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John Dooner Jr.'s girth had long matched his rank as an industry heavyweight, but it was a newly trim executive who slipped sheepishly into a trendy Manhattan restaurant last year.

This was one of the first public outings for the then-president of McCann-Erickson Worldwide after quietly starving seven suit sizes off his slight frame in three months. It is a metamorphosis that has been the talk of McCann and its top clients ever since.

"He changed his body, revealed his face, his personality and, with that, the personality of the agency," said Sid Ganis, president of marketing and distribution at Columbia Pictures. "His new look, his new vigor, is part of what's happening at McCann."

Today, there's little question Mr. Dooner, 46, was literally grooming himself to head McCann Worldwide. He was named CEO in July and will assume the chairman's mantle in December, succeeding Robert James, who is retiring.

Though it's unclear when he'll take a coveted seat on the board of holding company Interpublic Group of Cos., Mr. Dooner hopes by yearend to complete a transformation of McCann that is almost as dramatic as his own.

The goal: Add a creative patina to Madison Avenue's consummate account management behemoth.

The hurdle: With worldwide billings of $6.7 billion last year, McCann is Interpublic's oldest, largest and most established agency system.

"McCann is big, but the `traditional' aspect is what John's changing," said Interpublic Chairman-CEO Phil Geier. "We cannot stand still anymore. I've been preaching that for two years. The agency systems finally understand that."

Just months after forming creative project unit Amster Yard, Mr. Dooner is talking of another plan: He wants to convince independent, single-office creative shops in the U.S. and U.K. to use McCann's massive international network as a distribution system for taking their clients' advertising around the world.

"You measure the quality of a person by the company they keep," he said, referring to McCann's rubbing shoulders with shops perceived as being more creative. "We're asking our people [at McCann] to work harder for less money and therefore you can't just stand in front of people and say `Follow me and be rich,' but you can say `Be part of the best.'*"

Closer to home, Mr. Dooner is angling to acquire a New York-based medical agency. Industry executives said that early discussions are under way between McCann and Girgenti, Hughes, Butler & McDowell.

It's a deal that would secure McCann's position with client Johnson & Johnson, this month expected to award its estimated $30 million account for a home AIDS testing kit that's pending federal approval. Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising is the other contender for the account.

That win would be a coup for Mr. Dooner and offset the agency's unexpected loss of $70 million to $100 million in McDonald's Corp. co-op business this fall in a defection sparked by Interpublic's acquisition of Burger King Corp. agency Ammirati & Puris.

Also within weeks, agency insiders say Nina DiSesa, exec VP-executive creative director at J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago, may join McCann as the first woman to be New York executive creative director.

Mr. Dooner clearly hoped the appointment would soften McCann's image as a cigar-chomping, Irish-Catholic old boys' enclave, though he diplomatically admits that with "four sisters, a wife and two daughters," he believes in promoting women.

Ms. DiSesa's recruitment also would cap a retooling of McCann's worldwide regional management to include more top-level executives with a creative background.

"I'm not looking for a `silver bullet' but I am looking for someone to elevate McCann's creative position," Mr. Dooner said, wincing when reminded of his last silver bullet, and his only public gaffe-Gordon Bowen.

It was late 1991 and a precarious time for McCann: Client Coca-Cola Co.'s affair with Creative Artists Agency, Beverly Hills, Calif., had just begun and Mr. Dooner wanted his own creative warrior.

It was a disastrous match. Mr. Dooner eventually fired Mr. Bowen and CAA won creative work for Coke Classic. But the pair remain oddly cordial. Indeed, few know that Mr. Dooner met Mr. Bowen, who has yet to return to Madison Avenue, for a friendly morning tete-a-tete early this year.

And some say it's Mr. Dooner-a savvy relationship builder who's said to weekend with Coca-Cola Co. Chief Marketing Officer Sergio Zyman-who's largely responsible for keeping McCann part of the beverage giant's creative fold.

"Coca-Cola should never go back to one resource," Mr. Dooner said, adding for the first time that Coca-Cola's appointment of new agencies "was good for McCann; it was good for Coca-Cola."

Good for McCann? It helped force change, a card that Mr. Dooner intends to play. His mantra: "Keep up the pace; expand the lead; win."

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