.

Their office-studio reveals his and Lawson's work style: A yellowboard on a wall is neatly lined with sticky notes, detailing project workflows, milestone dates and other reminders. Office furniture is placed just so. In preparation for a visitor, Hoke has neatly penned thoughts on paper that he checks off as he discusses them.

His path into advertising was anything but linear. Joseph Michael Hoke was born in upstate Binghamton, N.Y., the eldest of four from a career-Army father and stay-home mother, who lived all over the country and Asia. In high school, Hoke excelled in wrestling in addition to his art. He knew from age 10 he wanted an advertising career, but classwork was unpleasant and his grades reflected it.

"I thought I was stupid,'' Hoke said.

After graduating high school, he turned down a combined wrestling-art scholarship at a Pennyslvania teachers' college to work several full- and part-time jobs, including nights as an orderly at a mental hospital in his hometown.

In 1961, he enrolled in The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, toiling nights to afford tuition. Married just before graduation, Hoke went to work in the ad department of an electric utility in Binghamton. There, he took night courses at nearby Harpur College — now Binghamton University — where he says he found its teaching methods stimulated his intellect more than the rote style he encountered in grade school.

At Harpur, he flourished in art history and literature — both of which he credits with fanning his desire to be an adman. Inspired, Hoke journeyed to New York City, sharing with employment agencies his dream to work for an ad agency — just not one in the Big Apple.

"The first one threw me out,'' he said. But after a handful of visits to others, Hoke said one of them told him about an up-and-coming but homesick adman who had returned to Connecticut — Alan Mintz.

It was 1968 and Mintz was creative director for then-Hartford ad house Graceman Advertising when Hoke showed up asking for a job. Mintz hired him on the spot at $11,000 a year as art director and to write ad copy. At Graceman, Hoke and Mintz worked on Thomas J. Meskill's successful 1970 governor's campaign. That and other engagements, Hoke says, lit his creative motor.

"Every time I did one thing, like an illustration, I became more conscious that the [ad] design drives the illustration,'' the divorced father of three grown daughters said. "Then I became interested in copywriting because it's such a critical part.''

Hoke's first copywriting assignment — a streetlighting brochure for that upstate New York electric utility — won a national copywriting award, he said. Years later, he said, his experience on that project helped Mintz & Hoke win Connecticut Light & Power as a client.

By 1971, Alan Mintz had started his own city ad agency and he approached a 31-year-old Hoke with an offer.

"He said, 'I'll give you 25 percent of my agency to come work for me','' Hoke recounted. "I said, 'How much is 25 percent of your agency worth?' He said, 'Nothing, otherwise I wouldn't give you 25 percent'.''

Mintz also used stock to lure two others instrumental to their startup: Jim Steuer, who had worked with Mintz in New York City before joining Hartford liquor distiller Heublein Inc. to burnish its Smirnoff vodka brand's image, as market-research director; and as media director, Rene Reyes, whose shrewd buy of cheap, late-night TV airtime vaulted the Lestoil brand liquid cleaner to national sales prominence.

M&H set up on Hartford's Park Street, site of a beauty shop today. Their first client was First Federal Savings in East Hartford, followed by Society for Savings and others.

Lumber and wood-products maker Boise-Cascade hired M&H to market a Litchfield County subdivision it was developing. Success led to a second creative for a Maryland subdivision the client was doing. Hoke said both engagements, while successful, taught him a valuable lesson.

"When you run the ad, people better show up,'' he said.

It's the immediacy, that an ad has worked — or not — that appeals to Hoke.

"Probably because your challenge is to get inside people's heads and change the way they think and the way they behave,'' he said. "That's an awfully interesting challenge.''

On the downside, managing a staff and client roster of dozens, and always looking out for the next engagement to pay the bills were Hoke's least favorites, and by the mid-90s, began to wear. He bought out Mintz in 1989. Mintz died in 2002 at age 72.

"… As we grew, I felt so responsible for all the employees and meeting the payroll. It felt like we had to win every presentation,'' he said. "To me, that was an awesome responsibility.''

"I thought I was running the business. But actually, it was running me. I grew tired of that. But I didn't want to give up advertising.''

By 2000, Hoke had sold his stake to M&H's key managers, Mary Farrell, who heads the public-relations section, and Chris Knopf, M&H's managing principal and a Hoke disciple.

"He never lost focus on our clients' customers,'' Knopf said. "It may seem obvious, but agencies often get tangled up in other concerns and motivations. Clients sometimes even lose sight of the objective of the campaign. Joe never allowed things to drift.''

Nowadays, Hoke and Lawson pilot their firm, Lawson & Hoke, in advising local and national clients, including other ad agencies, how to maximize their client campaigns and business operations.

Hoke dropped by M&H's offices recently, and saw some of their latest work, which he says remains "impressive.'' But he has no desire to get back into the ad business full time.

"I'm just trying to help clients,'' he said, "sort through and figure out what direction they want their message to go in. I don't want to be an agency again. That's hard.''

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