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Pitchman Featured

6:20am EDT March 23, 2005
In a private company, relationships with clients can be like a marriage, says Alan Kalter, chairman and CEO of Doner advertising agency. And with more than 1,000 employees - 100 added in just the past year -- and several big-name accounts, that's quite a wedding party.

Doner, formerly W.B. Doner & Co., last year was awarded the prized Circuit City agency review. A statement from the specialty electronics retailer said it chose Doner because of its innovative vision and creativity.

With more than $1.85 billion in combined billings, Doner is the largest privately held advertising agency in North America. It has done business with companies in 30 countries and has offices throughout North America and in London.

Kalter's team is the brains behind the "What would you do for a Klondike Bar?" ads and Timex's "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking" campaign, as well as Mazda's successful "Zoom Zoom" campaign. Doner has been credited with moving La-Z-Boy chairs away from the "father" image and has several other big-name accounts that include Blockbuster Entertainment, DuPont, Six Flags and the May Department Stores.

Smart Business spoke with Kalter about the secret to creating and sustaining relationships with clients.

Last year, you landed some hotly sought after accounts. How do you target prospective clients, and what does it take to land them?

The vast majority of major reviews today are done by consultants or they're initiated by somebody at the client's end. Circuit City and Sirius Satellite had consultants. In the case of Hotels.com, the client did the review on their own.

We prepare to win business based on pursuit. We do a very good job of discovering relative consumer insight and then translating it into creativity that presents the brand as relevant. The key -- what I think we do differently than competitors -- is that we're very good listeners.

How do you maintain long-running relationships with clients, where other companies fail?

We're not the only agency that retains long-term relationships. But I think we maintain long-term relationships because of our element of being private.

We keep relationships with people focused on that luxury that being private allows us. Hopefully, we will continue the relationships for many more years.

How do you take into account consumers' changing tastes and the tendency to chase fads when designing campaigns for clients?

Fads are for brands that have disposable marketing dollars. We tend to focus on trends. When you focus on trends, you tend to be relevant with customers.

Our clients don't have disposable marketing dollars. Trends have a much longer lifespan, as opposed to fads, which last a nanosecond. Beer companies, for example, have disposable marketing dollars.

How do you balance the creativity necessary for a successful campaign with getting consumers to buy products and services?

I think inherent in that question is that they're separate, but we don't see them as separate. We see them as inseparable. You have to sell, but in the end, it's about creativity. It can grease the skids and help to sell more.

Whatever aphorism you want to use -- a little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down. Or you really have to stop them to sell them.

Which accounts are you most proud of landing?

That's like asking which of your children you like better. Every account you win is a hotly contested account these days.

Each win is one to take pride in. There are no easy wins these days.

Which campaigns have been the most successful?

We're really proud of Mazda and the turnaround that Mazda's going through. "Zoom Zoom" has been great for them. Another client, Progressive, is the fastest-growing insurance agency in the country. The advertising is crucial, and we're proud to be a part of that.

And then there's La-Z-Boy. It has gone from dad's comfy chair to the point where young people and women feel comfortable with the furniture. They have been working with Todd Oldham to design chairs, which has helped to change the image.

How do you track a campaign's success?

Every client today measures success, and we certainly measure and test every step along the way. We test strategies; we test creative. There have been metrics established and ways to track the success of a campaign. It's measured over time on a consistent basis and is a critical part of brand management today.

With virtually every client, we know how the campaign is doing. In some cases, like retail, we have results the next day. That's the case with Marshall Field's. For instance, a TV campaign goes on the air the Thursday before a sale that's on Saturday.

On Monday, we have the sales results. We know how to move forward.

What accounts would you love to land?

That's a rather long list. Rather than naming names I'll tell you that there's a type of account that I would love to attract to Detroit. That's a challenge. We have one client based in Michigan -- that's La-Z-Boy. All others are outside Michigan.

I would love to have a global account, and it's hard to attract global companies to Detroit because a lot of the global companies are in New York. We recently landed a New York client. It wasn't a global company, but it's a foot in the door.

What other types of accounts have allowed you to get your foot in the door and take on more companies like it?

When you build an expertise in a category, you get more comfortable with it. Our clients in the automobile industry have led us to tire companies and auto insurance.

We have clients that sell cabinets, countertops, and we have the DuPont account. We have come to understand and be experts in various markets.

How do you vie for a client?

First, the prospective client sends you a request for credentials. They ask a few questions and you send a response, which outlines your company's capabilities. It takes up to a week to review. They cut from about a dozen agencies or more to about six to 10.

They have a chemistry check meeting, where they visit each agency and spend a couple hours with each one. They then make a cut to about four agencies. That process takes about two weeks. If we are one of the four, we are given a briefing.

We have about four weeks to prepare an ad campaign to try to win the account. The whole process takes about eight to 12 weeks.

Would you ever turn down a campaign?

The first thing we do when we're contacted is determine if the brand is a good fit both ways, based on our perception of what we believe our capabilities are and considering their needs. We also consider whether it makes sense financially.

There will be a number of opportunities that we'll pass on for a number of reasons. For one, it costs so much today for an agency to pitch ideas.

While there have been accounts we didn't win that I wish we would have, there have not been any accounts we didn't compete for that I wish we would have.

How much influence do you think ads have on consumers?

It isn't ads any more; it's the totality of touch points. All forms of advertising, whatever that might be, make up the package itself. Look at the case of Breck shampoo. For 50 years, they had the Breck girls.

Everyone knew the Breck girls and what Breck was about. The company decided they wanted to take the campaign out, and later they sold the company to Dial, so for a while there was no Breck shampoo.

If you asked a girl today, she probably wouldn't know anything about Breck. But if you asked her mother, she would probably say something about the Breck girls.

The ad must play some role in the ability to inform the consumer about brands. Is it the totality? No. But it plays a role.

How do you come up with the gimmicks that help people remember products?

They're not gimmicks. They're good selling points. There are three words that we use when creating campaigns: the communication must differentiate, resonate and motivate. We measure our ads up to these.

How do you come up with those things? That's why we have a creative department.

I'm not in that department. My partner, John DeCerchio, is. I don't know how he does it; it's an amazing process. He's got an amazing mind.

No one can describe how creativity works and how the creative department comes up with these things. The important thing is that it's always to a selling end.

Last year, you lent your services to the American Kennel Club. Why?

Everyone should have some diversion or some interest that lies outside work. My wife was creative director before she retired. We would breed dogs and compete in our time off. Competing is our way of relaxing.

At home, we have 16 bullmastiffs, rangings from nine weeks to 12 1/2 years old. We have had 121 champions. We compete all over U.S., but basically in the Midwest. Our dogs go to as many as 100 dog shows per year.

We got into breeding when in the early '80s. We were robbed one night and decided to get a big dog to protect us. We went from one dog to a lot of them.

Now we don't have to worry about anyone robbing us. I like to say, I pity the poor fool who tries to do that.

How to reach: Doner, (248) 354-9700