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“Mad skills,” madly successful

By Kevin Gibson

in famed actor-writer-director Orson Welles to create an attention-grabbing advertising campaign for North American Van Lines. The successful campaign earned a Clio Award for creative excellence in advertising.
Doe-Anderson brought in famed actor-writer-director Orson Welles to create an attention-grabbing advertising campaign for North American Van Lines. The successful campaign earned a Clio Award for creative excellence in advertising.

Todd Spencer, the president of Louisville advertising agency Doe-Anderson, isn’t at all like Don Draper, the chain-smoking, whiskey-swigging alpha male depicted in the hit TV series “Mad Men,” whose setting was a 1960s New York ad agency for seven seasons until taking its final bow in May. If Draper was a ruthless and calculating womanizer, Spencer is quick with a smile, respectful and easy to talk to.

Times have changed, Spencer says. But once upon a time, Doe-Anderson wasn’t a lot different than what was portrayed on “Mad Men,” at least when it came to cocktails and smoking.

“I’ve been told it was a lot like (‘Mad Men’),” Spencer confesses. “Even when I came into the business (in 1993), some of that was still going on.”

But an ad agency doesn’t last 100 years without adapting to the times, and that’s just what Doe-Anderson has done – its “Adapt or Die” mantra is no mere lip service. It is the oldest advertising agency in Kentucky and the third oldest in the United States.

Since 1915, when print reigned, it evolved with the advent and rise of radio, and through the television age and now in today’s still-unfolding digital media era. Doe-Anderson remains one of the most respected agencies in the region and beyond in part because of its ability to adapt and change with the needs of the market and the needs of its clients.

Brands always need someone to help tell their story, Spencer said, and that’s what Doe does.

“That has never changed, and I think we do a good job of helping our clients do that,” he said.

But there’s a lot to Doe-Anderson’s story, too. Through February 2016, visitors to the Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville can view an exhibit celebrating the agency’s century of advertising success, from when Elmer Doe in 1915 founded the Elmer H. Doe Agency into the present.

Culture built by Anderson endures

Doe later brought on Warwick Anderson, a former paint salesman, to be an unpaid copy intern, and the nucleus began to take shape.

Even as an intern, the savvy, tenacious Anderson was determined to be more. In fact, Doe reportedly tried to fire Anderson on more than one occasion, but it didn’t stick.

“Apparently, he just kept showing up to work,” Spencer said.

It was Warwick Anderson who would become the driving force in the company’s growth and business savvy; he was named a partner in 1934, was the man who created a business plan to change the name of the company to Doe-Anderson in 1957, and he was also the one who came up with a brilliant idea in 1958 to sell stock in the company to employees.

At that point, Anderson was on the verge of retirement, but he bought stock anyway and urged company employees to use their year-end bonuses to invest in the company as well. At the time, Anderson invested $12,500 in Doe-Anderson’s initial buy-in; Spencer estimates that would be about $21 million today.

Warwick’s vision of an employee-owned enterprise continues in the 21st century, with 52 shareholders currently among just over 100 employees, Spencer said. It should be no surprise that the average tenure of current employees is about 11 years, he says.

Why do people stay?

“Part of it is the culture. Our receptionist is an investor,” he said. “I think people come here and they feel a sense of ownership.”

David Vawter, Doe-Anderson’s chief creative officer, agrees. He’s worked for the agency for more than 12 years over the course three stints. He’s been back now for five years.

“I think we’ve always struck a really good balance,” Vawter said. “I’ve worked for some of biggest agencies in the world. I’ve worked in other countries, other cultures. The one thing that always struck me about this place is, we strike a really good balance between wanting to do the best creative work – but we don’t sacrifice or ignore the responsibility we have to the client to do what’s right for them.”

Be creative but serve the client

Many large advertising agencies are focused on winning awards or being flashy creatively without regard to whether or not a campaign will actually help the client achieve a goal, Vawter said.

“We’ve always felt differently about that,” he said. “I think that attitude is embedded at every level of the agency. A lot of people here are literally invested in the company. Half the people here are owners, and that makes you approach things differently.”

Looking at the print advertisements from the early years, one quickly notices that Doe-Anderson copy told stories. The ads were copy heavy and written as colorful, descriptive prose, as opposed to today’s headline-style, blurb advertising. The company was a leader even then at helping a client establish a brand and tell a story about its product.

Doe-Anderson also was progressive in other ways. Pat Porter became Kentucky’s first female media director when she was promoted at Doe in 1950. Porter was with the agency for 41 years, longer than any other employee in Doe-Anderson history.

The agency has become well known for its innovative ways to present a brand, a product or an idea and for its long-standing relationships with a wide variety of clients.

One campaign Doe-Anderson created in 1981 for North American Van Lines featured famed actor-writer-director Orson Welles and garnered a national Clio Award, given for creative excellence in advertising. The campaign was a huge success and was one of a number of celebrity-driven Doe-Anderson campaigns, from comedians Phyllis Diller and Tim Conway endorsing Paramount Pickles to then-presidential brother Billy Carter endorsing his own Billy Beer, which Louisville-based Falls City Brewing Co. produced in the late 1970s.

A serious-minded, emotional and educational campaign for Ashland Oil garnered awards and was a great communications success, even while Doe was using a cartoon turkey to beg consumers to serve Fischer’s Ham for Thanksgiving.

Beginning also in the 1970s, the distinctive red wax of Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles became the brand’s calling card thanks to Doe-Anderson images dripping it onto Christmas ornaments and dozens of other U.S. culture icons. That client-agency relationship is going strong today, more than 40 years later.

Part of the Frazier exhibit includes a faux living room that appears to be set in the late 1970s, with vintage furniture, carpeting, décor and a large floor-model TV set that loops Doe-Anderson TV spots. It’s a trip back in time for anyone who grew up in Kentucky, ranging from Carter sipping from a giant beer mug in a bar to Diller dancing with pickles. Sit and watch it for a few minutes and you’ll grow from feeling surprised to somewhat amazed by just how many areas Doe-Anderson’s creativity has touched over the years.

“Adapt Or Die” pays off

Though celebrating its 100 years in the business with a look back at the past, Doe-Anderson is not resting on its laurels – at all. Doe’s billings today reportedly are roughly $100 million annually, with 20 percent annual growth each of the past three years. Client size ranges from $500,000 companies to $25 million organizations.

In 2014, the Maker’s Mark Derby campaign won a Warc Prize for Social Strategy as among the best social media campaigns in the country. And it was Doe-Anderson that branded and rolled out Kynect, Kentucky’s successful Health Benefit Exchange program, which in May won a coveted Effie Award, the advertising world’s version of an Oscar.

Doe also won an Effie in 2003 for a Maker’s Mark campaign titled “Stories.” Considering that the “Stories” accolade came more than 30 years into its 44-year relationship with a major brand like Maker’s, it stands as testament to the agency’s ability to adapt. In advertising, many client-agency relationships come and go as company heads seek fresh takes on their brand. But Doe and Maker’s continue hand-in-hand, successfully.

Spencer points out that when the two parties first started working together in 1971, Maker’s was selling about 35,000 cases of its bourbon whiskey annually. Last year, it was more like 1.8 million cases. (A fun aside: When Doe and Maker’s signed their first actual agreement in 1973, the agency’s compensation was $1 per case sold.)

Advertising core: Tell a good story

Delivery methods have drastically changed, but the core of what advertising is remains much the same. Vawter believes doing work that is socially important is another aspect of Doe-Anderson’s longevity.

He points to the Ashland campaign, which shed a bright spotlight on Kentucky teachers and was aimed at keeping kids in school. It was a powerful campaign and buoyed the client as well as the agency in many ways.

“It got the company invited to the White House,” Vawter said. “The script was read into Congressional Record.”

He also points to the successful 2014 Kynect campaign as being more than just another job for a client – it was something Doe felt was good for Kentucky.

“For a long time, going back 50 or 60 years, we’ve really wanted to be involved in making the community better,” Vawter said. “Not just selling ads, but doing things that actually work to sell brands that move the community forward. Even moving here to Main Street when there was not much activity downtown (in the 1990s) – the agency wants to see the entire community succeed. When the community is successful, all the business in the community succeeds as well.”

Indeed, Doe-Anderson has a pretty good story of its own to tell, but the focus remains on other companies’ stories.

To continue to thrive for another 100 years, Spencer said, “We have to continue to find new ways to tell the story,” be it with a long-time partner like Maker’s Mark or a brand new client.

In that way, Doe-Anderson probably isn’t much like the Sterling Cooper agency depicted in “Mad Men,” where the employees’ focus was making money off clients and dealing with the constant drama swirling in the office and in their personal lives.

Vawter laughs when asked if he believes Doe-Anderson of the 1960s bore any resemblance to the agency depicted on television. Actually, the original portraits of Doe-Anderson’s founding partners feature them in suits and holding cigarettes in their hands.

“I would suspect there were many things that they had in common,” he said. “Certainly, the devotion to bourbon at Doe-Anderson is long standing. I would hope we treated the young folks and women a bit better. I’d also like to think we were a little bit more progressive than Sterling Cooper and partners.

“But,” he adds, “I would also hope we were as stylish as they were.”