Change Agent – John Dooner

There are few moments as disheartening in business as the day that your most important customer decides to start doing business with someone else. Ad man John Dooner turned just such a moment into a source of change and renewal for his giant agency.

John Dooner insists that he never feared for his or his company’s future. But over several months in 1992, Dooner, then president and chief operating officer of McCann-Erickson Advertising Worldwide, watched as the Coca-Cola Co. handed over more and more of its business to Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the Hollywood talent factory that had plans to extend its reach to Madison Avenue. By the end of the year, McCann found itself left with only media buying and a few creative scraps from what had, since the 1950s, been its most important client.


Instead of running for cover, Dooner, who had staked his career on the Coke business, vowed that he would win back the account — no matter how much or how long it would take. He also vowed that he would reclaim the account from a position of strength, not of weakness. “Fear is a strategy for the number-two or number-three player,” Dooner says. “You only get to be the best if you’re the one with the clearest vision.”

And here’s what Dooner saw: The way to persuade a customer, a client, or a partner to give you another look is to take a hard look at yourself. Instead of just pounding on Coke’s door and asking to be let back in, Dooner set out to change everything about his agency. He tore apart and then rebuilt McCann-Erickson into a broad-based shop with blue-chip credentials and a solid creative reputation. He bought 114 agencies that could offer everything from database research to the most cutting-edge video. He even rebuilt himself — losing 60 pounds through a rigorous running program.

The payoff finally came last year. In November 2000, Coca-Cola announced that it was coming home to McCann. But Coke didn’t just hand McCann the plum assignment of creating Coca-Cola Classic ads for its biggest market, North America. Instead, the company announced a groundbreaking “marketing partner” agreement with the Interpublic Group of Cos. (McCann’s parent) estimated to be worth some $2 billion. And who is the man now running Interpublic? Why, that would be John Dooner, who became chairman and CEO of the holding company on January 1, 2001.

It’s hard to overestimate the gravity of the turnaround. Coca-Cola “wasn’t just an account; it was part of him,” says Nina DiSesa, creative director for McCann’s flagship New York agency, when asked about Dooner’s stake in the Coke business. “When Coke walked away, they walked away from John. But it’s also John they gave the account back to.”

Dooner admits to being humbled by the experience. But he adds that humility can be a force for positive change: “In a humble state, you learn better. I can’t find anything else very exciting about humility, but at least there’s that.”

These are brutal times for the advertising business, times that put a premium on the sort of resilience that Dooner has demonstrated over the past eight years. Despite its huge win with Coke, the world’s largest ad agency has experienced major layoffs and disappointing financial results of late. Dooner’s Coke victory may offer some lessons for dealing with the rapid deterioration of the advertising economy. It is certainly a case study of leadership in a difficult situation — a demonstration of how tenacity, planning, and clearheaded thinking can triumph over even the most difficult strategic challenges.


“John knows how to bide his time,” says DiSesa. “He knew that we had to make McCann a strong agency before we could tackle Coke again. He wanted to know that he had a good shot at getting the account back.”

Dooner is indeed methodical when it comes to the business of crafting strategy. He uses a five-step philosophy that he’s been perfecting over his 30-year career. “I start out by asking what the dream is. What do I want, or what would my clients want?” Dooner explains from his corner office near the top of the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan. “Then I talk about it. Then I write it down — that’s a big part of the process. Then I imagine that the strategy or the situation has already happened. Then I put the strategy into action with the belief that I will never be denied that dream.”

Dooner saves almost everything he scribbles down. He is known for keeping pads filled with his chicken-scratch handwriting tucked away in his desk drawers so he can pull them out whenever he needs to jog his memory about a strategy, a thought, or a feeling. Dooner’s challenge was to reinvent McCann as the agency that Coke would want to work with in the future. Although big and global (it got that way by following Coke around the world after World War II), McCann’s creative reputation had been faltering for several years before CAA arrived. If Dooner had followed Madison Avenue’s traditional approach to wooing back a client, he would have hired a few young hotshots to think up some new tag lines or create big-splash storyboards.

Instead, Dooner sat down to ask big questions. What would Coke’s ideal agency look like? How would it be organized? What could it offer to a brand that stretches around the world, and that must also connect with consumers on an emotional level? Fortunately for Dooner, by 1995 he had been elevated to a position — chairman and CEO of McCann-Erickson Worldwide — that gave him the clout to create that agency. “I wanted an agency that had real creativity — a quality product combined with a global footprint,” he says. Dooner knew that his firm needed to buy some agencies, including ones well versed in direct marketing, sampling, and database research. He also knew that the firm had to court top creative people, including DiSesa, who had jumped from McCann to J. Walter Thompson in the early 1990s.

The plan did not call for this new talent to set its sights on Coke right away. (DiSesa says that McCann didn’t even start talking to Coke again until 1999.) Instead, their job was to give McCann the creative edge it needed to win new accounts — and keep on winning — until it was ready to march on Atlanta. In 1997, Dooner created McCann-Erickson WorldGroup to oversee seven different types of marketing firms — including those handling health care, event planning, public relations, and, of course, the flagship McCann-Erickson. By 2000, the WorldGroup had more than $20 billion in billings, triple the amount it had when Dooner took over in 1994.

The strategy was so bold that despite the Coke loss — which could have ruined Dooner’s career — then-CEO Phil Geier tapped Dooner as his heir apparent, and the two began crafting a strategy for all of Interpublic. Following WorldGroup’s lead, Interpublic worked to meld the creative genius of hot agencies like Lowe Lintas & Partners with solid work from regional agencies like Boston’s Hill Holliday and the global reach of McCann’s WorldGroup. The power of this strategic blend rang true with a number of clients, including newly global brands such as MasterCard and Microsoft.


In Microsoft’s case, the technology giant was trying to keep track of dozens of agencies, different campaigns, and an increasingly muddied image as it tried to take its brand around the world. By the late 1990s, Coke was finding itself battling the same problems. Early on, CAA had generated some ideas that resonated with consumers. Lots of people liked the sweet simplicity of watching polar bears drinking Coke, as well as the tag line “Always Coca-Cola.” But by the end of the decade, Coke’s advertising had too many tag lines and too many agencies trying to create too many treatments for a single brand.

So Dooner finally began making overtures to Coke, talking to his old buddies in Atlanta and to some new executives, including Stephen C. Jones, Coke’s chief marketing officer. Dooner’s pitch? Interpublic was big enough to handle Coke’s global needs, but had enough small agencies and idea people to keep its advertising fresh. When Coke made its announcement in November, Jones said in the press release simply that the decision was “about ensuring that the basic messages about the world’s premier brand have a foundation of consistency.”

Dooner, DiSesa, and the rest of the team aren’t celebrating. DiSesa says that there wasn’t even a party after the November announcement: “We’ve got to create ads that Coke cherishes and the bottlers like. There’s no cheering yet. Getting the account was the first step. Now we have to produce great work.”

What’s Fast

How do you react when you lose an important customer? John Dooner uses tactics that he’s honed during his 30-year tenure on Madison Avenue — tactics that allowed him to win back the most important client in his company’s history: Coca-Cola.

It’s better to change big things slowly than to change small things quickly. Dooner didn’t set out just to win back the Coke account; he set out to reinvent McCann-Erickson and then Interpublic Group. He never expected either to be a quick makeover. “Winning,” he says, “is defined by the legacy that you create — and legacies take time to build.”

Gather your gladiators. Dooner presides over a business known for creative geniuses who prefer to work alone. Using a scene from the movie Gladiator (the one in which the preservation-minded gladiators band together), Dooner gathered IPG’s top management and talked about collaborating in order to win in an increasingly difficult advertising market. “In tough times, it’s easier to herd these characters together,” he admits. “This isn’t just about winning. It’s about using adversity as an opportunity to create something new.”


You never cross the finish line. Winning back a lost client or bouncing back from a strategic setback isn’t the finish line. It’s the new starting line. The hard work begins after a client places his trust in you again, Dooner says. He and his team have already faced that with Coca-Cola. McCann’s first ads were met with criticism, so the agency has gone back to the drawing board, rethinking strategy and execution to create better work for Coke.

Fara Warner ( is a Fast Company senior writer based in Silicon Valley. Contact John Dooner by email (