Doner gains ground despite hard times Baltimore ad agency becomes aggressive

November 11, 1990|By Cindy Harper-Evans

Donald Riesett, W.B. Doner & Co.'s vice chairman of account management, has had his eye on ConAgra's Healthy Choice line of frozen dinners for a good while now.

He has called the company's executive vice president of nutritional foods frequently: sometimes to talk in depth; sometimes just to say hello; always to directly or indirectly sell the idea of using Baltimore's largest advertising agency to create a campaign for the Healthy Choice brand.

Tuesday, Mr. Riesett and Jim Dale, Doner's president and chief operating officer, finally managed a meeting with ConAgra officials in Omaha, Neb.

"The secret to getting new business is to get a face-to-face meeting, and the only purpose of a meeting is to get another meeting," Mr. Dale says. "And if you get enough meetings, you finally get the business."

The ConAgra huddle did not land Doner the prestigious Healthy Choice account, at least not yet, but it is an example of how aggressive the agency has become of late to drum up new business.

With a recession a real possibility and many companies looking to trim expenses by cutting back on advertising, Doner and other ad agencies are pushing hard to keep what they've got while getting more.

"We have to be smarter than ever and more of a street fighter than ever. Not one or the other, but both," Mr. Riesett says.

This new-found aggressiveness is being spearheaded, in part, by Doner's recently realigned management team in the Baltimore office. (The agency is co-headquartered in Detroit.) Mr. Dale and Mr. Riesett were appointed to their new posts in September after many years with Doner.

Since then, Doner has captured four big accounts: Jos. A. Bank Clothiers; Jason Pharmaceuticals, the national manufacturer and distributor of the Medfast Program; a direct response campaign for Budget Rent A Car; and, most recently, American Security Bank, a subsidiary of MNC Financial.

The four accounts add about $10 million to the Baltimore office's annual billings, bringing the total to $100 million, up from $85 million last year. Doner has combined billings of more than $350 million from its nine offices.

Herb Fried, Doner's chairman and chief executive officer, says part of the agency's street-fighting attitude comes from the loss of two big accounts last spring: the Colt 45 malt-liquor campaign, which Mr. Fried developed several years ago and Klondike ice cream bars, which highlighted the creative genius of Mr. Dale with its "What would you do for a Klondike bar?" theme.

"It was a tough spring," Mr. Riesett says of the roughly $14 million loss in business, adding that he believes precarious financial conditions of Isaly Klondike and Colt 45's parent, G. Heilman Brewing Co., were the primary factors in the losses.

Yet, Mr. Riesett says he is not worried about Doner's heavy reliance on retailers and car dealers as clients in the sluggish economy. Some of Baltimore Doner's big accounts include Arby's Restaurants -- its largest, with billings of $15 million -- Eckerd Drug Stores, Black & Decker and a variety of Ford dealers.

"By no means do the retailers own all the worry beads these days. Everyone is worrying," Mr. Riesett says.

He says that if Doner lost three of its largest accounts, it would mean a $55 million loss in business, but would not cripple the agency. "If they all closed down, we wouldn't close down. It would hurt, but we're wiry enough to survive," Mr. Riesett says.

Jordan Azzam, among the top 10 locally-based ad agencies in billings, recently shuttered its operation after a major client, Stansbury Stereo, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and that has caused some unrest among local agencies.

The threat of a recession has served as a boon at times for advertisers because some companies are campaigning more to steal market share from weaker competitors. But not surprisingly, the uncertain economy has made companies that still feel they can afford to advertise more demanding.

"People want to see results. No one is in a position to see advertising as a luxury," Mr. Riesett says.

If results can be measured by awards, Doner may well attract clients with its long list of local and national advertising kudos. Chic Davis, executive director of the Advertising Association of Baltimore, says many local agencies "try to pattern themselves after Doner. They are known for their creative accomplishments throughout the industry."

Recently, a commercial for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which Mr. Dale helped to create, won the Gold Lion award at the highly-regarded Cannes International Advertising Festival.

The popular advertisement compared the BSO to the Orioles, calling the orchestra Baltimore's "other major league team." Mr. Dale says the approach used in the commercial is indicative of Doner's style.

"I thought, how do you make the symphony accessible to non-aficionados. Where else do people feel uninhibited? The ballpark," Mr. Dale says. "Along with creativity in this agency, we believe in the power of a simple idea."

An increased concern for more bang for the buck has caused Doner to see a rise in co-op advertising, joint advertising ventures in which costs are shared by manufacturers and retailers.

Companies tend to look for better advertising when times are slow, Mr. Dale says, and that is what Doner hopes to capitalize on to woo new clients. "When their share is eroding and the competition is taking a piece out of them, companies are at least open to discussion," Mr. Dale says.

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