Wilfred Broderick Doner went into business with Lionel Fink in March 1937 as Fink & Doner, a tiny "letter agency" that prepared handbills and radio announcements for Gross Pointe (Mich.) Quality Food Stores. Only La-Z-Boy Chair Co. had come in by 1941 (though it remained a client at the turn of the 21st century). In 1942, the company hired an art director, and its client roster grew to more than a dozen local merchants and manufacturers, including Michigan Chandelier Co., owned by Mr. Doner's father.
Growth was slow during World War II, and Mr. Fink retired in 1943. After the war, Doner transformed itself from a traditional, "top-down" ad agency into a federation of independent account executives sharing a common layout department but no creative department in the modern sense. Principals came into the agency as "partners," each with their own accounts, and contributed investment capital and received a share in the agency.
The agency expanded into Chicago when Marvin Frank decided to leave his father's furniture business and open an office under the Doner name. In January 1947, he became a 50% partner, and Doner had its first branch office.
By the time Doner celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1947, Speedway 76 and Faygo were about to become the agency's springboard into the new medium of TV in Detroit. In the early '50s, the Chicago office landed Plastone Co., which launched an early and now legendary TV jingle composed by Mr. Frank: "Turtle Wax gives that hard shell finish—Turtle Wax."
By 1960, Doner had established its most dynamic office yet, in Baltimore. It began in 1953, when the Detroit office won Altes Brewery, producer of a prominent but modestly budgeted regional beer. In 1955, National Brewing in Baltimore purchased Altes and invited the shop to handle the entire National account, which was many times the size of the Altes business. Its only proviso: The agency had to have a Baltimore office. Mr. Frank recommended his nephew, Herbert Fried, who within 10 years built Baltimore into the agency's most aggressive office outside Detroit. In February 1968, Mr. Fried became agency president and in 1973 succeeded Mr. Doner as chairman.
Doner's first probe into New York in the late 1940s was short-lived. In October 1958, with billings at $10.8 million, the agency returned to New York in a merger with Peck Advertising. The new agency, Doner & Peck, claimed billings of $20 million.
Among the biggest clients it brought to Doner was the $3.5 million account of U.S. Time Corp., maker of Timex watches. It staged live TV torture tests of Timex watches hosted by John Cameron Swayze, which were often more entertaining than the programs they aired on. When Mr. Swayze strapped a Timex to the propeller of an outboard motor and turned it on, it produced one of the most famous commercials in TV history. When the motor was shut off a moment later, the Timex had vanished. "But still ticking," Mr. Swayze said, "wherever it is."
In February 1961, Timex moved to Warwick & Legler, and a Peck executive left in May, taking five clients with him. In an attempt to stay in New York, Doner was absorbed by Lester Harrison Advertising, but the merger was dissolved in January 1966.
The 1960s saw a shift away from the agency's early account structure that made each of its six senior account execs sovereign over his clients. On June 21, 1963, the Federal Trade Commission charged that the agency, by then known as W.B. Doner & Co., had created a phony research organization called the "Consumer Protective Institute" and put its seal on ads for its client Revco Discount Drug Centers.
The Consumer Protective Institute was actually owned and run by Charles Rosen, who had been with Doner since 1944 and had brought in the Revco business in 1959. Mr. Doner claimed he knew nothing of Mr. Rosen's connection to the Consumer Protective Institute and severed his agency's relationship with Revco.
The Consumer Protective Institute was created by Mr. Rosen in October 1961, staffing it with his wife and brother-in-law. It claimed to test products, but never did; moreover, its seal of approval was used only on Revco brands. By the time the case went to the FTC hearing board on Feb. 28, 1964, Mr. Rosen had resigned from Doner. Mr. Doner argued that because of the "unique setup in which agency principals have complete and autonomous charge of their clients," he should not be liable.
The FTC disagreed. An appeal in April 1965 was to no avail. No fines or penalties were assessed, but the decision sent both Mr. Doner and the industry a strong message about agencies' responsibility for their officers.
Other changes were also under way. The old copy-contact system had become a relic unsuited to the widely heralded "creative revolution" going on in advertising in the 1960s. In 1963, Mr. Doner brought in Stanley Burkoff as creative director and told him to build a modern department of copywriter-art director teams. The results were soon apparent in the agency's work for STP motor oil, Vlasic pickles, I.J. Grass Soup, Dow Bathroom Cleaner ("Scrubbing bubbles") and Tootsie Roll ("How many licks does it take?").
Another change was in the area of client conflicts. Under Doner's old system, the independent partners had found it easy to accommodate client conflicts privately. Now growth and centralization brought new rules. When the Detroit office won the account of the Commercial Credit Corp. in 1966, it meant that Mr. Frank could no longer handle his biggest account, Commercial rival Dial Finance, in Chicago, so he left to form his own shop.
In May 1964, the agency landed its first automobile account—the legendary Studebaker. Doner opened a five-person office in South Bend, Ind., to service the business, but the billings were too small to sustain it for more than two years.
In 1976, the agency's appetite for international business was whetted as Max Fisher, chairman of United Brands and brother-in-law of Stanley Burkoff, then Doner president, moved Chiquita from Young & Rubicam to Doner. Within 20 years, the agency was handling Chiquita's business in 58 countries and 48 languages.
The biggest leap into global marketing started in 1982, when Sohio gave Doner $168,000 to advertise the opening of five Procare auto service shops in Toledo, Ohio. The gasoline business followed, and soon after, the attention of British Petroleum Oil International, which had a majority interest in Sohio. In 1987, Doner landed the London-based BP account, covering Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and the U.S. The agency did not disclose billings but claimed that BP was the biggest account on the Doner roster, which totaled $550 million.
At the start of 1990, the company employed 550 people and had billings of approximately $350 million. On Jan. 4, Mr. Doner died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 75.
During the 1990s, the agency continued to seek healthy growth without going public and being taken over by a major ad network. Doner enhanced its position as a major beer agency when it won the Stroh Brewery account and took over work on such former G. Heileman brands as Colt 45, Old Style and Special Export. It also continued its cautious international growth with the acquisition in 1995 of GKK in London.
A fire in August 1996 gutted the agency but inspired management to focus on rebuilding with new clients. Its 1997 win of the $240 million Mazda business pushed the regional player into the national agency scene. In April 1999, the shop dropped the initials of its namesake.
As the 21st century began, the agency continued as one of the largest and most successful independent shops in the U.S. and insisted it had no intention of selling or merging.
Since Doner's 1997 restructuring, the agency's compound annual growth rate for gross income was 14.07%, outpacing the growth of all combined agencies, according to Advertising Age estimates. Growth in gross income slowed from a 27.11% gain in 1998 to a low of 4.24% in 2001 when the economy slumped. Doner recovered in 2002, with gross income up 8.72% to $109.7 million. That year the agency shot into the top 20 agency brands at 17, up from 29 the year before.
In 2003, the agency shuttered its co-headquarters in Baltimore. Later that year, the shop broke into the global agency world with its $100 million global win of Six Flags Theme Parks.
In 2003, Doner was the No. 1 independent agency in the U.S. and ranked No. 21 among the world's top marketing organizations and No. 18 among U.S. agency brands. It had U.S. revenue of $122.7 million, up 11.8% from 2002, and worldwide revenue of $137 million, up 12.7% from the previous year.