The photo above dates from early 1978, when Hodskins Simone & Searls, a new ad agency, was born in Durham, North Carolina. Specifically, at 602 West Chapel Hill Street. Click on that link and you’ll see the outside of our building. Perhaps you can imagine the scene above behind the left front window, because that’s where we stood, in bright diffused southern light. Left to right are David Hodskins, Ray Simone, and me.
That scene, and the rest of my life, were bent toward all their possibilities by a phone call I made to Ray one day in 1976, when I was working as an occasionally employed journalist, advertising guy, comedy writer, radio voice, and laborer: anything that paid, plus plenty that didn’t. I didn’t yet know Ray personally, but I loved the comics he drew, and I wanted his art for an ad I had written for a local audio shop. So I called him at the “multiple media studio” where he was employed at the time. Before we got down to business, however, he also got into an off-phone conversation with another person in his office. After Ray told the other person he was on the phone with Doctor Dave (the comic radio persona by which I was known around those parts back then), the other person told Ray to book lunch with me at a restaurant downtown.
I got there first, so I was sitting down when Ray walked in with a guy who looked like an idealized version of me. Not just better looking, but radiating charisma and confidence. This was the other person who worked with Ray, and who told Ray to propose the lunch. That’s how I met David Hodskins, who used the lunch to recruit me as a copywriter for the multiple media studio. I said yes, and after a few months of that, David decided the three of us should start Hodskins Simone & Searls. Four years and as many locations later, we occupied a whole building in Raleigh, had dozens of people working for us, and were the top ad agency in the state specializing in tech and broadcasting.
A couple years after that we seemed to be hitting a ceiling as the alpha tech agency in a region still decades away from becoming the “other Silicon Valley” it wanted to be. So, after one of our clients said “Y’know, guys, there’s more action on one street in Sunnyvale than there is in all of North Carolina,” David flew out to scout Silicon Valley itself. That resulted in a tiny satellite office in Palo Alto, where David prospected for business while running the Raleigh headquarters by phone and fax. After a year of doing that, David returned, convened a dinner with all the agency managers, and said we’d have to close Palo Alto if he didn’t get some help out there. This was in August 1985.
To my surprise, I heard myself volunteering duty out there, even though a year earlier when David asked me to join him there I had said no. I’m not even sure why I volunteered this time. I loved North Carolina, had many friends there, and was well established as a figure in the community, mostly thanks to my Doctor Dave stuff. I said I just needed to make sure my kids, then 15 and 12, wanted to go. (I was essentially a single dad at the time.) After they said yes, we flew out and spent a week checking out what was for me an extremely exotic place. But the kids fell instantly in love with it. So I rented a house near downtown Palo Alto, registered the kids in Palo Alto junior and high schools, left them there with David, flew back to North Carolina, gave away everything that wouldn’t fit in a small U-Haul trailer, and towed my life west in my new 145-horse ’85 Camry sedan with a stick shift. With my Mom along for company, we crossed the country in just four days.
The business situation wasn’t ideal. Silicon Valley was in a slump at that time. “For Lease” banners hung over the windows new buildings all over the place. Commodore, Atari, and other temporary giants in the new PC industry were going down. Apple, despite the novelty of its new Macintosh computer, was in trouble. And ad agencies—more than 200 of them—were fighting for every possible account, new and old. Worse, except for David, me, and one assistant, our whole staff was three time zones east of there, and the Internet that we know today was decades away in the future. But we bluffed our way into the running for two of the biggest accounts in review.
As we kept advancing in playoffs for those two accounts, the North Carolina office was treading water and funds were running thin. In our final pitches, we were also up against the same incumbent agency: one that, at that time, was by far the biggest and best in the valley, and did enviably good work. So we were not the way to bet. The evening before our last pitch, David told Ray and me that we needed to win both accounts or retreat back to North Carolina. I told him that I was staying, regardless, because I belonged there, and so did my kids, one of whom was suddenly an academic achiever and the other a surfer who totally looked the part. We had gone native. David reached across the table to shake my hand. That was his way of saying both “Thanks” and “I respect that.”
Then we won both accounts, got a mountain of publicity for having come out of nowhere and kicked ass, and our Palo Alto office quickly outgrew our Raleigh headquarters. Within a year we had closed Raleigh and were on our way to becoming one of the top tech agencies in Silicon Valley. None of this was easy, and all of it required maximal tenacity, coordination, and smarts, all of which were embodied in, and exemplified by, David Hodskins. He was wickedly smart, tough, creative, and entrepreneurial: perfect for leading a small and rapidly growing company. While hard-driving and often overbearing (sometimes driving Ray and me nuts) he was also great fun to work and hang out with, and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
One of our bondings was around basketball. David was a severely loyal Duke alumnus and grandfathered with two season tickets every year to games at the Duke’s famous Cameron Indoor Stadium. I became a Duke fan as his date for dozens of games there. When we moved to Palo Alto, he and I got our basketball fix through season tickets to the Golden State Warriors. (In the late ’80s, this was still affordable for normal people.) At one point, we even came close once to winning the Warriors’ advertising business.
In the early 90s, I forked my own marketing consulting business out of HS&S, while remaining a partner with the firm until it was acquired by Publicis in 1998. By then I had also shifted back into journalism as an editor for Linux Journal, while also starting to blog. (Which I’m still doing right here.) David, Ray, and I remained good friends, however, while all three of us got married (Ray), remarried (David and I), and had California kids. In fact, I had met my wife with Ray’s help in 1990.
Ray died of lung cancer in 2011, at just 63. I remember him in this post here, and every day of my life.
On November 13 of last year, my wife and I attended the first game of the season for the Indiana Univesity Men’s basketball team, which David and I had rooted against countless times when they played Duke and other North Carolina teams. While there, I took a photo of the scene with my phone and sent it in an email to David, saying “Guess where I am?” He wrote back, “Looks suspiciously like Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, where liberals go to die. WTF are you doing there?”
I explained that Joyce and I were now visiting scholars at IU. He wrote back,
Mr. visiting scholar,
Recuperating from a one-week visit by (a friend) and his missus, before heading to Maui for T’giving week.
The unwelcome news is that I’m battling health issues on several fronts: GERD, Sleep Apnea, Chronic Fatigue, and severe abdominal pain. Getting my stomach scoped when I’m back from Maui, and hoping it isn’t stomach cancer.
Actual retirement is in sight… at the end of 2022. (Wife) hangs it up in February, 2024, so we’ll kick our travel plans into higher gear, assuming I’m still alive.
Already sick of hearing that coach K has “5 national titles, blah, blah, blah” but excited to see Paulo Banchero this year, and to see Jon Scheyer take the reins next year. Check out the drone work in this promotional video: https://youtu.be/Dp1dEadccGQ
Thanks for checking in, and glad to hear you’re keeping your brain(s) active. Please don’t become a Hoosier fan.
David’s ailment turned out to be ALS. After a rapid decline too awful to describe, he died last week, on March 22nd. Two days earlier I sent him a video telling him that, among other things, he was the brother I never had and a massive influence on many of the lives that spun through his orbits. Unable to speak, eat or breathe on his own, he was at least able to smile at some of what I told him, and mouth “Wow” at the end.
And now there is just one left: the oldest and least athletic of us three. (Ray was a natural at every sport he picked up and won medals in fencing. David played varsity basketball in high school. Best I ever got at that game was not being chosen last for my college dorm’s second floor south intramural team.)
I have much more to think, say, and write about David, especially since he was a source of wisdom on many subjects. But it’s hard because his being gone is so out of character.
But not completely, I suppose. Hemmingway:
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
My joke about aging is that I know I’m in the exit line, but I let others cut in. I just wish this time it hadn’t been David.
But the line does keep moving, while the world holds the door.