Doner CEO Alan Kalter, 62, (pictured) is leaving the embattled agency after 43 years and selling it to three senior executives: president, chief operating officer David DeMuth, 45; vice chairman, chief creative officer Rob Strasberg, 40; and president of the Newport Beach, Calif., office, Tim Blett, 51. The purchase price could not be determined.
Kalter was by far the largest single owner, but had given DeMuth, Strasberg and Blett small stakes prior to the sale.
This year, the Southfield, Mich., shop -- one of the country's largest independents -- has been embroiled in messy public lawsuits from former execs and questions about Doner's propriety in handling its employee pension fund. Earlier this year, former Doner CMO Bryan Yolles sued the agency for information about his pension, after more than 10 unsuccessful attempts to get it from Doner. Around the same time, former CCO John DeCerchio -- a 34-year veteran of the shop who held a 32 percent stake in it and was associated with its 'Zoom, Zoom' campaign for Mazda -- sued Doner, alleging he was due a $55 million payout over 10 years, not the $51.5 million the agency believed he was owed.
Yolles' lawsuit in May drew uncomfortable attention to the agency's handling of its employee pension, with Kalter insisting the shop was in compliance with disclosure laws and requirements. A week later Kalter was forced to backtrack and issued an internal memo acknowledging that was not the case, voicing concern about the agency's "good name." Days later, Doner CFO H. Barry Levine, a 33-year veteran at the agency, who along with Kalter and DeCerchio was one of the agency's largest equity holders, was out the door.
The agency said all lawsuits have been resolved and there is no liability for the new owners.
On the day former CFO Levine's departure was announced, the three new owners received promotions: DeMuth added the roles of president, COO and senior partner; Strasberg, who joined Doner from Crispin Porter + Bogusky last year, received DeCerchio's former title of vice chairman and also that of senior partner; and Blett was promoted to senior partner.
Among Doner's clients are Amazon.com, ADT, Mazda, Coleman Co., Sherwin Williams, UPS Store and Minute Maid. Earlier this year Doner laid off more than 100 staffers, or about 12 percent of its workforce. It also chose not to defend travel site Expedia when it went into review this past summer.
In a staff memo today, Kalter noted the agency has "the strongest team in my memory of Doner" and explained his own plans: "While I am moving on from the agency this month, I am staying in Ann Arbor. I will continue to lead our very successful pro bono efforts for the Detroit Zoo and the American Kennel Club. Of course, I will always be available as a sounding board, consultant or agency historian for David, Rob and Tim."
Along with its Southfield headquarters and office in Newport Beach, Doner has offices in Cleveland, Toronto and London.
This story updates an earlier item, noting that litigation has been resolved and adding additional details.