Dunkin’s Dough Boys

Positioning Dunkin’ Donuts’ 3,500 domestic shops as places for stressed-out urbanites to “loosen up a little” came naturally to Marty Donohue and Tim Foley.

The Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos svp/group creative directors developed the chain’s new $60 million brand campaign, which breaks this week. Their goal is to keep ads simple and funny. “We don’t take anything seriously,” admits Donohue.

At a meeting with the pair at the office of Hill, Holliday co-president and chief creative officer Mike Sheehan, they tossed off quips and one-liners while previewing the latest Dunkin’ Donuts campaign, the largest effort yet in which they enjoyed creative control.

Heading one of the agency’s four creative groups, Donohue and Foley form part of the second tier of creative management at Hill, Holliday, reporting directly to Sheehan. Sheehan, who serves as their mentor and straight man, oversaw their first effort for Dunkin’ in 1998. “They’re an A team,” he says. “They’re young, and they do comedy very well.”

Though Donohue and Foley led a team of about 12 copywriters and art directors for the campaign, with Noam Murro directing, they developed the positioning and crafted many of the executions themselves, including one that zings the advertising business.

Set aboard a city bus, the spot features a couple of portly account types discussing the strategy for a pitch and behaving rudely to their fellow riders. As the execs leave the bus, it becomes clear that a fellow rider began his day with a Dunkin’ bagel and has used it to draw a cream-cheese smile on the back of one of the suits.

In another spot, a man trapped in a highway traffic jam calmly crosses cramped lanes and returns to his car with a Dunkin’ meal. In a Christmas-themed execution, a holiday song degenerates into indecipherable babble as a group of carolers fill their mouths with doughnuts.

“The work probes a little deeper into the human condition than previous Dunkin’ ads, while retaining the humor and freshness of the earlier work,” Foley says. The new positioning is on target because it’s an “honest assessment” of the experience consumers have, he adds.

The seeds of the effort were sown two years ago, shortly after the Boston agency replaced New York’s Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/ Euro RSCG on the account.

Copywriter Donohue and art director Foley attended a meeting with then Dunkin’ Donuts vp of marketing Eddie Binder. When the creative team from Hill, Holliday began to discuss marketing strategies to take the Randolph, Mass., chain beyond its image as the home of Fred the Baker, Binder—widely regarded as a savvy brand steward—balked.

Donohue, 37, recalls Binder saying that “a doughnut strategy was an oxymoron. There was [to be] no real strategy. We were told to make Dunkin’ Donuts fun again.”

For Donohue and Foley, 35, the directive was a dream come true. The pair tossed off some concepts, including a police car chase ending at a Dunkin’ Donuts and a construction site where gorgeous women walk past unnoticed while a worker carrying Coolata drinks is the target of passionate hoots and hollers. These were among the 18 or so concepts Binder more or less approved on the spot. “They just got it. They understood the brand,” he says.

The first campaign, which ran during the past two years, had no true focus or positioning line—but yielded several memorable spots. “Chase,” a spoof on reality-based TV which showed cops and their prey stopping off at a Dunkin’ Donuts during a high-speed pursuit, scored numerous awards, including a Silver Lion at the Cannes Festival in 1999.

Earlier this year, an execution introducing the Omwich, set at a breakfast-foods convention and featuring thinly veiled jabs at McDonald’s and Burger King, caused a stir. After McD’s complained, one spot was altered, says Donohue, featuring a scene in which Ronald is chewed out by one of his handlers.

The new work, the shop and the client decided, needed to be a true branding effort, complete with a tagline. Donohue says, “They’ve been a great regional company, [but] they have expansion plans.” The chain hopes to more than double total sales and expand farther west in the next few years.

Laurie Kiely, director of integrated marketing for the Allied Domecq unit, says crafting a broad brand image is essential for the chain to push past the $4 billion sales mark by 2005. She views the new campaign as “a brand transformation,” a platform for national visibility.

The “Loosen up” tagline grew out of research that showed consumers perceive Dunkin’ Donuts as “a little break from reality,” Foley says. The duo can appreciate the whimsy. After all, a simple T-shirt helped launch their partnership a decade ago.

In 1989, as much of the country struggled with a stagnant economy, Donohue and Foley started their careers, briefly teaming at Boston’s Cabot Communications (now Arnold Communications). There they created T-shirts promoting a road race popular in Boston’s ad community. Sheehan credits their chemistry to a shared understanding of the viewer. “They are street savvy,” he says. “They are the audience.”

Donohue spent several years at Cabot, while Foley worked for various area shops until 1992, when the pair ended up at Greenberg Seronick O’Leary & Partners, a small Boston agency with a reputation for fostering creative talent. “It was a great place with a great philosophy,” Donohue recalls. “They let us do the best work we could.”

Donohue and Foley worked together on campaigns for virtually every agency client, finally coming to the attention of Hill, Holliday with their award-winning work for A-Copy America and USTrust bank. Though courted by the agency, it took them more than a year before they agreed to join. “We were afraid,” Donohue says. “It was big and scary.” The agency was more than 20 times the size of Greenberg Seronick, and they worried that creative ideas might be stifled by committee thinking.

Once on board, they initially collaborated on BankBoston and Harvard Community Health, among other accounts. For BankBoston’s home-equity loan products, they crafted a spot with people living in half a house; for Harvard, they created ads with a recurring character: a mountain biker who visits the client’s health centers with everything from poison sumac to a scratched cornea.

Today, Dunkin’ occupies most of their time, but they also work on the Washington Capitals business, concocting offbeat ad scenarios such as a newspaper delivery boy going one-on-one with a hockey goalie.

Sheehan gushes about his protégés, predicting more creative accolades in the future. With their ability to motivate and manage younger creatives, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t put them on,” Sheehan says.

Donohue and Foley shrug off their boss’ praise. “Mike retarded our growth,” Donohue confides.