Doner kicks into high gear as Detroit-based agency turns 80

David DeMuth and Eric Weisberg

There are few agencies that have as many iconic campaigns under their belt as Doner, which is celebrating its 80th birthday this year.

From “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” to the Vlasic stork mascot, the MDC Partners agency has created classic campaigns that still resonate - or are at least memorable - among consumers today. Perhaps its most recent success to date was Mazda’s signature “Zoom Zoom” campaign, which the agency created for the car company shortly after winning the account in 1997.

Losing the Mazda account in 2010 was surely a blow to Doner, which in the years since has sought to find a new identity for itself that can help it keep pace with the younger, more nimble shops that continually crop up.

After losing the long-time Mazda business, the Detroit-based agency was able to retain a foothold in the automotive sector when Fiat Chrysler began handing it some project-based work shortly after the loss. The project work proved to be a savior for the agency, as it led to a long-running partnership with the company. Today, Doner handles retail marketing for Fiat Chrysler and works on assignments for brands including Alfa Romeo, Ram Trucks and Chrysler.

Yet even with an automaker on its roster, it’s still been somewhat of a bumpy road for Doner as of late - in the past two years, it has lost clients including JCPenney, Food Lion and Minute Maid.

The agency also recently experienced a reshuffling of its leadership team. Last year, its co-CEO and chief creative officer Rob Strasberg shifted into a global creative chairman role before leaving the agency altogether in December to help his wife run her nonprofit Humble Design, a departure that saw David DeMuth become global president and chief executive. Eric Weisberg took over the creative reins from Strasberg when he joined last year as global chief creative officer of Doner, a role he took on after spending 15 years at J. Walter Thompson in New York.

Plenty of bright days for Doner

Even the midst of an executive shakeup and a spate of account losses, things are far from doom and gloom at the agency. In the past year alone, Doner’s Detroit office has picked up agency of record duties for brands including Brightpeak Financial, Coca-Cola, milk brand Fairlife and Michigan healthcare system Beaumont Health. On top of the wins, the agency also counts brands like Bush’s Beans, Serta and Cox Communications as clients, all of which have been with the shop for more than 15 years.

“One of the things I really like about our client base is the distribution of tenure of our clients,” said DeMuth. And despite being headquartered in the Motor City, DeMuth said that he also prides himself on the fact that Doner’s expertise isn’t limited to the automotive category.

“We have incredible diversity in our client base across categories,” he said. “That’s part of what makes it exciting for people who come to work here. If you work at any of the other agencies in Detroit, all you do is work on cars all day long. They exist because of the car company. We love cars and we love our car client, but we have a whole other 80 percent of our business that’s totally diverse — and [we're] working on some of the most exciting categories and brands in the world.”

In light of its new business wins, Doner recently added 11 new hires to its creative team, all based in its Detroit office. Earlier this month, Jon Krevolin left his creative director position at R/GA in New York to join Doner Detroit as EVP-executive creative director, a role that involves leading creative and adding digital expertise across new and existing accounts.

As the agency slowly but surely gains new business momentum and sets itself up for future growth, DeMuth is optimistic that 80-year-old Doner will stand the test of time.

“I think any good agency is always a work in progress,” said DeMuth. “The marketplace changes, so you have to keep changing. You have to keep changing, bringing in new talent, trying new processes, adding new capabilities and experimenting with stuff — so I say we are a work in progress that’s making progress. We’re going to be changing up a lot of things going forward too, because you have to in order to compete.”

Eye on the prize

Much of Doner’s future growth will depend on the success of its LA and London offices, both of which the agency has invested significant resources into in recent years.

Doner originally set up shop in London in the late 1980’s to serve BP. Ten years later, it opened an office in Orange County to support the Mazda account. While both clients are no longer with Doner, it has spent the past few years breathing new life into the two offices in hopes of attracting talent - and new business - to the agency.

In 2015, Doner brought on Zihla Salinas and Jason Gaboriau to lead its LA office after relocating it from Orange County. As EVP-managing director and EVP-chief creative officer respectively, the two have been tasked with growing the office and making it more digitally-minded. Under their leadership, Doner LA has been named digital agency of record for Nestle brands Nescafé, Taster’s Choice, DiGiorno and California Pizza Kitchen. The LA shop also does work for Netflix, Mattel and others.

About a year and a half ago, Doner tapped former Addison Lee marketing boss Nick Constantinou as managing director of its London office and named Logan Wilmont executive creative director. Similarly to LA, the duo was tasked with unlocking growth opportunities for the agency in the UK, a proposition that is already bearing fruit. Over the past year, Doner’s London office has picked up work for Huawei and was named agency of record for hotel brands Novotel and Mercure.

While both the LA and London outposts each have about 50 staffers at the moment, DeMuth said he thinks it’s conceivable that both offices will double their headcount within the next three years.

“Our London and LA offices, that we’ve invested in quite a bit over the last year or two, are really beginning to take off and grow,” said DeMuth. “Obviously because they’re coming from low bases, London and LA will grow at a faster percentage [than Detroit]. They’re not only growth platforms for our agency, they’re going to help attract better talent to us that will lift the work and the profile across the board.”

And because Doner’s 500-person headquarters is based in Detroit, a city that isn’t exactly a magnet for up-and-coming talent, DeMuth admits that the success of its LA and London offices could prove to be a boon for the agency’s overall image.

“Being headquartered here in Detroit, we’ve got to work harder to win. We have to work harder to get noticed. We have to work harder to grab the attention of the world because we’re not in New York. That’s part of also why we’ve invested in London and LA,” he said.

Pushing the work forward

The appointment of Weisberg to global chief creative officer last year has also helped usher in a new chapter for Doner, one that is more heavily focused on what Weisberg refers to as the “post-advertising” world where content is at the center of everything.

When making the choice to leave J. Walter Thompson, Weisberg said that Doner’s hefty production capabilities is what ultimately drew him to the agency. Dubbed The Underground, Doner’s in-house content studio in Detroit boasts 24 edit bays, three audio post suites, two graphic suites, two photography studios and a green screen room.

“Beyond just the network expansion, there is a massive production capability here,” said Weisberg. “We probably have the largest post facility of any agency in the Midwest. We have a two-bedroom apartment we rent across the street where we do food prep to do videos for Nestle, Smithfield and Bush’s Beans. I saw the ability to have this merger of production capability and classic strategy and storytelling to be a huge differentiator.”

When searching for new creative leadership, DeMuth said he was looking for someone who would be able to “push the work forward in a really modern way.”

“What I was looking for in a chief creative officer was somebody that understood brands and classic brand storytelling, but had a real interest and expertise also in emerging media, and data, and everything that’s going on in the digital and social and mobile space. Somebody that could kind of bring together that thinking for us,” he said.

As Doner’s first global chief creative officer, Weisberg said he’s working to shift the way that the agency works with brands in terms of how work is created, noting that he's using the concept of “story starting” as a jumping-off point.

“We want to do less just classic storytelling, which has a beginning and end, and more what I call story starting — which is [that] we want to start the story across many channels and allow influencers and consumers and media to finish,” Weisberg said.

To help the agency adapt to this new mindset, Weisberg said he’s looking to bring people on board who are excited about the future of the industry rather than intimidated by it.

“A big goal has been to get people in here that have an entrepreneurial spirit, that want to do the best work of their careers and have a curiosity about where the business is going. Those are people that have not been writing television scripts in their office for 20 years. They’re people that are filming stuff and tinkering,” he said.

At the end of the day, DeMuth believes that the things that differentiate Doner from its glitzier counterparts are often the same things that make it attractive as an agency. For instance, he said that new employees at Doner often have the chance to truly get their hands dirty and get their ideas made because of the agency’s roll-up-your-sleeves mentality.

“You might go a year [at a] creative department in New York and not make anything,” Demuth said. “Here, there’s so much opportunity to make things and get experience. People build their reels and their books quickly because there’s so much opportunity. I think that is part of what has drawn people here from out of town or even in town. I always say the best and the brightest and most talented people in Detroit should be working here, because they’re going to get a diversity of experience that’s going to propel their career quickly.”

And while the agency’s Midwestern headquarters gives it an underdog status of sorts, Weisberg believes that the people who work at the agency are often able to bring a different - and sometimes much-needed - perspective to the work than someone in, say, Tribeca.

“I think we [have] a unique opportunity to get out of that echo chamber of what exists on the coasts and tap into what real people are buying,” he said.

DeMuth echoed that sentiment, joking that Doner isn’t going to be “winning the Louis Vuitton account anytime soon.”

“We serve brands that are trying to appeal to large swathes of America and not the coastal cultural elitism,” he said. “It’s real stuff for real people. I think that’s a differentiator for the agency, but it only is if it manifests itself in the strategic thinking and in the work. Otherwise, it’s just more agency bullshit. And there’s a lot of agency bullshit.”

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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