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“Five Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became CEO of Doner,” With David DeMuth

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing David DeMuth, CEO of Doner. As a teenager, David worked in a grocery store and became fascinated by how and why people buy things. Today, he answers those questions as the CEO of advertising agency, Doner. David loves the extreme competitive aspect of the agency business and the […]


Today I had the pleasure of interviewing David DeMuth, CEO of Doner.

As a teenager, David worked in a grocery store and became fascinated by how and why people buy things. Today, he answers those questions as the CEO of advertising agency, Doner.

David loves the extreme competitive aspect of the agency business and the thrill of helping our clients win. He’s a hands-on, walk-around leader who believes creativity and accountability can coexist in harmony, details and speed matter, and bureaucracy sucks.

David has overseen Doner’s evolution into a thoroughly modern, data-driven and strategically led agency.


Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Kids are naturally inquisitive. I know this to be true. I have four kids who ask questions about everything. They wonder. And as a young kid, I remember wondering why my one grandfather drove a Ford while my other grandfather drove a Chrysler. In high school, I had friends that were adidas guys and I had friends that were Nike guys. And I thought about why they aligned with that specific brand. I think I’ve always had this fascination with brands and why people buy things. In college, I took a Consumer Behavior Class; that further fed my curiosity about brands. I read Ad Age in the undergraduate library. And I spent summers working at a grocery store. If you want to contemplate how and why people buy things, spend six days a week in a grocery store.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

After a long tenure and becoming president, then CEO of Doner, I bought the agency in 2009. Nobody bought anything in or from Detroit in 2009. I took a great personal risk and bought an agency in one of the toughest markets in the country. It was about to lose its biggest client in Mazda. The agency was reeling from a well-publicized pension scandal and a lawsuit from a former partner. And if that wasn’t enough, everything was going digital and the agency was not properly prepared. They were what I would call some rather major challenges. And that experience is what taught me that when things are at their most difficult, you need to focus on the fundamentals. It’s the same in business as in sports. Focus on your game. The things you can control. The basic fundamentals of it. And for Doner, that means focusing on the client, the work and the people.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

There are people in this business who say, “know what you don’t know.” But do they really live up to that? I had to. I was a first time CEO. There was a lot I was certain I didn’t know. So out of nowhere, I reached out to Ed Meyer, advertising legend and longtime CEO of Grey Advertising. I didn’t know Ed, so I wrote him a letter. I called him and asked for his help. And he agreed to become a consultant to me. His counsel and more importantly, his belief in me, was a real turning point. I also kept our focus on our clients and the work. We didn’t let small challenges bother us because our culture was about resilience and determination, led by a team of committed people. That team, those people, and that consultative relationship helped our agency’s success, as well as my own.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?

1. Trust your instincts. They’re what got you there in the first place. Every big mistake I’ve made, (in life and in business), came about as a result of talking myself into doing something that my gut didn’t agree with.”

2. Be a student of your business — and other businesses. That means studying the startups, media businesses, manufacturers, tech companies — everything. Wherever someone is innovating, take note and learn from them.

3. Understand you can’t do it alone. It was true years ago and it’s even more appropriate today. The industry has evolved into a complex model with so many moving parts. Nobody can do it alone. And as a leader, you’re only as good as the talent you surround yourself with.

4. Have people you can talk with that are removed from your industry. Outside of work, I don’t socialize with advertising people. My personal friends work in finance, sports, real estate, medicine, law and dozens of other occupations. And when we talk about our lives and our businesses, I get the most interesting insights. Things people in advertising wouldn’t think or feel or say. It’s refreshing to talk about the challenges of dealing with procurement with an attorney who also deals with procurement.

5. Stay humble and be comfortable with yourself. But understand the power that you yield. Your remarks, your feedback and body language not only matter — they can make or break someone’s day.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Find an outside passion. Not an interest — a passion. Mine is the intersection of work and giving back to the community. I love tennis, playing the game and sharing it with the next generation. With the connections I’ve made and the resources available to me, I’m able to help the community. Right now, I am involved in Palmer Park Tennis, a youth program in the city of Detroit. I’m bringing a professional tennis tournament to the Detroit area and I’m helping a local school build a new tennis center. In addition to those causes, I’m also coaching and supporting an up-and-coming player on the WTA tour. The way I see it, when you give back to something you are vested in, it will give you gratification. And that overcomes burn out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I started my career as an ad manager at Philips Lighting. I was fortunate; I had a boss that was generous with his knowledge. He taught me how to think, evaluate advertising and how to build a strategy. He taught me how to present the work — and how to present myself. He was the role model that set me up for success. In thirty years, I have only had two bosses. And I learned a lot from both. What to do and what not to do.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Personally, I want to watch my kids grow into responsible adults, who define success in their own way, not necessarily in the way I’ve defined it.

Professionally, it’s about the pursuit and being a part of an idea that changes culture and transforms business in some way. I never want to lose that desire.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

Core values. Doner must retain its entrepreneurial spirit. It has to be client focused. Resilient. Innovative. Not afraid to try new things. But more than anything, it has to be a place of opportunity. I’m the poster child for the opportunity that Doner represents. I started as an assistant account executive in our Cleveland office. Twenty years later, I became CEO. Thirty years later, I’m still here and excited by the opportunities before us. People should always have that chance at Doner. It must remain a meritocracy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

This is something I’ve been thinking about — and an initiative I want to create. I’ve been thinking about what my life was like in my 20’s. That was a rough road. I was a young professional, trying to figure things out. Becoming a bona fide adult, there’s pressure and stress. But the pressures that twenty-somethings face today are so much harder. It’s far more intense. So how do we get that generation to see opportunity instead of pressure? To celebrate the incremental successes, no matter how small? To feel like the measures they have to live up to are their own, not Instagram’s? I want to get behind this movement. After all, I always joke that I’m the “overnight success” that took thirty years to happen.

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