Carton recruits Rasmussen to get out ad firm's message

New creative officer returns to city to help agency regain footing

September 28, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

In an effort to regain its advertising footing, Carton Dono- frio Partners Inc. has hired a new creative officer who spent 10 years of his career at Doner in Baltimore.

Scott A. Rasmussen, 45, comes back to Baltimore after a stint at Temerlin McClain, a respected $500 million ad shop in Dallas, where he was one of five creative directors and ran creative efforts for Verizon, Bell Helicopter and Hanes/Just My Size.

"My challenge is to raise the bar creatively," Rasmussen said. "It's an ad-by-ad evolutionary process, so that at the end of the year the ads are sharper than they were the year before."

For the agency, Rasmussen is viewed as key to regaining an identity that became muddled 17 months ago when it changed its name from Richardson, Myers & Donofrio Inc. to trumpet its interactive and research capabilities.

By many accounts, that shift in April last year turned attention away from the core 70 percent of the company's business, which is advertising.

"There's a feeling in the marketplace that there's a lack of focus," said Chuck Donofrio, chief executive officer of Baltimore-based Carton Donofrio.

"I take full responsibility for that," he said. "I think the reason for that is we're trying to make a really big change, and some of this is inevitable. Could we have done better? Yes, I think so."

Among accounts the company lost recently are Ocean City tourism with about $1.2 million in billings - an account it held for 10 years; the National Aquarium, a $1 million account it had for five years; Child Support Enforcement, a $2 million account; and LifeBridge Health, parent of Sinai Hospital, with about $1 million in billings.

Billings, which totaled $90 million in 2000, are now about $76 million.

Donofrio said he thinks none of the account losses stemmed from the agency's muddled image but that the losses make it harder to get new advertising business.

"The message had some wrong elements," Donofrio said. People were saying, `Yeah, they're great, but they're out of advertising.'"

He pointed to accounts the company has won recently, including College Savings Plans of Maryland, with $1 million in billings; Calvert Funds, a mutual fund company with about $2 million in billings; and the New Jersey Association of Realtors, with about $1 million in billings.

The addition of Rasmussen, Donofrio said, should help drive home the message that the company is still at heart an advertising agency.

The strategy makes sense, said Lynda M. Maddox, professor of marketing and advertising at George Washington University who is familiar with the firm.

"You bring in a good creative [person] and it helps refocus the people inside the agency, but it also is a way of creating a buzz among clients and other agencies," she said. "It's an interesting thing to be doing right now. It's been a hanging-on-for-dear-life mentality. A lot of times during downturns in the economy, creative is not something that becomes paramount in advertising."

Carton Donofrio's research operation, which draws on 3,500 cultural anthropologists to study people's behavior, has gotten plenty of attention and helped the agency land projects from clients such as Procter & Gamble, Kodak, Microsoft, American Express and Campbell Soup. But it also has fueled the confusion.

"There's not a clear understanding of who they are today. It's not good if that's the general perception of them in the marketplace," said Roger L. Gray, president and chief executive officer of GKV, a Baltimore-based advertising firm and competitor, though he commended the agency's inventiveness.

Gray applauded Rasmussen, who worked with him for three years at Smith, Burke & Azzam, a predecessor of GKV.

"He is highly thought of in the marketplace," Gray said. "The clients absolutely love him. He's easy to work with."

During a decade with Doner, from 1990 to 2000, Rasmussen directed work for national clients including Sylvan Learning, Scudder Investments and Bally Health and Fitness.

Like many ad agencies, Carton Donofrio struggled last year, reducing its staff by about a dozen employees - half of those to layoffs - Donofrio said.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the subsequent slowing economy resulted in about a 10 percent dip in revenue last year.

The agency has since regained that revenue, Donofrio said.

His goal is to top $100 million in billings in the next five years.

Hiring Rasmussen is one step, a way to use the company's research capabilities to create powerful advertising messages and clear up seeming inconsistencies in the company's mission.

"The feeling that advertising is the core of the company went away," Donofrio said. "It's logical and necessary to reassert our core competency. What I saw in his work was the ability to do what we want to do, which is establish a connection with people very quickly. ... "

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