Head, heart funny bone Agency: Marking its 60th anniversary this year, W. B. Doner & Co. aims to create advertising that appeals to both the intellectual and emotional sides of the consumer.

September 21, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

DETROIT -- It was a Sunday, and a bunch of creative types were banging around ideas for the Chiquita banana account at the W. B. Doner & Co. advertising agency just outside the city.

Being creative, they weren't paying much attention to practical things -- such as how hot and stuffy the office had become.

A supervisor showed up. "Guys, don't you notice it's kinda smoky in here?" he said. As if to certify his point, an office down the hall burst into flames.

So it is that now, a year after an electrical short gutted its building, the Doner agency is marking its 60th anniversary in temporary quarters next to a big suburban movie theater.

But that's Detroit. Doner's other headquarters, in Baltimore, is nestled comfortably on the 10th and 11th floors of Inner Harbor Center overlooking the tourist-carpeted waterfront.

The little firm that started as a two-man shop in 1937 has built itself into an international agency with nine offices and with billings this year of more than $600 million. Wilfred Broderick Doner isn't here to see it, but the corporate heirs of the late founder say they are poised to reach for the heights of the industry.

"I didn't think we'd ever be this big," said chairman Herbert Fried, who opened the Baltimore office in 1955 with only a secretary and two television producers. Now Fried says he'd like the agency's billings to be in the elite range of $1 billion a year by the turn of the millennium.

"In a business that chews a lot of agencies up, either by them going out of business or being acquired by another agency, 60 years is not bad," said Jim Osterman, Southeast editor of Adweek.

His magazine's annual list of the top 100 agencies in the country ranked Doner 29th last year, with 1996 billings of $138 million in Baltimore and $282 million in Detroit. That's a far cry from the almost $2.7 billion posted by the magazine's top-rated agency -- Leo Burnett of Chicago -- but Osterman called Doner "a good, solid agency" that "could climb that ladder."

The agency continues to expand, adding key accounts this year to a slate that already included British Petroleum, Arby's, Chiquita, Coca-Cola, La-Z-Boy and The Sun.

"An agency with a long history like Doner is indicative of the fact that they have paid attention to what's going on around them and have done a good job of reflecting that back to the consumer," Osterman said.

Brod Doner wasn't aiming for anything a whole lot grander than survival when he started the company. He had just been laid off from a Detroit ad agency and couldn't find many opportunities in the post-Depression economy.

Doner and a partner didn't even have any automobile accounts -- in Motor City, remember -- but over five years they built up a client roster of about a dozen local businesses.

Burlesque houses, gasoline and beer were staples of the Detroit regional market, and aside from the interruption of World War II, this was where Doner succeeded. He made forays into New York, which flared for a while with work for Timex with John Cameron Swayze, and into Chicago, but neither of those lasted.

It was a local beer maker that helped lift Doner to another level. In 1955, a Detroit brewery that advertised with Doner was bought by National Brewing of Baltimore. The new owner said he wanted to use Doner for all his brands, but he wanted the agency to have an office in Baltimore.

A boyhood friend who worked with Doner said he had a bright young nephew who would be perfect to get things going in Baltimore. The only problem was that the nephew, Herb Fried, was busy climbing the ladder at a prominent Chicago agency and was skeptical of moving east for a smaller company.

"I wasn't sure where Baltimore was," Fried said. "But the opportunity to grow and grow rapidly was more prevalent here than in Chicago. So I left with my wife and 1-year-old son and moved to Baltimore -- before it was named the Land of Pleasant Living."

It was a Doner ad for National Brewing that bestowed that label on the area. According to Fried, Brod Doner was flying over the Chesapeake Bay when he made the offhand comment, "Boy, this is the land of pleasant living." Fried liked the sound, put creative staff behind it and gave birth to a legendary campaign for National Bohemian beer.

In those days, "Natty Boh" owned the advertising rights to all Orioles, Colts, Redskins and Senators games. The brewery represented half of Doner's billings at the time and all of the Baltimore office's business.

After a couple of years, Fried began pushing for more. He is an aggressive manager, hasty to call himself "hands-on," eager to know what everyone is working on and what's going on with individual clients.

Through his drive and the national success of the Colt 45 malt liquor campaign -- a bored-looking man in a tuxedo ignoring everything from bullfights to beautiful women and reacting only when his Colt 45 arrives -- Fried built Baltimore's billings to within sight of Detroit's by the early 1970s.

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