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Doner CEO wants employees to see the office as a 'destination'

By Annalise Frank. Published on March 28, 2022.

David DeMuth, CEO of Doner Partners LLC, the Southfield-based ad agency that's been around for 85 years, started out at Doner as an assistant account executive 33 years ago. Doner, one of few longtime metro Detroit advertising companies that's not reliant on the automotive industry, has a client list that includes Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol and L.L.Bean. It was named to Ad Age's A-List for 2022, the first time a Detroit agency has been among the industry's best. DeMuth spoke with Crain's about his competitive streak, returning to the office, art and Bruce Springsteen.

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Can you give us some of your history in the field? Your interest in advertising started when you were a teenager, right?

I didn't really know it at the time, but I worked in a grocery store and the work can be a bit mundane at times. So I used to like sort of observing people and how they shopped for things and trying to sort of predict based on who they were, what they looked like, what they would buy. So the psychology around people making purchase decisions was really interesting to me. I took a consumer behavior class in college, I really, really liked it, and then I started reading Advertising Age magazine at the library. I became fascinated with the industry and it seemed to be this combination of a lot of things I enjoyed. It had business ... there were aspects of film and art and culture and music and all those things that kind of came together in the interest of commerce. So, I decided I wanted to get in the business and I've been at Doner for 33 years.

Could you talk about how the ad industry has changed in metro Detroit?

It's changed in so many ways, we could talk for days about it. The biggest changes, not just Detroit, have been driven by changes in the media landscape at large. The advent and acceleration and now ubiquity of digital communications has changed the business incredibly in terms of how we think about creating advertising, what we say, where we say it, all those things. You attach the explosion and ubiquity of digital communications to having so much data, you know, now. Those two things have created a lot of change in the types of talent we need in the company, the way we conceptualize work, the way we evaluate the work ... But in conjunction with that, the world is still mesmerized by great storytelling. It's just the story comes to life in different ways, in different places. But you still need those storytelling abilities to stand out.

You guys are going back to the office in kind of a different way, right?

We have brand new office space, 60,000 square feet now, in the Galleria building (in Southfield). (Our space) has been totally redesigned to facilitate what we think is going to be the new way of working, which is far more flexible, far more collaborative. There are all kinds of spaces in the space for large groups, for small groups, for privacy, for collaboration, highly tech-enabled, so you want to Zoom with somebody you just press a button and boom. There's probably a million screens in the office [laughs]. We're going to allow people to work flexibly. My hope is that people start coming into the office and spending more time there. We're just starting to open it now. When you see people together, the smile on their face ... I think slowly but surely more people are going to want to come back to the office more. I don't think it's going to be five days a week. What we've talked a lot about is taking the office from being an obligation to being a destination. A place you don't feel you have to go, you want to go. But if you want to stay home some days because that fits your life, that's cool, too.

How much did you invest in redesigning the space?

I can't recall the number, to be perfectly honest, but it was in the millions.

Going back to your career: What's a project you've done that you look back as really creative?

Well, look, for me, being originally from New Jersey, being part of the team that was able to develop a piece of advertising that Bruce Springsteen wanted to be a part of for Jeep on the Super Bowl in 2021 was, you know, that one's up there. It was a 2-minute epic piece of advertising that took a point of view about what might be the most important topic of our time, the political divisiveness in this country. So to have a client that was willing to embrace that issue, to have a team that came up with an amazing concept, to have a script that Bruce Springsteen said 'Yeah, I'd like to be a part of that,' when he's never ever done a commercial ... that was pretty amazing.

Did you get to work with him directly?

Our team did. I resisted the urge because I sort of felt the last thing they needed was a CEO fanboy on the set. I let our small team and our client, and I had all the confidence in the world in them, but I was getting reports on the hour.

I also read somewhere you're pretty competitive. Can you talk about how that manifests itself?

Yeah, look, I'm a competitive person. It just kind of runs in my blood. I played sports my whole life and things like that. The advertising agency business is incredibly competitive. You were asking how the business has changed. It used to be there were a lot of established names, and there still are, but the barriers to creating an ad agency are not that big because you just need a computer and an idea and a client and there you go. So we compete against giant global networks down to a couple guys in the basement. The other thing I like is ... win or lose (a request for proposal process from a potential client), we try to really understand why, so we can learn from it and apply that learning going forward.

You're on the board for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit — you like contemporary art?

Yes, I collect contemporary art.

Do you like KAWS (the name used by a figure artist named Brian Donnelly who's a favorite of local billionaire Dan Gilbert)?

I have nothing from KAWS. I'm familiar with the work. But I am staring right now at a pretty amazing piece by Jonas Wood. It's a basketball growing out of a plant, of all things.

OK, I'm picturing it.

Google it. [laughs]

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