Colleagues remember late commercial director Philip Kates

"He was very funny, very generous and just the ultimate professional"

Philip Kates made his reputation in an industry that prides itself on brevity, yet his own story ended much too soon.

The veteran commercial director died Jan. 15 in Calgary after a battle with cancer. He was 51.

Colleagues and friends remembered him this week as a consummate professional with an acute sense of humour, an uncanny ability for on-set problem solving, a willingness to collaborate and a keen eye for visually arresting images.

Marc Green, who served as a location scout and manager on many of Kates’ commercial shoots, first met Kates about 25 years ago through his wife Arlene Hazzan Green, who had known Kates since Grade 7.

“Phil was a warm, caring, loving and unusually generous person,” said Marc. “He was a very funny guy – his humour was one of the highlights of his personality.”

After studying film and photography at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Kates started his career editing music videos and commercials before moving on to direct music videos for artists including Blue Rodeo, Jeff Healey and Sarah McLachlan. In 1992, he won a Juno Award for Video of the Year for his work on the video for McLachlan’s song “Into the Fire.”

He subsequently took his talents to commercial direction, where he helmed work for numerous blue-chip clients including General Motors, Ford, Visa, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Molson, McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s.

In a way, Kates’ entry into the advertising realm was foretold when he was still just a student at St. Andrew’s Junior High School in North York, Ont. There, he gained renown for writing and recording humorous morning announcements, promoting everything from an upcoming bake sale to a team practice or chess club meeting.

“He became so famous for this that people would come to him and ask him to produce the announcements for them,” said Hazzan Green, who went on to a career as a Canadian TV director specializing in documentary and lifestyle programming. “People would go to school just to hear them.

“It’s not surprising that he became an award-winning director.”

Kates once said that he tried to avoid having a signature style because he wanted to treat each project as “completely special and unique,” an approach reflected by his diverse portfolio. He won a bronze Lion at Cannes in 2001 for the Halls “Fore!” spot by JWT, was shortlisted for his “Saturday Night” spot for MADD, and won at The Bessies for his “Alarm” spot for Pillsbury Pizza Pops.

Kates may have been the one in the director’s chair, but he always welcomed and sought out insights from his colleagues. “There are so many directors I’ve worked with where what they see is all they see,” said Marc Green. “I would work with Philip and he would just love input and ideas and creativity. His ability to collaborate was quite unique and set him apart from a lot of other directors.”

Green recalls one project for a financial services company about 10 or 12 years ago when Kates told him that the spot was all about locations and architecture. He then instructed Green to go and shoot downtown Toronto in ways it had never been photographed before. “He gave me total creative freedom, and it was almost like I got to go out and be a director,” he said. “It’s fairly unusual for a director to be able to hand over stuff like that creatively.”

Samuel Kates (no relation), now a freelance writer with MacLaren McCann in Toronto, remembers being repeatedly asked if he was related to the director when he first broke into the film and TV industry.

“I wondered who this guy was who shared my last name,” Samuel Kates told Marketing in an e-mail interview Thursday. He finally met Philip when a “career detour” saw him take a job as a junior creative at Enterprise Creative Selling (now part of JWT Canada) and Philip chose him to direct the spot he had written for Tim Horton’s.

“He was the epitome of calm, and the set always had an air of calm when he was directing,” the writer recalled. “More importantly, he was a great collaborator. We would talk angles, lighting and casting, and he welcomed my input every step of the way – even though I was a relatively green junior creative.”

The two lost touch after Philip moved to Western Canada, and Samuel Kates said he misses the days of discussing film and where to find good food on Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue West. “He was a true original, a consummate professional and a real mensch,” he wrote. “We never truly figured out if we were actually related, but I’ll always think of him as a good friend.”

Jennie Montford, executive producer/partner at Toronto production house The Corner Store – which first began representing Kates in 2008 – remembers him as an “old professional” who had encountered virtually every on-set situation and had become a master problem-solver.

“He was very funny, very generous and just the ultimate professional,” Montford said. “He worked his ass off on every job he ever did,” said Montford. “He really hit it out of the ballpark every time he did something. He was lovely to work with.”

Philip Kates is survived by his wife Tayva and his sons Jordan, 2, and Elliot, 1.

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