Banner year at W. B. Doner & Co.

April 23, 1995|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

It looked like just a place to have a drink, but advertising agencies like W. B. Doner & Co. spend billions to convince consumers that a beer is more than just a beer. And for Doner, this one was.

Doner had built a sports bar in the lobby of its Detroit office in only three days in late 1993. Executives from G. Heileman Brewing Co. were coming, and Doner was pulling out all stops to woo an old client it lost during the advertising slowdown of 1990.

Reclaiming Heileman's $7 million annual account was a chance to confirm that Doner had bounced back from the recession. It could also help them outgrow a reputation as a regional agency a cut below the big time. That's why Doner spent the days before the meeting rounding up Bears and Bulls paraphernalia to impress the Chicago-based brewer.

It worked.

"People still talk about it," said Joe Martino, senior marketing executive for Heileman. "They taped a Cub game from the night before and put it in the TV for bar ambience."

Heileman's return last year was the middle of a 16-month roll for Maryland's biggest ad agency: Doner won 24 out of about 30 new business "pitches" it made last year, boosting its billings 12 percent to $457 million and adding clients like Armstrong flooring, National Car Rental, Fila skiwear and Heileman.

And the economy didn't lift Doner's boat: Cable and broadcast advertising grew 8 percent last year, and print grew only 7 percent, according to Alex. Brown Inc.

Doner says it is growing even faster so far in 1995: Heileman asked Doner to roll out its regional Henry Weinhard beers nationally, another $10 million account; Adweek magazine named Doner one of its agencies of the year; and Coca-Cola Co. tapped Doner out of the blue to handle an undisclosed piece of its $1.3 billion annual advertising budget for the first time.

"Our next level of growth will come nationally," said Alan Kalter, promoted this month to chief executive officer. "Most of our clients [have been] number two or three in their industry. . . . The number two guy doesn't have the luxury of hiring a guy who's not a street fighter. I've never understood why the number one guy doesn't want a street fighter."

Yet, no matter how good the last 16 months have been to Doner, the hard part is still coming up.

"It [a year like Doner's 1994] does happen; it happens with some regularity," said Roy Furchgott, Baltimore-Washington correspondent for Adweek. "The issue is sustained growth."

Complicating matters, Chief Executive Jim Dale stepped down April 13 for a new career as an author and screenwriter. He is being replaced by Mr. Kalter, formerly the chief operating officer and head of Doner's Detroit "co-headquarters." Herbert D. Fried, the former CEO who recently chaired the firm's executive committee, will return to the post he gave up in 1992 as chairman of the board.

Mr. Kalter insists the personnel changes mean nothing. "Because we both grew up with Doner, the priorities are the same," he said.

Doner's Baltimore story began 40 years ago, when Mr. Fried opened a downtown office to serve Baltimore-based National Brewing Co. (now part of Heileman), which made National Bohemian beer and Colt 45 malt liquor.

Mr. Fried's father had once been agency founder Brod Doner's business partner in another venture, and the son grew into a similar role. He became Doner's president by 1968, when the agency made its Baltimore office a co-headquarters along with Detroit, and gradually the arrangement became more even.

Most of the firm's business runs out of the Detroit office, but Mr. Fried and later Mr. Dale were both based here. The Baltimore office's business doubled about every five years until 1990, Mr. Fried said.

Along the way, Doner picked up its reputation. Some agencies are known for shrewd media strategy, others for sharp market research. Doner made its name on the strength of its creative work, the actual advertising.

"Probably one of the most notorious was the National Bohemian 'Land of Pleasant Living' campaign," said Howe Burch, a former Doner partner who is advertising vice president for Fila USA in Hunt Valley.

Mr. Burch said it was impossible to grow up in Baltimore when he did without seeing animated ads featuring Chester Peake the Talking Crab, shad rowing a boat (think shad roe) and the National troubadour. Part of the idea was that the regional beer went with regional foods.

It was hard to grow up anywhere in the United States without seeing Doner's "Completely Unique Experience" campaign for Colt 45. From 1964 to the late 1970s, actor Billy Van sat calmly waiting for his Colt 45, ignoring the most amazing events and changing expression only when his brew came.

The Colt ads were especially topical and funny. When the movie "Jaws" came out, Doner set a Colt ad in a swimming pool where Mr. Van ignored a mechanical shark biting his table in two.

When Apollo 11 landed, Doner rigged a spot to look as if the actor were waiting on the moon for astronauts to bring his Colt.

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