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Hill Holliday, John Hancock part ways after decades together

Hill Holliday’s “Different World” commercial was among a series of spots that helped put a more human face on John Hancock.
Hill Holliday’s “Different World” commercial was among a series of spots that helped put a more human face on John Hancock.

It’s a business relationship that outlasted corporate ownership changes, office relocations, and chief executive departures.

But no partnership lasts forever: After 32 years together, ad agency Hill Holliday and life insurer John Hancock are parting ways, ending a long string of campaigns that won the two Boston companies numerous awards.

Manulife Financial Corp., John Hancock’s Toronto-based parent company, recently decided to put the entire company’s creative advertising work up for review, a change that swept out John Hancock’s longtime arrangement with Hill Holliday. A number of agencies are vying for the business. Manulife said Hill Holliday was invited to join them but opted against making the pitch.

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Boston University advertising professor Edward Boches said even a new business pitch for a client the size of John Hancock could cost an agency hundreds of thousands of dollars and take many months.

“My guess is that Hill Holliday sees the writing on the wall, that there’s no way they can win this even if they did their best work,” Boches said. “They must have their mind made up that they’re going to make a change, no matter what.”

The loss of the John Hancock account comes as Hill Holliday has secured significant new business wins lately, ending what was essentially a dry spell. The agency’s new clients include Planet Fitness and Tempur Sealy International.

Hill Holliday chief executive Karen Kaplan issued a statement in response to questions about the change, saying Hill Holliday executives “are grateful for the opportunity to have had this journey together, and we wish the John Hancock team every success as we move forward on different paths.”

Kaplan also said Hill Holliday management looks forward to “creating influential work that matters with a new partner in this category.”

A spokeswoman for the Interpublic Group-owned ad agency said the loss of John Hancock won’t lead to any layoffs. Hill Holliday employs about 800 people, including 600 in Boston. She declined to say how many people worked on the John Hancock account.

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Manulife global chief marketing officer Gretchen Garrigues said the decision to start fresh isn’t a reflection on the quality of Hill Holliday’s work.

“They’ve done great work for us,” said Garrigues, who declined to say how much ad spending is at stake. “We would have been more than happy to have them participate.”

Instead, Garrigues said the decision is aimed at creating a more unified brand message for the entire company. She said she decided to take this approach soon after joining Manulife last August. Manulife does business as John Hancock in this country, and under the parent company’s name elsewhere.

“Today, it’s a little more fragmented than I’d like to see,” said Garrigues, adding that she’ll work with her team on an “overarching strategy and thread that will kind of bind us together.”

Garrigues said she has hired new chief marketing officers for all three of Manulife’s primary geographic regions — Canada, the United States, and Asia. Barbara Goose, a former president of marketing agency DigitasLBi, was hired as John Hancock’s chief marketing officer last fall.

Manulife expects to make a final decision on a new ad agency by the end of the summer.

Mark O’Toole, group vice president at marketing firm Eric Mower + Associates’ Newton office, said changes at the chief marketing officer level often signal a new direction.

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“Those are some of the scariest words to hear when you’re at an agency: ‘Hey there’s a new CMO,’ ” O’Toole said. “Once you see a change like that happening, the agency is usually on a short string, whether they’ve been doing a great job or not.”

BU’s Boches said Hill Holliday’s work for John Hancock was considered “game-changing” in that it turned an often dense and dry subject matter — insurance — into emotional stories that resonated with consumers, including through its famous “Real Life, Real Answers” campaign.

“A lot of what Hill Holliday did for Hancock showed what was possible [in financial services marketing],” Boches said.

The initial partnership was engineered in 1985 by Jack Connors, then-CEO of Hill Holliday, and David D’Alessandro, then the head of marketing for John Hancock. (D’Alessandro went on to run John Hancock before Manulife bought the insurer in 2004.)

D’Alessandro said that he never expected the partnership to last as long as it did.

“To go 32 years is a remarkable run on both the part of the agency and the client, . . . particularly in an East Coast city with lots of agencies around,” D’Alessandro said.

The John Hancock account was one of the biggest advertising jobs to come up for bid in Boston at the time.

Both John Hancock and Hill Holliday then were based in the John Hancock Tower, now also known as 200 Clarendon. But D’Alessandro said he told Connors that it would be a competitive bidding process, one that wouldn’t end “until the fat lady sings.”

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So D’Alessandro said he hired an opera singer to sing in the Hill Holliday lobby the day the agency won the John Hancock account.

“It’s a big brand, but I don’t know many major brands that don’t switch agencies at some point,” D’Alessandro said. “I guess the fat lady is singing today.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.