Hot Chicago agency: Dome leapfrogs rivals in PR game

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Five-year-old Dome Communications is quickly earning a reputation as the Deutsch of the PR world and President-CEO Doug Dome could be considered its Donny.

Young and brash, the agency has muscled its way into Chicago's tight-knit marketing circle as a creative and strategic hot shop. Of the $252.4 million in net fee income held by Chicago's top 25 PR agencies in 2001, Dome accounted for $4.4 million, ranking the shop No. 16 in the Windy City. But with 37.5% growth over its 2000 performance, the agency was the third-fastest growing in the Second City behind Omnicom Group's Ketchum and independent investor-relations shop Ashton Partners. Among Dome's clients are the top-tier marketers in Chicago, including Dean Foods, Sara Lee Corp., Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.

Last year, PRWeek named Dome the eighth-fastest climber based on revenue in the country, a kudo added to earlier nods, including PR Innovator of the Year by PR News, creative agency of the year from PR newsletter "Holmes Report" and dozens of local and national industry awards.

Today, the agency boasts 75 full-time employees (60 in client service) and 2002 revenues of $10.1 million from an 85% close rate, according to Mr. Dome. Among clients added in 2002 are Hyatt Hotels and General Mills. ConAgra Foods is now the agency's largest client. Mr. Dome projects 2003 revenue to double to $21.3 million, based on 45 national prospects being mined by his new-business team.

Although 41-year-old Mr. Dome doesn't sport Donny Deutsch's six-pack abs, the two men bear other similarities. Both are known for their brazen self-promotion, workaholic lifestyle, and wily business acumen-not to mention unabashed resourcefulness in generating buzz for clients, often to the admiration and envy of agency competitors.

His favorite war stories include helping ConAgra's Hunt's trump Heinz as the first ketchup to market with a squeezable bottle, and helping Sara Lee outwit Eli's Cheesecake to win official baker status for Hillary Clinton's 50th birthday cake-and getting her to blow out the candles on the "Oprah Winfrey" show.

After corporate PR posts with Marshall Field's, MCI Communications and the Fairmont Hotel, Mr. Dome hung out his shingle in February 1997, offering to outsource his services to then-employer Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide. With 75% backing from partners Barry Newmark and father-and-son duo Sherman and Stuart Wolf of Sherman Wolf Advertising, the public relations agency began as Dome Newmark Wolf. A scant two years later, when revenues passed the $2 million mark, Mr. Dome bought out the shop, renaming it Dome Communications. His brother Jeff then joined as chief financial officer.

The shop fast-tracked inroads with clients by tapping Mr. Dome's previous ad-agency experience to outsource PR services to agencies, and later mine their rosters for his own.


"His strategy of going to ad agencies and pitching `we get marketing, we get advertising and we can do PR programming to support these initiatives,' was brilliant," said Liane Adduci-Urevig, a former agency client and now a principal at rival PRL Group. "He really filled a void that was missing in the holistic holding-company mix." Chicago ad agencies Dome has worked with include Ms. Adduci-Urevig's former employer, Publicis Groupe's Frankel, as well as Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide and Havas' Euro RSCG Tatham Partners.

Ted McDougal, principal-community and public relations for Sears, hired Dome in 2000 to handle its Sears Care-A-Van holiday project that was recognized by both PR News and PRWeek as a top community-relations effort. That work led to another project to launch a plasma and LCD TV shop in Sears' consumer-electronics department. "We've worked with most of the agencies in town ... and Dome has really distinguished itself in terms of its creativity," he said.

The shop's uncanny ability to ride the oft-changing tides of business has been a key asset. Amid the dot-com boom, Dome added a technology practice in 1999 and created a new post of creative director, a rare title in public relations firms. In April 2002, it launched Concepto Public Relations, a Hispanic public relations practice and its first specialty unit. Over the next 18 to 24 months, Mr. Dome plans to add specialized practices for the gay and lesbian, mature and other ethnic consumer groups.

It's adapting in other ways too. In May, Alix Salyers defected from Golin-Harris to become deputy general manager of the agency. Last month, Dome promoted her to general manager and hired former Simon Marketing Creative Director Michael Starcevich as "chief inspiration officer." Mr. Starcevich trained at the creativity institute Eureka Ranch and is charged with "deputizing every single account person as a creative," he said.

Other additions include David Ludington as senior consultant-director of promotional marketing from president of fleet ad firm TransMedia Group, and James Prescott, a former press secretary to former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, now a senior consultant specializing in issues management. Etienne Hernandez-Medina is now Concepto managing director, succeeding Henry Moya, who left.

"We admit this is an environment that is challenging and is not for everybody," said one staffer, regarding turnover at the agency. "You've got to bring your A game every day," said another.

Dome eschews account teams and staffs work on a project basis. Rather than boast about efficiency, its staffers brag about over-servicing accounts. "This is a real service business and there's no way to know when the service is up," said Ms. Salyers. "It's a hard way to manage and a costly way to manage," added Mr. Dome.

passing on

The agency isn't the only one prospecting. Mr. Dome said he's passed on buyout offers from at least 10 suitors in the past two years.

"When a new entity breaks out and enjoys good growth, it inevitably catches the eye of a holding company and its various subsidiaries," said Ron Bess, chairman-CEO of Young & Rubicam, New York, though he hastened to add he wasn't aware of any specific offers by parent WPP Group to buy the agency. Mr. Bess worked with Mr. Dome when the latter was a top PR exec at FCB and again later as a client.

"It's possible, but I'm not sure we would" buy Dome, said Daniel Edelman, founder and chairman of independent powerhouse Edelman, Chicago. Mr. Edelman said his company "normally doesn't buy in a town where we have a business," but added that Dome has "done a very good job of publicizing itself."

"When we started the agency, our exit strategy was always that if the right suitor came along, that was our exit," said Mr. Dome, adding that right now, there's no reason to sell. Despite the flagging economy, "we've managed to be able to do what others can't."

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