Act Two: Jim Dale heeds his muse

April 18, 1995|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

Even Jim Dale knows his career move looks a little flaky on paper.

He's 46 years old. He lives in Roland Park. He has been married for years to his high school sweetheart and has worked at the W.B. Doner & Co. advertising agency since college. He made creative director at 26, chairman and chief executive by 44.

Last week, he up and quit.

Mr. Dale knows how it looks. He wants to write screenplays. He's writing a book about baseball. He wants to be creative. Is it mid-life crisis time? Hasn't he thought of just buying a red sports car and being done with it?

"I did, but I didn't do it right," Mr. Dale said, laughing in his office overlooking the Inner Harbor from the helm of America's 26th-largest ad agency. "I bought an old sports car that didn't work. . . . You want to buy it?"

He won't be needing that Mustang to make him feel young.

"I'm sure people look at what he's doing and say, 'What an idiot!' " said Norman Steinberg, a Ruxton-based writer who has worked on such screenplays as "Mr. Mom" and "Blazing Saddles." "But it's incredibly brave. I like to hang around people who are gutsy. Every time I've done something like that it has paid off, in terms of how I feel about myself."

The pair has already finished their first joint screenplay rewrite on "Carpool," set to be filmed this summer. In it, a bank robber (to be played by comedian Tom Arnold) botches a heist and takes an uptight advertising executive and his kids' carpool hostage.

Then there's the baseball book. Hatched over dinner and sold through the offices of the William Morris Agency, the book's a collaboration with Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer about the 6-foot 3-inch pitcher's on-and-off battles with manager Earl Weaver and other stories.

So in leaving Doner, Mr. Dale is hardly taking a wild leap into the unknown -- aside from the screenplay and book deals, he's got a greeting card business he runs with his wife that's sold 80 million cards in 15 years. (Generally, she draws and he writes).

Still, it's as he says: "You don't walk away from jobs like this."

And he couldn't, not for a long time anyway.

"It's something he has been struggling with for more than months -- a couple of years at least," said Charles Baum, a close friend of the Dales. He says Mr. Dale was caught between two different dreams -- running Doner and writing -- and worried that leaving the top so young would look strange.

"He has been dealing with image his whole adult life," Mr. Baum said. "He does have that concern."

Mr. Dale has excelled at dealing with images. His work won a Gold Lion award at the Cannes Film Festival for a pro bono campaign touting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as "Baltimore's Other Major League Team."

In the past year, W.B. Doner brought in $75 million of new billings. Earlier this year, to cap it all, it landed marketing behemoth Coca-Cola as a client and recaptured G. Heileman Brewing Co., whose Colt 45 and National Bohemian brands helped put Doner on the map in the 1950s before the agency lost the account in 1990.

Doner's 1994 growth was as much as three times the pace of the ad business as a whole, according to figures from Adweek magazine and Alex. Brown Inc. The magazine named Doner's Detroit office, which along with Baltimore is the company's co-headquarters, its Midwestern agency of the year.

"He has been CEO for the last two years, but his role goes beyond being CEO," said Bryan Yolles, Doner's chief administrative officer and a friend from their Michigan boyhood, who describes his longtime mentor as a great teacher and a magnet for talented people. "It is breakthrough thinking that made Jim special."

But the dream job still wasn't perfect.

"You strive for something, you get there, and you say, 'OK, is this what I want?' " Mr. Dale said. He liked it, for sure. He loved the creative work and the chase for new business especially. He could even deal with the administrative chores. "But it wasn't enough."

He had already taken a leave of absence last summer to dabble with his writing, but one of the final keys to the decision fell into place about three months ago, Mr. Dale said. He and Mr. Palmer sent their book proposal to four literary agents, and all four bit.

"I think there is such a thing as informed risk, where you analyze a situation, simplify a situation, and set a course," Mr. Dale said. "It's what I do in everything."

Mr. Dale's wife, Barbara, says she encouraged her husband to make the move, reasoning that it was no crazier than trying to start a line of greeting cards and take it international, which the couple did years ago.

"You're right, it's emotional, but it's emotion encouraged by success," she said. "I didn't think this was a jump off a cliff. It was encouraged by successes that said there was life after the ad business.

"It's like a dream. One little drawing studio, one little writing studio, in the south of France," she said, before pausing. "I don't know about the south of France."

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