25900 Northwestern Highway
W.B. Doner & Co. is the largest independently-owned advertising agency in North America. The firm offers a full range of services that include creation of advertising campaigns, media buying, public relations, account planning, sales promotion, and direct marketing. Doner works with many well-known clients including Mazda, Blockbuster Entertainment, Minute Maid, Owens Corning, Arby's, DuPont, HGTV, May Department Stores, and La-Z-Boy. The Michigan-based company has offices in several U.S. cities as well as in Canada and the United Kingdom.
The roots of W.B. Doner & Co. date to 1937, when Wilfred Broderick "Brod" Doner founded an advertising agency in Detroit. Doner, who was just 23, gradually built up the firm's client base during the late 1930s and 1940s. By the early 1950s, when the company had begun doing television commercials, its accounts included Speedway 79 Gasoline and E-Z Pop popcorn.
In 1954 Doner won the account of National Brewing Company, based in Baltimore, and when that firm offered a building for Doner to use, the agency added an office there. It opened in January 1955 and was headed by a new recruit, 26 year-old Herbert Fried. Fried had studied business and marketing, and had worked for several agencies in Chicago before joining Doner. Though National Brewing was the only account in Baltimore for the first two years, the office later began to win work for other clients such as First National Bank.
During the 1960s Doner continued to grow, creating memorable ad campaigns for the likes of Colt 45 Malt Liquor and Hygrade Ball Park Franks. For the latter, the firm came up with the classic "They plump when you cook 'em," slogan, which debuted in 1966. Another notable Doner campaign, for Tootsie Roll, asked the question, "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?" The tagline was introduced in 1968 and used for many years afterwards.
New Leadership in the 1970s
In 1973 Herb Fried was named chairman and CEO of the company, having already served as president since 1968. Fried remained in the Baltimore area, and the firm designated its Detroit and Baltimore offices as co-headquarters. To keep up with the activities of both branches, Fried took frequent trips to Detroit. During the 1970s Doner's work included the "Scrubbing Bubbles" campaign for Dow and the creation of the Vlasic Stork character for Vlasic Pickles. The decade also saw the firm add a number of important new accounts, including United Brands' Chiquita Banana division, May Department Stores Co., Lionel Trains, and Dutch Boy, Inc. Doner had acquired a reputation for creating advertisements that produced sales on the retail level, and many clients sought it out for this specialization.
Though the firm's clients typically paid the agency the industry standard 15 percent of billings (meaning the total advertising budget), this began to change in the late 1970s. Doner began to work with its clients to find less rigid ways of charging them for their advertising services, and in some cases accepted fees based on the sales results of its advertising.
In 1981 several key members of Doner's Baltimore staff left to form a rival agency, Smith, Burke and Azzam. They took an estimated 30 percent of the office's clients with them, including restaurant chain Roy Rogers and hotel franchiser Quality International. Doner subsequently filed suit against the parties involved--Roger Gray, Barry L. Smith and Eugene Azzam--settling the claim for a reported $300,000.
During the 1980s the company continued to come up with creative and successful campaigns for a variety of clients. The "Zoo Stars" ad for the Detroit Zoo, which featured talking animals, won a number of awards, and was later adopted as the official commercial of the National Zoo Association. Ads for Canadian Tire and Klondike bars were well-received during the early 1980s as well, with the "What would you do for a Klondike bar" line being used for years afterwards. The company was also hired to work for the Michigan State Lottery. In 1984 an office was opened in Toronto, which joined an existing location in Montreal to give Doner offices in Canada.
The year 1985 saw the company begin working for Little Caesar's, the Detroit-based pizza restaurant chain which then had 700 locations. Over the next three years Doner's ads helped the chain double this amount of outlets and triple the number of markets it served.
In 1986 Doner bought the Chicago-based ad agency Lou Beres and Associates, which handled billings of some $17 million and accounts that included Turtle Wax and Florsheim. Owner Beres was retained to serve as managing director of the office, which would employ approximately 25 and take on the name of its new parent. The move was made in part to serve the new G. Heileman Brewing Company account, which was worth $4 million in billings. In 1987, Doner also added an Hispanic unit to handle specialized advertising.
New Clients in the Late 1980s
In early 1988 Doner scored a major coup when it was assigned the British Petroleum (BP) worldwide retail gasoline account. The work had grown out of a small job done for Standard Oil in 1984 to promote six auto repair shops in Toledo, Ohio. This later led to contracts with sister companies Gulf, Sohio, and Boron, and after BP took control of Standard the new parent company selected Doner to boost its profile around the world, an assignment which was expected to involve some $30 million in annual billings. Doner would create the ads, with media-buying handled by BP's agencies in its various international markets. To service the account Doner opened an office in London, and this soon helped bring in other foreign assignments. Over the next four years Doner's overseas work jumped from 5 percent to 30 percent of its total billings.
The late 1980s saw other major clients such as Arby's, La-Z-Boy, Iams, and B.F. Goodrich added to the firm's roster. Memorable work of the era included a series of television spots for Red Roof Inns which featured comedian Martin Mull. By 1989 Doner was planning campaigns worth more than $300 million in billings, and taking in $52.1 million in revenues. The firm employed a staff of 550, 325 of whom worked in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, where the company had moved into new offices in October 1988. Some 140 other staffers were in Baltimore, with the rest in satellite offices in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Petersburg, Florida, London, Toronto, and Montreal. Doner had no presence in the advertising Mecca of New York, but despite its "outsider" status, in March 1989 the firm was named runner up as Agency of the Year by the influential trade publication Advertising Age, which ranked Doner the 26th largest agency in the United States.
In January 1990 founder and patriarch Brod Doner passed away at the age of 75. More than 40 years after starting the company he had remained a vital presence there, at the end serving as president of its executive committee. His guiding philosophy had been, as Herb Fried told Crain's Detroit Business, "creativity comes first, and everything else is secondary." Doner was praised for his ethics and family-oriented values, and his professional way of conducting business. Because of his personal convictions, the company had never taken assignments from cigarette makers or the National Rifle Association.
After Doner's death, the firm expanded its executive committee from two to six members and gave Herb Fried the position of chairman. Other changes that took place at this time included the sale of the Chicago office and the opening of a new one in Dallas to serve an account with Ford dealership associations in that area. A joint venture was also formed with Grey Advertising, Inc. of New York to do work for the BP account, with Grey handling media buying and other services through its network of European offices. In 1991 Doner bought into Luscombe & Partners, the fourth-largest independent advertising agency in Australia.
Challenges in the 1990s
In early 1992 Doner laid off 24 employees due to declining revenues caused by the stagnant U.S. economy. A number of the firm's clients, including the Ford dealerships and the Michigan-based appliance store chain Highland Superstores, were seeing drastic sales declines, which left them with fewer dollars to spend on advertising. The company was also hurt by the decision of the Michigan State Lottery to find a new agency, and the bankruptcy of long-time client Eckerd Drug Stores. Some new accounts were landed during the year, however, including Rose's Stores, a 217-outlet chain of discount department stores located in the southeastern United States.
In June 1992 Doner president Jim Dale was promoted to the jobs of CEO and chairman, while Herb Fried kept his role as chairman of the executive committee. A 25-year company veteran, Alan Kalter, who was based in Detroit, was given the job of president. At the same time Steve LaGattuta, vice-chairman of international business development, resigned. LaGattuta had been credited with boosting the company's international profile, but was reportedly upset at having been passed over for the president's job. Since Brod Doner's death about a dozen key executives had left the company, which was still trying to redefine itself in his absence.
In 1993 Doner lost the Vlasic pickle account, which it had held for 27 years. Vlasic had recently been purchased by Campbell Soup Company, which was consolidating its advertising with several other agencies. Doner had also recently lost Hygrade Food Products Corporation, which had been acquired by Sara Lee.
The company's fortunes began improving at the start of 1994 with the signing of six major new accounts worth $40 million in billings. These included Frank's Nursery & Crafts, Musicland Stores Corporation, National Car Rental System, Inc., and National Tire Warehouse, which was owned by Sears.
In the spring of 1994 Doner formed a public relations division at its Baltimore co-headquarters. Additional accounts added during the year and into early 1995 included supermarket chain Kroger (for its Michigan stores), Prudential SeniorCare, and G. Heileman Brewing, which the firm had lost four years earlier. Coca-Cola also tapped the agency for a Christmas season promotion and other tasks. The year was strong for Doner, with billings increasing nearly 20 percent, to $450 million.
In April 1995 chairman and CEO Jim Dale announced he was leaving the company to pursue a writing career. The CEO role was taken by Allen Kalter, while Herb Fried became chairman. After his elevation to the top post, Kalter announced that Doner would establish a series of "centers of excellence" at the firm's 11 offices worldwide. These would consist of specializations in different areas, such as direct marketing (already in place in Baltimore), automobile and retail advertising (established in Southfield), and media, promotions and research, which would be added later. Though Doner's Southfield office was twice as large, Baltimore had typically been the home of the firm's top officer, and at times the two co-headquarters competed against each other for business. In some instances, such as the recently-won Coke assignment, both agencies claimed they would be performing the work, though it was later determined that it would actually be done in Southfield.
In October 1995 Doner bought GGK London, an offshoot of GGK International, whose clients included Equifax and Marie Curie Cancer Care. GGK London was merged into Doner's existing London office, which then took the name Doner Cardwell Hawkins, after two former GGK executives who helped run the operation. Doner had recently won a number of important new accounts, including Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, lawn equipment maker Cub Cadet, and ABC Warehouse, a Michigan-based appliance chain.
The year 1996 started off on a solid note when G. Heileman Brewing expanded Doner's assignment to cover its entire advertising program. Other new work included U.S. Cellular's $25 million account; Color Tile, worth $20 million; Hill Stores Co. of Massachusetts, with billings of $10 million; and Nordic Track, which billed for $5 million.
In April Doner restructured its media planning operations, consolidating the work in Southfield. The firm then spun off its rapidly-growing Doner Direct unit, which handled direct marketing. Doner Direct employed 30 and had accounts worth $48 million in billings. It remained headquartered in the firm's Baltimore office.
On August 4, 1996, Doner suffered a catastrophe when the company's Southfield headquarters building was ravaged by fire. The blaze, which started after hours in an empty office, extensively damaged the second floor of the structure, where much of the firm's creative work was done. Fortunately, most of the crucial computer data files were salvaged. Temporary quarters were hastily secured, and some employees worked from home in the fire's immediate aftermath.
The disaster did not scare away clients, however, and new accounts brought in during the latter half of the year included Loyola University Medical Center and the $15-$20 million ad work of the Bennigan's and Steak & Ale restaurant chains, owned by S&A Restaurant Corporation. Early 1997 saw the addition of Bush Brothers & Co., the leading maker of baked beans in the United States, an account that was worth $5 million in billings.
In the spring of 1997 the company formed Doner Public Affairs in its Florida office to provide consulting services for political candidates. Its first client was New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, then seeking reelection. Doner hired noted political advertising expert Adam Goodman to run the agency. He had worked with a number of Republican candidates including Senator Trent Lott and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. During the year Doner also added the work of Stroh Brewery Co., which had acquired G. Heileman in August 1996, and Florists' Transworld Delivery (FTD).
In October 1997 Doner won its biggest assignment to date, triumphing over a number of larger agencies to secure the North American advertising for Mazda Motor of Japan, whose sales had been in decline. The $240 million account was a feather in Doner's cap, as the firm had never been the agency of record for an automaker, though it had worked for a number of regional Ford dealership groups over the previous 17 years. To avoid a possible conflict of interest, Doner gave up this work, which was worth $100 million, and also opened an office near Mazda's U.S. headquarters in Irvine, California. In December the firm's Canadian unit, Doner Shur Peppler, was renamed Doner Canada, and plans were laid for expansion there, due largely to the new Mazda assignment. Doner's annual revenues now stood at $62.6 million.
In January 1998 Herb Fried sold his majority ownership stake in the firm, ceding the chairmanship to Alan Kalter, though he stayed involved as a consultant. At that time Doner named Southfield as its sole headquarters, letting 24 of the 195 Baltimore employees go a few weeks later. Major accounts for Arby's and Bush Brothers were shifted to Southfield as well. Work that stayed in Baltimore included Ikon Office Solutions and the newly-won Teligent, which billed for an estimated $5-$10 million.
In June 1998 Doner moved back into its Southfield headquarters, 22 months after the building had been gutted by fire. In the reconstruction process a third floor was added, increasing the usable space to 106,000 square feet. In the months after the fire the firm had added 90 employees at the location, for a total of 405. Doner was experiencing a growth spurt, and when the $160 million Blockbuster video store account was won in the fall, it put the firm above $1 billion in annual billings for the first time.
The company was now working on upgrading its own image, and asked media outlets to refer to it as "Doner," rather than "W.B. Doner and Co." The company's official name was not changed, though it filed an "also doing business as" notice with the state of Michigan. During 1999 the firm won the $60 million Progressive Corporation insurance account and other work from AutoTrader.com and ADT Security Services, Inc., though it lost $15 million in billings from long-term client Iams. For 1999 Doner's revenues topped out at nearly $100 million, with the company now employing 832. Adweek magazine named the firm one of its agencies of the year, ranking it fourth in the country in terms of management, growth, and creative effort.
2000 and Beyond
The year 2000 was another strong one for Doner, which saw billings top $1.5 billion, helped in part by the acquisition of such major new accounts as Owens Corning and Serta. New ads for Mazda, with their "Zoom-Zoom" tagline, helped further boost the carmaker's sales, which had been on an upswing since Doner had begun working for the company.
In 2001 Doner won assignments to work for cable giant Cox Communications, as well as Sherwin-Williams, Mail Boxes, Etc., and PNC Bank, among others. The firm's revenues for the year hit $114.2 million, though billings dropped to $1.2 billion as the U.S. economy faltered.
In 2002 Doner was chosen to create ads for Helzberg Diamonds, Heinz Pet Products, and DuPont's Corian and Zodiaq product lines. In March, legal proceedings began in a lawsuit filed in 2000 against Doner and Mazda by rock musician Rob Zombie, who claimed unauthorized use of one of his songs in a Doner-created spot. The company settled with Zombie for an undisclosed amount. By fall the busy firm was looking for additional office space in Southfield, having already outgrown the addition to its headquarters there. Doner was now handling work worth $1.6 billion in billings.
In June 2003 Doner announced it would close its Baltimore office, moving all operations there to Southfield. The move came amid rapid consolidation in the advertising industry, which left Doner as the largest independently-owned agency in the United States. The decision to combine the firm's two main offices was a response to the new climate, according to Herb Fried, as well as due to the relative difficulty of recruiting top talent to Baltimore and the dwindling opportunities there for local advertising work. Detroit had by now evolved into one of the major U.S. advertising centers, though still ranked behind New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
After more than 65 years in business W.B. Doner & Co. had established itself as the largest independent advertising agency in the United States. Since its founder's passing in 1990 the firm had doubled in size, with its ad billings increasing nearly five-fold. The company's strong emphasis on producing retail results helped bring it new business despite the struggling U.S. economy, as did its proven track record and history of many memorable campaigns.
Principal Divisions: Doner Canada; Doner International (United Kingdom); Doner Cardwell Hawkins (United Kingdom); Doner Direct; Doner Public Affairs; Doner Automotive.
Principal Competitors: Omnicom Group, Inc.; The Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc.; WPP Group plc.