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Banner year at W. B. Doner & Co.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It looked like just a place to have a drink, but advertising agencies like W. B. Doner & Co. spend billions to convince consumers that a beer is more than just a beer. And for Doner, this one was.

Doner had built a sports bar in the lobby of its Detroit office in only three days in late 1993. Executives from G. Heileman Brewing Co. were coming, and Doner was pulling out all stops to woo an old client it lost during the advertising slowdown of 1990.

Reclaiming Heileman's $7 million annual account was a chance to confirm that Doner had bounced back from the recession. It could also help them outgrow a reputation as a regional agency a cut below the big time. That's why Doner spent the days before the meeting rounding up Bears and Bulls paraphernalia to impress the Chicago-based brewer.

It worked.

"People still talk about it," said Joe Martino, senior marketing executive for Heileman. "They taped a Cub game from the night before and put it in the TV for bar ambience."

Heileman's return last year was the middle of a 16-month roll for Maryland's biggest ad agency: Doner won 24 out of about 30 new business "pitches" it made last year, boosting its billings 12 percent to $457 million and adding clients like Armstrong flooring, National Car Rental, Fila skiwear and Heileman.

And the economy didn't lift Doner's boat: Cable and broadcast advertising grew 8 percent last year, and print grew only 7 percent, according to Alex. Brown Inc.

Doner says it is growing even faster so far in 1995: Heileman asked Doner to roll out its regional Henry Weinhard beers nationally, another $10 million account; Adweek magazine named Doner one of its agencies of the year; and Coca-Cola Co. tapped Doner out of the blue to handle an undisclosed piece of its $1.3 billion annual advertising budget for the first time.

"Our next level of growth will come nationally," said Alan Kalter, promoted this month to chief executive officer. "Most of our clients [have been] number two or three in their industry. . . . The number two guy doesn't have the luxury of hiring a guy who's not a street fighter. I've never understood why the number one guy doesn't want a street fighter."

Yet, no matter how good the last 16 months have been to Doner, the hard part is still coming up.

"It [a year like Doner's 1994] does happen; it happens with some regularity," said Roy Furchgott, Baltimore-Washington correspondent for Adweek. "The issue is sustained growth."

Complicating matters, Chief Executive Jim Dale stepped down April 13 for a new career as an author and screenwriter. He is being replaced by Mr. Kalter, formerly the chief operating officer and head of Doner's Detroit "co-headquarters." Herbert D. Fried, the former CEO who recently chaired the firm's executive committee, will return to the post he gave up in 1992 as chairman of the board.

Mr. Kalter insists the personnel changes mean nothing. "Because we both grew up with Doner, the priorities are the same," he said.

Doner's Baltimore story began 40 years ago, when Mr. Fried opened a downtown office to serve Baltimore-based National Brewing Co. (now part of Heileman), which made National Bohemian beer and Colt 45 malt liquor.

Mr. Fried's father had once been agency founder Brod Doner's business partner in another venture, and the son grew into a similar role. He became Doner's president by 1968, when the agency made its Baltimore office a co-headquarters along with Detroit, and gradually the arrangement became more even.

Most of the firm's business runs out of the Detroit office, but Mr. Fried and later Mr. Dale were both based here. The Baltimore office's business doubled about every five years until 1990, Mr. Fried said.

Along the way, Doner picked up its reputation. Some agencies are known for shrewd media strategy, others for sharp market research. Doner made its name on the strength of its creative work, the actual advertising.

"Probably one of the most notorious was the National Bohemian 'Land of Pleasant Living' campaign," said Howe Burch, a former Doner partner who is advertising vice president for Fila USA in Hunt Valley.

Mr. Burch said it was impossible to grow up in Baltimore when he did without seeing animated ads featuring Chester Peake the Talking Crab, shad rowing a boat (think shad roe) and the National troubadour. Part of the idea was that the regional beer went with regional foods.

It was hard to grow up anywhere in the United States without seeing Doner's "Completely Unique Experience" campaign for Colt 45. From 1964 to the late 1970s, actor Billy Van sat calmly waiting for his Colt 45, ignoring the most amazing events and changing expression only when his brew came.

The Colt ads were especially topical and funny. When the movie "Jaws" came out, Doner set a Colt ad in a swimming pool where Mr. Van ignored a mechanical shark biting his table in two.

When Apollo 11 landed, Doner rigged a spot to look as if the actor were waiting on the moon for astronauts to bring his Colt.

"It was one of the precursors to the Miller Lite 'Tastes Great, Less Filling' commercials," Mr. Burch said.

But by the early 1990s, business had grown much tougher. Doner's Baltimore office was in an undersized building in a declining section of North Charles Street. The industry was growing more slowly or even shrinking.

Even one of Doner's signature campaigns bogged down. Colt's slogan had shifted to "It Works Every Time," with surreal commercials touting the malt liquor's supposed ability to make women flock.

"I don't want to say we had grown stale," Mr. Fried says. "But when we pitched Subaru and Jaguar out of the Charles Street office [in 1990 and 1991], there was not the feeling of an up-to-date advertising agency."

Doner didn't win either of those competitions, and things had to change. Mr. Dale, a smallish, dark-haired man whose ironic wit makes him seem to play David Letterman to Mr. Fried's Johnny Carson, was named president in 1990 and chief executive in 1992.

Mr. Dale began a series of reforms. Mr. Kalter said the agency opened up the process it uses to chase new business, adapting a team-oriented model that lets as many as 90 of Doner's 550 people work on a pitch for a single large account.

"Doner quite honestly swept me off my feet with their energy, creativity and enthusiasm," said Karen Dowell, director of communications services for PeopleSoft Inc., a California software developer that dropped a San Francisco agency for Doner last year. "They did such an incredible amount of homework, they could practically recite to us our marketing plan."

Mr. Dale also began plans for 1994's move to Doner's offices overlooking the Inner Harbor. Mr. Dale built what Sun architecture critic Edward Gunts called "an intentionally unbridled work-circus, carefully designed to keep the creative juices flowing."

Mr. Dale "had a vision of an agency that wasn't a typical work place," said Bryan Yolles, Doner's chief administrative officer and a childhood friend of Mr. Dale. "He brought creative thought to management, not just to the advertising."

Mr. Fried's most important role as chairman of the executive committee was to be Mr. Dale's co-rainmaker in chief. Both men had stayed in touch with Heileman after Doner lost the account, and Mr. Fried was to get a phone call late in 1994 from another old client bearing good news.

The client was Sergio Zyman. Doner had done business with Mr. Zyman after he left Coke, which happened after he masterminded the introduction of New Coke, while he was consulting for the 7-Eleven store chain. By last year, Mr. Zyman's career at Coke had been rehabilitated, and he was about to make Doner feel better too.

Mr. Zyman had dropped Coke's exclusive ad agency and built a stable of more than 30 shops, many of them smaller regional firms, in a bid to adapt Coke to an age of narrower brand markets and more fragmented communications.

Before it even asked, Doner had been tapped.

Doner won't say what Coke wants it to do. But an industry source says Doner will devise some Christmas promotions for Coke. The campaign is a chance for Doner to step up to another tier among the nation's advertising firms.

The Coke account "puts them on a different level," Mr. Furchgott said.

Mr. Fried admits Doner wants some more national cachet, and that national clients like Coke help draw attention that attracts new business. But executives say it's a mistake to expect Doner will change very much very soon.

Mr. Fried said Doner had recent merger talks with True North Communications of Chicago, which would have vaulted Doner from the world's 45th largest ad agency to part of the sixth-biggest. But he says no talks are going on now.

"We have no heirs, no absentee owners, no former employees," Mr. Kalter said. "We're fiercely independent."

SOME W. B. DONER CAMPAIGNS

Television viewers see advertising agencies' work every day, but rarely do they know which agency created spots they like -- or don't.

Some of W. B. Doner & Co.'s creations include:

* Red Roof Inns -- A current campaign featuring comedian Martin Mull as a pitchman for the economy motel chain. In one spot, Mr. Mull throws a friend's wallet off a dam, telling the hapless buddy it's no worse a waste of money than staying at an expensive hotel.

* National Car Rental -- Playing on the idea that car renters want to move through an airport quickly, without waiting in line for a slow car rental company, the continuing campaign plays on National's green-and-white logo for the slogan "Green Means Go." The soundtrack is the pop hit "Ain't Nothin' Gonna Break My Stride."

* Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- This pro bono spot won the top advertising award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990. Narrated by Orioles announcer Jon Miller and featuring sports personalities like WJZ-TV's John Buren and Frank Robinson, the spot highlights the orchestra as "Baltimore's Other Major League Team."

* Enoch Pratt Free Library -- The spot shows an actor going to bookstores and record shops asking to borrow materials without paying. The only place to get stuff free is at the library, he concludes, because "free is their middle name."

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