Hometown agency raises the level of its game
Doe-Anderson Advertising and Public Relations may be the only ad agency whose chief executive is a horse whisperer. Dave Wilkins, 54, of Louisville, Ky.’s oldest and best-known shop, admits he’s not the rustic wise man Robert Redford played in the movie of the same name. Yet he too believes in a kinder, gentler approach to training horses on his 35-acre farm east of town.
The slender, white-haired former Army officer applies the horse-whisperer approach–which grows out of his longtime fascination with Native American philosophy–to other facets of his life. His employees say his soft-spoken, collegial way of running a business motivates them to give more. The man described by some as “quietly intense” has created a culture at Doe-Anderson that some deem extraordinary. But it’s a culture in the midst of change.
Like other small and midsize agencies outside New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other advertising hubs, Doe-Anderson’s employees have faced a midlife crisis. They’ve had to decide who they are and who they want to be. Were they content to remain local? Or did they want the little agency from Louisville to play in the big leagues?
Other shops in the hinterlands have made the leap, but there’s no textbook formula for success. Some have ridden the wave in the symbiotic embrace of a young, upstart company; Portland, Ore.’s Wieden & Kennedy and its fantastically successful partnership with Nike comes to mind. Others, like Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis or The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., have made their names by stretching creative boundaries. For others, it hasn’t been a leap so much as a steady climb.
Until recently, hustle was not a word anyone associated with Doe-Anderson. For much of its 84-year history, the nation’s seventh-oldest ad agency reflected its trademark icon: an acorn. The company was founded in 1915 by Elmer Doe, a copy chief at J. Walter Thompson in New York, who met his wife on a vacation in Louisville and stayed to start his own shop. (Warwick Anderson was the agency’s president from 1955 until 1967.) Growth was as slow and steady as, well, an oak. With its stalwart citizen executives serving on local boards and involved with charitable endeavors, the agency was content to service local clients such as Hillerich & Bradsby (the Louisville Slugger people), American Commercial Barge Lines (a client for 36 years) and Louisville’s own National City Bank (45 years). Cherishing its reputation as a dependable, high-integrity shop, life on the creative edge was foreign territory.
In some ways, Doe-Anderson reflected Louisville itself.
Founded in 1778 at the falls of the Ohio River, the port city became one of the nation’s first inland metropolises. What the locals good-naturedly call “the vices”–cigarettes, whiskey and gambling–have long been big business in Louisville, along with auto assembly and other heavy manufacturing. Like Doe-Anderson, Louisville, pronounced LOOuhv’l, was a bit complacent.
Nashville, Tenn., Louisville’s similar-size neighbor, has boomed in recent years, growing faster than any metropolitan area between Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth. Charlotte, N.C., another Louisville rival, took off as a banking and distribution center, while nearby Indianapolis and Cincinnati adapted enthusiastically to the service- and capital-intensive economy of the 1990s.
But Louisville drifted. By the mid-1980s, the proud, old home of Churchill Downs and legendary wooden baseball bats was in danger of becoming a big-city backwater. Only in the last five years or so has the city begun to stir, expanding its airport, taking advantage of its position as a transportation hub–for UPS and others–and attracting high-tech companies.
Like Louisville, Doe-Anderson has also begun to make its move.
“When I was here nine years ago,” says associate creative director Kevin Lippy, who left for a few years to run his own agency, “the average age was mid-40s. It was considered a nice place to work. You know, come in at nine, go home at five, unaggressive, our billings are local. Now we recognize there’s a world beyond the Ohio River.”
On Lippy’s desk is a miniature version of a clear bowling ball made by Ebonite International, one of Doe-Anderson’s
Kentucky-based clients and a $10 million-plus account. Embedded inside is a skull–one of several signs that it’s not your dad’s Doe-Anderson anymore.
Wilkins is the man behind the ongoing transformation. A New Jersey native and a graduate of the University of Vermont, Wilkins almost made the military his career. He was 35 when he entered the advertising business, a couple of years after returning from Vietnam and South Korea. He sold insurance in Vermont for a while but was bored. He also did some marketing work for a friend’s woodworking business.
He was on his way to Florida in 1978 when he stopped in Louisville to visit a Vietnam buddy. On the spur of the moment, he decided to stay. He worked for a year at a Louisville woodworking company and a disco-ball manufacturer, all the while pounding on Doe-Anderson’s door. (He had met Jim Lindsey, the agency’s creative director, in Vietnam.) Despite his lack of experience, the shop hired him as an account manager–20 years ago this June. In 1993, after a steady rise through the company hierarchy, he was named CEO, only the fifth in the agency’s history.
Jim Ensign, a senior vice president and media director at Doe-Anderson, says the “previous president was very traditional. Dave knew where he wanted to go.”
Like a latter-day Daniel Boone, Wilkins wanted to strike out in a different direction at a quickened pace.
“We purposefully set about bringing talent in to help us better build brands,” Wilkins says. “I had come to realize that this business wasn’t about advertising anymore. It was media, public relations, marketing, along with advertising. We began building those disciplines into the agency about three years ago. We caught fire, and we’ve grown about 117 percent in the last two years.”
In 1996, Doe-Anderson’s billings were about $39 million. That figure climbed to almost $64 million in 1997 and nearly $86 million in 1998.
“We’d like to get billings of $300 million in the next three or four years,” Wilkins says. “I like playing in the bigger leagues. If you get above $200 million, you’re a large agency, and you’re able to manage large accounts.”
Doe-Anderson currently employs 115 people. Wilkins’ most significant hire is Jim White, a 41-year-old chief creative officer with longish black hair and a calm, easygoing way about him. When Wilkins dropped by to see White in Minneapolis last year, he was chief of creative at Campbell Mithun Esty. White had worked at Doe-Anderson as a 22-year-old art director in 1980.
After Doe-Anderson, White worked at D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in St. Louis, Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago, then Backer Spielvogel in New York, where he produced award-winning work for Miller Genuine Draft and Coors. He also did turns at Long Haymes Carr in Winston-Salem, N.C., and finally in Minneapolis, at CME. During White’s one-year stint at CME, the agency secured $150 million in new business, including Air Touch’s $100 million account.
Something similar happened during White’s three-year stay in Winston-Salem, when Long Haymes Carr went from $93 million in billings to $310 million from clients including Sara Lee, Champion and BellSouth. Wilkins brought White back to Doe-Anderson as senior vice president and chief creative officer last May.
“When Dave came up to Minneapolis, he talked about turning this agency into a regional power, as we had done in North Carolina,” White recalls. “His first question was: ‘How do you get good people? You must have to pay them a lot of money.’ I told him, ‘Nah. With creative people, if they believe they can come up with great work and get it produced, that’s what they’re looking for.’ ”
Another attraction: Doe-Anderson is an employee-owned company.
The agency’s other Jim White, a senior vice president and director of account planning who left DDB Needham Worldwide in Chicago last year to join, says the new creative leader “is the major change at Doe-Anderson.”
Wilkins agrees: “Jim White is an inspirational guy, not only from the creative perspective but in how he’s brought the agency together. He creates a significant amount of loyalty and trust among his people. He’s a teacher, he’s a counselor, he’s a guru.”
“The guru” is in on a cold winter afternoon, having just flown in from Los Angeles, where he was overseeing a photo shoot for one of Doe-Anderson’s newer clients, TradeCast, a Houston-based online stock trading company. Outside the windows of Doe-Anderson’s fifth-floor conference room, the skies are a leaden gray, the same dreary color as the frigid Ohio River two blocks north. Doe-Anderson’s offices are in a beautifully restored 19th-century building on West Main Street.
White, in loose-fitting jeans and a dark-green sport shirt, sits at the large conference table that dominates the room, along with 24 Doe-Anderson employees. All have an interest in one of Doe-Anderson’s newest clients, Emazing.com, a local startup that was purchased recently by Sony Music and Entertainment Co.
White begins the meeting by asking creatives Rankin Mapother and Lippy for their ideas on the account. The duo favors using celebrities in ads, preferably Sony stars who would highlight the diversity of Emazing’s offerings, whether it’s information tips, newsletters or greeting cards. “Whatever you’re into, Emazing delivers,” is the tagline.
When Mapother and Lippy wrap up their lively presentation, three other teams offer concepts. New taglines are suggested. When the teams finish their presentations, White asks for responses before providing his own reaction to the draft campaigns. His technique for arriving at a finished campaign–several teams working independently on the same account–is what he calls the jump-ball approach. The formula, which so far seems to be working for Doe-Anderson, received mixed reviews at larger agency CME.
“I don’t like to assign people as a team, because you start to get predictable that way,” says White. “In New York, everyone is so protective about their own stuff, they’re usually not interested in helping anyone else. It’s just about the work. Not about who comes up with the idea.”
White’s creative teams work late that night refining their ideas–take-out Chinese fuels their flagging energy. At the client meeting the next afternoon, the ball is still up in the air. “At our first meeting, we go wide, let the creatives do the work. Even if they’re not great presenters, their enthusiasm compensates. Most agencies are too worried about the client seeing the warts. Here, it’s about making them feel a part of the team,” says White.
Emazing’s three partners, 30-somethings Joe Pierce, David Harpe and Bob Ford, were born and raised in Louisville. They founded the business in Pierce’s basement and developed the technology in Harpe’s bedroom. Harpe, a scholarly looking fellow wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a yellow Oxford shirt and blue slacks, was doing Internet work for rocker Ozzy Osborne before joining the Emazing venture.
“We were always aware of Doe-Anderson,” Pierce says. “It’s a small town, so you know who the agencies are. They were the first agency we met with. We liked them immediately.” It had to be a local agency for a Louisville company.
“One of the key things about starting this business was doing it in Louisville, Ky., and Sony was comfortable with that,” Pierce says. “There’s been a lot of businesses that have left Louisville, but this is where we want to be. I don’t need to be some place like Chicago, where I would quadruple my expenses and my aggravation.”
Doe-Anderson is hoping that the Emazing account will turn out to be the agency’s Nike. Yet, some of its traditional clients have the potential for national recognition as well. One of them is Maker’s Mark, a fourth-generation family distiller of quality Kentucky bourbon. The distiller, which spends between $5-10 million on advertising, has been a Doe-Anderson client for 25 years. “It’s a brand that grew slowly for years, while the category–quality, higher-priced bourbon–declined,” says agency account representative Skip Lorimer.
Maker’s Mark, and particularly its president and CEO Bill Samuels, presents Doe-Anderson with a special challenge. Samuels, 59, is a true Kentucky character. Stubborn, outspoken, occasionally cantankerous, he’s known for his huge Kentucky Derby parties, boasting revelers in costume and name bands like the Neville Brothers.
The challenge for Doe-Anderson is that Samuels is suspicious of advertising. He worries that his family-run company, based in a country village called Loretto, will lose touch with its Kentucky roots if it relies
on a splashy national campaign, as its Connecticut-based corporate owner, Allied Domecq, would prefer.
“People don’t really need, want or tolerate all the information we have to give them,” Samuels grumbles. So, for now, Doe-Anderson relies on discovery marketing and word-of-mouth among consumers, bartenders and retailers to build on Maker’s Mark’s trademark. Maker’s Mark is one of the few companies that dares to advertise without the company name; the red wax seal (designed by Samuels’ mother, a chemist, in the 1950s) tells the story.
The shop’s efforts to compete for other national brands have met with mixed results. When the race comes down to the wire against a nationally known agency, the client often goes with the familiar name. “In a tie, we lose,” says Jim White, the account planning director.
“In 1997, we were up,” says Todd Spencer, a 30-year-old vice president and account supervisor who’s been with Doe-Anderson since he was 23. “We got the Kentucky Lottery, Honey Baked Ham, Standard Register, Valvoline, National City Bank. But the last two years have been tough. At one point, we were one for nine.”
One of Doe-Anderson’s national client success stories is Valvoline Instant Oil Change, a chain of 600 centers. Doe-Anderson had worked with the parent company, Ashland Oil, now Ashland Inc., for 15 years on regional efforts, particularly employee and community relations campaigns.
“When they got ready to expand three years ago, we surprised them with a much more aggressive focus than they expected from us,” says Jim Ensign, Doe-Anderson’s media director. “We put a campaign into place from top management down to franchisees in remote parts of the country that would be able to support the whole basis of their business. We also support them with an aggressive brand-building program.”
Spencer says the shop’s first big national account was National City Bank, a $30 million piece of business. “It gave us the funds to go and invest in really good people,” he says. “Valvoline, on the other hand, is a creative success.”
The campaign features “Phil,” the conscientious, well-trained auto mechanic who cares passionately about cars. “Cars: We know ’em. We love ’em” is the tagline.
Wilkins loves the agency he’s helped build and the industry he’s been dedicated to for two decades. “I love the pace, the challenge, the people in the business, both the clients and inside the agency,” says Wilkins.
“I’ll be here another five or six years, then I’ll probably do something else before I retire,” he says. No doubt, that something else will involve horses.
The stable of talent he will someday leave behind on West Main Street is determined to keep Doe-Anderson on an upward trajectory. “I don’t want to go anywhere else,” says Spencer. “I want Dave’s job.”
“So do I,” says Erin Conard, a 25-year-old who is the Valvoline account manager. Conard’s confident grin suggests that she, and Doe-Anderson, know exactly where they’re headed.
–Joe Holley is a senior writer with the San Antonio Express-News.
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