Doner CEO Alan Kalter Leaves Agency

Sells Shop to Remaining Executives

By Published on .

CHICAGO ( -- Doner Chairman-CEO Alan Kalter is leaving one of the nation's largest independent agencies after 43 years.

Alan Kalter
Alan Kalter
Mr. Kalter, 62, announced his departure in a memo to the agency this morning, saying he is selling the agency to three of its top remaining executives, Chief Operating Officer David DeMuth, Chief Creative Officer Rob Strasberg and President Tim Blett.

"Today, the agency has the strongest team in my memory of Doner, which spans 43 years," said Mr. Kalter. "The next chapter is ready to be written."

Mr. Kalter will be remembered at Doner -- and elsewhere -- for transforming Doner from a midsize regional shop to the largest independent ad agency in terms of U.S. revenue, one that consistently competes for national accounts, with major clients such as Mazda and Coca-Cola's Minute Maid brand. Revenue for 2008 was estimated at $182 million.

But the team that led the agency's rise under Mr. Kalter has come undone of late. First, the agency's longtime creative force and vice chairman, John DeCerchio, departed the agency and then sued it in a dispute over the size of the payout related to his 32% equity stake in the shop. Mr. DeCerchio said he was owed $55 million over 10 years; Doner said he was owed $51.5 million.

Another partner and 30-plus-year executive at the agency, H. Barry Levine, quit after Mr. Kalter admitted that the agency's pension fund was not in compliance with federal disclosure laws and regulations.

The Soutfield, Mich.-based shop is in some ways still rebounding from a run of key client defections beginning in 2007 that saw La-Z-Boy, Six Flags, U.S. Cellular, and Sylvan Learning Centers depart.

Doner tried to stage a comeback with a couple of nice additions to its roster, including ad duties for Amazon, and hiring Mr. Strasberg, a former Crispin Porter & Bogusky executive, as chief creative officer. But that didn't prevent the agency from losing hold on more key pieces of business in 2009, such as Expedia's ad account. It was forced in April to slash more than 100 staffers, representing about 12% of staff.

In a memo to agency staff, Messrs. Demuth, Strasberg and Blett commented: "While Doner has been in business for more than 70 years, we will lead the agency inspired by the mission that our founder Brod Doner created and that Alan and others brought to life so passionately every day. Together, we'll keep it fresh, we'll keep it exciting, and we'll keep it moving forward. And, we'll have some fun doing it.

"Soon, we'll be sharing more about our plans for Doner and the re-imaging of the agency: a new website; an even more aggressive business development initiative; enhanced strategic tools; new opportunities and learning experiences for our employees; and a deep commitment to making Doner a great place to work. Of course, this all will be in the service of bringing our clients ideas that have a demonstrable impact on their business and their brand."

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