John Dooner Starts Over

Former CEO of McCann Worldgroup quietly becomes a partner in DDCD Partners

John Dooner wants to prove that there’s life after McCann Worldgroup.

At 61, Dooner, the consummate suit, is looking for reinvention—and, perhaps, a little vindication—a year after Nick Brien succeeded him (earlier than expected) as CEO of Worldgroup, the largest unit of Interpublic Group. He doesn’t need the money—an IPG pension plan will pay him $2.5 million annually for the next 15 years. But he believes he has another act left in a career that began in 1970 in the media department of Grey. And, after the blow his reputation took during his short and rocky tenure as CEO of IPG (2001-03) and second, less successful tour atop Worldgroup (which he ran from 1997-2001, and returned to in 2003), he can use a little success.

So, Dooner has quietly become a partner in DDCD Partners, the latest venture of former leaders of William Morris Endeavor Marketing, which until recently was part of IPG. Dooner has been telling friends that he wants to build a mini-holding company of specialty shops that would complement DDCD. Says one pal: “He did talk about [how] he’s got one slice of the pizza, and he’s identifying the other slices to create the whole.”

Dooner knows how to build stuff. He made Worldgroup one of the largest global networks through acquisitions and the cross-selling of services among its units, including McCann, Universal McCann, and Momentum. But he was able to do that because he had the financial resources of Worldgroup at his fingertips, and DDCD isn’t Worldgroup. Moreover, some observers wonder if he has enough drive left to create a new group more or less from scratch. (DDCD has about a dozen staffers.)

“An older guy who ran a venerable, somewhat traditional network shop trying to run a micro, Hollywood, branded content-based thing is not an obvious choice,” says a rival agency CEO. “It’s not intuitive.”

Then again, Dooner just might be at the forefront of something interesting. He may not be the obvious choice to build a newfangled holding company, but if he doesn’t do it, someone else will. Call it the hedge fund of the industry—a nimbler, more innovative alternative to the big agencies. That is, if marketers decide his new baby is attractive.

And Dooner, whose vernacular includes the phrase, “I will not be denied,” has some reason to throw himself in to the task at hand. This may well be his last hurrah in the industry, and it’s a chance to show that while he may be down, he’s not out. If he can do that, he can prove to his doubters—like that rival, who also says, “It’s just a little odd that he would go from the largest to the smallest”—that they’ve got him wrong.