W.B. DONER : 60TH ANNIVERSARY: SHOP'S 'VEST-POCKET' ORIGINS LEAD TO BILLINGS OF A HALF-BILLION DOLLARS

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If you had opened an ad agency in a market like Detroit in 1937, you weren't obliged to do things the way New York and Chicago did them; you could invent your own kind of agency.

Wilfred Broderick Doner was born in Detroit the year Henry Ford completed his first production line and Ted MacManus wrote his famous "Penalty of Leadership" ad for Cadillac. It was 1914, and if you wanted a future in advertising in Detroit, you hitched your wagon to a car.

But by the time Mr. Doner graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1936, all the car companies were taken. So Mr. Doner beat an original path of his own making to the top. The evolution of W. B. Doner & Co. would have little in common with the giants of Madison Avenue.

RECESSION WOES

The year is 1937. After working briefly for a local ad agency only to get fired, Brod Doner found the job pickings slim as the country slid back into the deepest recession since 1933.

He decided to start his own company and give himself a job. W. B. Doner began in March 1937 as Fink & Doner, a tiny "letter agency" preparing handbills and radio announcements for Grosse Pointe Quality Food Stores. As it set up shop in Detroit's Penobscot Building, Lionel Fink, the senior partner, took the titles president and radio director; Mr. Doner became secretary and treasurer.

The client list remained small over the first three years. Only La-Z-boy Chair Co., Monroe, Mich., had been added by 1941 (and is still a client). In 1942 the company moved to 505 Washington Blvd., hired art director Ben Goldstein, and watched its client roster grow to more than a dozen. All were small local merchants or manufacturers-for example, the Ironclan Amusement Co., which ran a burlesque theater, and Michigan Chandelier Co., owned by Nathan Silverstein, Mr. Doner's father.

The year 1942 also brought the first of the clients that would become a growth engine in the agency's future-Speedway Petroleum and Speedway 79 gasoline. When Lionel Fink retired the following year, Mr. Doner became president and began hiring new people who could bring their own business with them.

Julian Grace, 32, had been working without pay for a small Detroit agency until 1935, when the Feigenson Brothers handed him a $2,000 budget to advertise their regional soft drink, Faygo. For the next five years, Mr. Grace ran a one-man agency for Faygo. When he joined Doner in 1943, Faygo followed. Three years later he would be a partner. But Faygo, like the firm's other clients, was a small advertiser.

WAR INTERVENES

Growth was slow and unspectacular during World War II. Mr. Doner served in the Army in 1944 and '45. While he was away, Mr. Grace and another new associate, Charles Rosen, kept the business going, despite a big drop in the client count.

"It's become a cliche that life begins at 40," Mr. Doner said on his 65th birthday in 1979. "Certainly this agency didn't really start to move until then. In fact, I wasn't sure it would make it."

Mr. Doner made it by making his company less a traditional top-down ad agency and more a federation of entrepreneurially minded loners sharing the common resource of Ben Goldstein's layout room. Here, copy written by Messrs. Doner, Rosen and Grace was turned into layouts and ads. It was a "copy-contact" agency with no formal creative department.

After the war it seemed like a convenient, if unusual, strategy for growth. Principal players would join the agency as "partners," each with "vest pocket" accounts. Together they would pool their resources, contribute some investment capital and get a stock share in the agency. But autonomy was complete. Each man was master of his own accounts and under no obligation to consult the other partners. Early Red Book listings of the agency were unique: Each account was listed with the name of its agency custodian.

RAPID GROWTH

It was a loose system of association that lent itself to quick growth . . . and unexpected mischief. But that would come later. After the war, it seemed a convenient way of expanding to other cities, the first being Chicago.

Brod Doner and Marvin Frank had been close friends since 1931, when they met while working as camp counselors in Wisconsin. In 1946, Mr. Frankwas working in Chicago for his father's furniture company when he suggested that Doner make a pitch for Atlantic Brewery's Tavern Pale Beer, owned by Mr. Frank's friend, Leo Lederer.

The pitch failed, but Mr. Frank still wanted to get into the advertising business. He decided to join Doner and open a Chicago office under the Doner name. In January 1947 he became a 50% partner, and Doner had its first branch office. A year later Messrs. Frank and Doner made another pitch for Tavern Pale, this time successfully. It was one of the accounts that led the agency into television.

Hard shell finish

When Doner celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1947, the agency was on the threshold of its first important growth spurt. Speedway 79 and Faygo became springboards to the new TV medium in Detroit. In Chicago, the agency landed Plastone Co., soon to become famous for a brand as familiar as the tune that Mr. Frank, who composed jingles on a piano in his office, would write for it: "Turtle Wax gives a hard shell finish-Turtle Wax."

Expansion continued to be on Mr. Doner's mind in the '50s. Since Doner clients did not market nationally, any Doner office in another city needed its own client base and the freedom to grow on its own initiative. The Chicago operation would be the model.

Doner's first probe into New York in the late '40s was short-lived. A brief association with Charles Higgins gave the agency 25 small clients and a Manhattan address on 48th Street. But the venture ended in 1951. In 1953 Mr. Frank launched an office in Milwaukee.

BILLINGS TOP $10 MILLION

That October, with billings at $10.8 million, the agency returned to New York in a merger with Peck Advertising, which billed about $6.5 million and had a history of "vest pocket" accounts similar to Doner's. The new agency, Doner & Peck, rounded off the numbers and claimed billings of $20 million as it settled into quarters at 400 Madison Ave.

Among the biggest clients it brought to Doner was the $3.5 million account of U. S. Time Corp., maker of Timex watches and sponsor of network specials including Red Skelton and Steve Allen.

The live torture tests of watches staged by John Cameron Swayze often were more amusing than the programs they underwrote. 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, Mr. Swayze discovered the Timex had vanished. "But still ticking," he said, "wherever it is."

TIMEX MOVES

The Peck relationship fell apart when Timex moved to Warwick & Legler in February 1961 and a Peck executive left in May, taking five clients (with billings of $500,000) with him. Doner later was absorbed by Lester Harrison Advertising, a New York retail and promotion agency that billed about $4.2 million. (Doner's New York billings were $3.5 million.) But the Doner-Harrison merger would not take root; it dissolved in January 1966 and would be Doner's last attempt to breach New York.

The story in Baltimore was different. It began in 1953 when Doner's Detroit office won Altes Brewery, a prominent but modestly budgeted regional beer. In 1955 Altes was purchased by National Brewing in Baltimore, and Mr. Doner prepared for the worst. But National's chief, Jerry Hoffberger, not only liked Doner's Altes work, he invited the agency to handle the entire National account, many times the size of Altes. Only one proviso: The agency must have a Baltimore office.

"One day I got a call from Brod," Marvin Frank recalls, "and he says, 'do you know any really bright guy who could go to Baltimore and handle the job?'

"I said, 'Yeah, if you don't mind nepotism. He's my sister's son, Herbert Fried.' "

Mr. Fried at 27 was settling into a promising career at Chicago ad agency Weiss & Geller. He told his uncle he had no interest in moving. "Look, do me a favor," Mr. Frank pleaded. "At least meet Doner, then say no."

So Herbert Fried met Brod Doner, who recognized a young, charismatic man with the practical instincts of an excellent businessman. He tempted him with an alluring combination of distance, autonomy and a vice presidency.

Mr. Fried started with a handful of clients (ever hear of Uncle Willie Cigars?) at 2225 N. Charles St., and within 10 years built Baltimore into the agency's most aggressive business magnet outside Detroit. In February 1968 Mr. Fried became agency president, and in 1973 he succeeded Mr. Doner as chairman of the board.

The '60s would see a fundamental shift from the agency's early "vest pocket" account structure that made each of its six senior account executives autonomous.

CHARGES COME DOWN

Brod Doner got the wake-up call on June 21, 1963, when the Federal Trade Commission charged that W. B. Doner & Co. had created a phony research organization called Consumer Protective Institute and put its seal on ads for a client, Revco Drug Centers. The CPI was actually owned and run by Charles Rosen, who had been with the agency since 1944 and brought in the Revco business in 1959. Mr. Doner was publicly nonplused and promptly severed his relationship with Revco.

He said he knew nothing of Mr. Rosen's connection to CPI, a gimmick Mr. Rosen had dreamed up and whose only employees were his wife and brother-in-law. It claimed to test products but never did, and focused only on Revco brands.

FTC ACTION LOOMS

By the time the case went to the FTC hearing board in 1964, Mr. Rosen had resigned from Doner and become an executive VP at Revco. Still on the hook, though, was Mr. Doner himself, who argued that because of the "unique setup in which agency principals have complete and autonomous charge of their clients," he should not be liable for Mr. Rosen's mischief.

But the FTC said that "Doner cannot escape responsibility for its exec VP and half owner [Mr. Rosen actually owned 13%] in the performance of his function as account executive for Revco."

An appeal in April 1965 was to no avail. No fines or penalties were assessed, but the decision sent both Doner and the industry a strong message. The age of the all-powerful account potentate at Doner was over.

Other changes also were under way. The old copy-contact system had become a relic unsuited to the creative revolution of the '60s. So in 1963 the agency brought in Stanley Burkoff as creative director and told him to build a modern department of copy writer-art director teams. The results were soon apparent in the agency's work for STP, Vlasic pickles, I.J. Grass soup and Tootsie Roll.

Among those who would work in Mr. Burkoff's department in the '60s and '70s were Lawrence Kasdan (who went on to write "Star Wars") and Cathy Guisewite (creator of the syndicated cartoon strip "Cathy"). John DeCerchio, hired in the mail room in 1974, has been executive creative director since 1989.

In May 1964 the agency finally landed an automobile account-Studebaker, which at the time seemed beyond the power of any agency to market. Doner opened a five-person office in South Bend, Ind., to service the business, but the billings were unable to sustain it for more than two years. The account was so small no one seemed to mind that Doner simultaneously handled Chicago's Z-Frank, one of the largest Chevrolet dealers in America.

Back in Doner's "vest pocket" days, the partners found it easy to privately accommodate such client conflicts. But growth and centralization brought new rules.

When Doner's Detroit office won the Commercial Credit Corp. account in 1966, it meant Marvin Frank could no longer handle his biggest account, Dial Finance, in Chicago.

"If we couldn't not compete," Mr. Frank recalls, "we had to separate." So in April 1966, after nearly 20 years, he sold his 50% holding back to Doner and set up his own agency in Chicago.

FOCUS SHIFTS

The growth of W. B. Doner & Co. now focused on Detroit and Baltimore; the latter had grown eight-fold since 1955, largely on the strength of its Colt 45 ale account. By 1972 the offices were in a virtual dead heat, each billing $16.5 million. Observers talked about "sibling rivalries."

In 1976 the agency's appetite for international business was whetted as Max Fisher, chairman of United Brands and brother-in-law of Doner president Stan Burkoff, moved the Chiquita account from Y&R to Doner. Within 20 years the agency would be peddling bananas in 58 countries and 48 languages.

But the biggest leap into global marketing started in 1982, when oil giant Sohio gave Doner $168,000 to support the opening of five Procare auto repair shops in Toledo. Sohio's gasoline business followed, and soon after, Doner came to the attention of British Petroleum, which held a majority interest in Sohio.

Today the account promotes BP's operations in Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and the U.S. The agency does not disclose individual client billings but says BP is its biggest account. Doner's billings now total $550 million.

Brod Doner lived to see most of this growth and was still active as executive committee chairman when he died Jan. 4, 1990 at age 75. He had managed to do something that eludes many founders: He succeeded in institutionalizing his creation, then found a generation of successors to run it. And he was wise enough to know when to let them take over.

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