As I hopped from foot to foot (early, jetlagged) in a huge corner
office on the 44th floor at Interpublic's New York headquarters, waiting
for Philip H. Geier Jr to arrive, I was preparing myself against his
legendary bluffness. The last time I interviewed the chairman and chief
executive of IPG was in July 1995, when McCann-Erickson had just been
relegated from Coca-Cola's European creative shop to its media buying
My notebook was peppered with long icy silences, 'no comments' and
clipped answers. Bluff wasn't the word for him then. Irascible was the
So it was a surprise to turn from admiring the view to find that Geier
had silently entered the room. Dispensing with social niceties such as
handshakes or offers of coffee, he was already sitting at a small, round
A tall and sprightly 64, this Geier is very different from the
monosyllabist of our previous telephone interview. The once narky
advertising warhorse twinkles boyishly when he learns that Campaign has
dubbed him a King of Madison Avenue. He lights up one of his big smelly
cigars and plunges into what he believes is the major issue facing IPG
(formed in 1961, it is the parent of three competing networks:
McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Lintas Worldwide and the Lowe Group, and of
the direct marketing network, Draft Worldwide. In media, the group
brands are Initiative, Universal McCann and Western International Media
- the largest media buyer in the US, which IPG bought in 1995 and is now
rolling out through Europe).
'The advertising industry is growing at 8 per cent a year, which
requires us to make sure that our companies take share of market,' he
says. 'Each of our agency operations has a different positioning, which
means that we stand a better chance of getting share of market.'
Like his competitors at WPP and Omnicom, Geier has recognised that
conventional advertising is not enough if IPG is to continue, as its
shareholders demand, to boost its earnings. The acquisitive company was
one of the first to spot the potential for interactive technology and it
is targeting two areas for acquisitions. The first is relationship
marketing (direct response and new-media specialists). The second is
sports and event-marketing companies to add to the group's recent
purchases of Advantage and API in London.
'Our mission remains the same - helping clients to establish markets and
build brands, ' reports Geier. 'But today the array of weapons and
platforms must be broadened to include all ways of reaching and
influencing an audience.'
I ask if the loss of Coke still rankles. McCanns' 40-year tenure of the
account - with 'teach the world to sing', 'it's the real thing' and
'have a Coke and a smile' as the high points - was, after Exxon, the
insurance policy that enabled McCanns to travel the world, opening
offices along the way. 'No-oh-oh,' he says, choosing his words
carefully. 'Coke operates differently to when that happened. Our
agencies are doing a good job now. McCanns and Lowes are growing with
McCanns' hold on the worldwide Coke account was first eroded when Coke
gave its main brand to the Creative Artists Agency at the end of
But his contretemps with the Hollywood talent shop (Geier personally
intervened in an attempt to save the account) doesn't seem to have put
him off ventures in the shark-infested waters of programming and talent
management. 'They're an unusual lot out there,' he reports. 'It's not a
town I like to stay in, but the creative juices are good.'
In August last year, IPG bought a controlling stake, for about dollars
25 million, in the Addis/Wechsler management and production company. The
idea is to create what Geier calls 'purpose-built' programming for key
clients such as Coke, General Motors, Unilever, Mercedes-Benz and
others. 'They do the whole schmooze - legal, working with agents and
directors,' says Geier. 'As we see it, clients will want to be more
involved in properties.
We've already done programmes with Nestle on Discovery Channel, but
that's small compared with what we're looking at now.'
Spotting the potential of such ventures is one of Geier's chief
Like John Wren at Omnicom and Martin Sorrell at WPP, he thinks big,
global, strategic. In his case, the global view was enhanced by a stint
in Europe, which left him a fervent, and rather nostalgic,
After university and business school (where he played the market well
enough to pay for most of his education) and a couple of failed
new-product ventures, Ohio-born Geier cut his teeth at McCanns in New
York. He went to Ted Bates for a year, and back to McCanns where he
became the vice-president and later assistant to the chairman, Paul
Foley, at the agency's problem-solving Centre for Advance Practices.
On one account - Philip Morris Alpine cigarettes - he introduced trading
stamps, a concept he was to repeat in London. In 1970, he was made
chairman of McCanns' London agency. He doubled the billings in three
years, earning himself a bigger role as regional director of
McCann-Erickson Europe: 'We were the first to drive business on a
regional rather than an international basis, and it brought clients
through the door,' he says.
'Those nine years in London were the best years of my life,' he adds,
twink-ling rather disconcertingly at the memory of receptionists in
hotpants entertaining clients queuing to hand over their budgets.
His success in London had much to do with his insistence on a ethos of
more work, less play: 'We changed a lot of things there,' he says.
'People used to come in at ten, the lunches went on forever and the bar
opened at five. I used to get in at eight.' Geier also started showing
clients the total communications package as a matter of policy: 'That's
how we went from 18th in the market to second or third,' he says.
It was not easy for a forthright Yank to make an impact on the snooty
London advertising scene. He learned the hard way that clients wouldn't
use marketing techniques in the UK merely because they worked in the
States: 'I was the only American on the team and they didn't put me in
straightaway as managing director, but in a strategic role. Had I not
brought in Rothmans and Martini, and helped on the Esso pitch, I would
have been destroyed,' he says.
Unprompted, Geier says that London still has the best creative output
(this will surprise his agency managers, who report that Geier is more
interested in earnings growth and new business than good ads) although
he believes that some of the bad things from the US (particularly what
he calls 'the US system of accountability and process') have curtailed
some of London's creativity. Could we learn anything from the US?
'We're still more benefit-oriented than you boys. But you gotta remember
that I'm told by my companies that I don't know much about
Hah-hah-hah-hah!' This is endearing and I can't help joining in. Geier,
after all, picks up more than dollars 2 million a year for knowing
nothing about advertising.
The other thing people say about Geier is that he's McCanns-centric.
'Ask McCanns, they'll tell you the opposite, believe me,' he says. 'The
bias is always held to be the other agency by whatever agency you talk
to. I am an arbitrator on issues, but overall it's even-handed.'
McCanns is the lumbering financial engine of IPG and, however you cut
it, the largest agency group in the world. In 1996, McCanns' worldwide
gross income was dollars 1.3 billion, while Ammirati Puris Lintas
recorded dollars 775 million and the Lowe Group dollars 499 million. So,
apart from being very big, very old, and putting marketing success way
before pretty commercials, what's McCanns' secret?
'They have good management in John Dooner (the chairman of
McCann-Erickson Worldwide) and his team, they are dedicated to driving
product and they don't have to win awards; efficacy is their schtick,'
He adds that McCanns has the hardest future of his companies because it
has big clients in most categories.
On the Lowe Group, he sounds a note of praise for Frank Lowe, the
chairman, with whom he is said to have a frosty relationship due partly
to the canny deal which Lowe secured when he sold to IPG in 1990. 'Lowes
has been built from scratch on a creative platform. In many ways, they
have the most potential of all our companies because they don't have
category blockage,' Geier says.
(The 1990 deal involved Lowe selling a minority stake to the
Campbell-Ewald group, part of IPG, and taking over the London office of
Wasey Campbell-Ewald. It made millionaires of Lowe and Geoff
Howard-Spink, fuelled their global ambitions and brought IPG creative
And so to the Lintas merger, in 1994, with Ammirati & Puris, the New
York shop renowned for its creativity. Competitors say this marriage of
convenience has proved a messy solution to Lintas's then account-shorn
bottom line. It's true, gaining Ammirati's creative lustre and its
Burger King business did cost McCanns dollars 100 million worth of
McDonald's franchise business. Geier, refusing to be drawn further,
says: 'With Martin Puris, I believe APL is on its way to being a very
successful agency.' (In terms of new business, he's absolutely right.
APL New York has scored impressive wins recently, including dollars 100
million worth of business from Ameritech, the telecoms company, and
Burger King and Compaq internationally.)
When it opened its doors back in 1928 as a house agency for Unilever,
the name Lintas stood for Lever International Advertising Services. So
how does Geier view the apparent erosion of the Unilever club agency
'Some large clients experiment with local brands,' he says. 'Bartle
Bogle Hegarty (which works with Elida Faberge) is basically a local
I'm not concerned as long as our agencies are doing a good job. To use
the old analogy, I think they'll find that the wife is more important in
the long-term, but she has to perform too!'
Geier's seen-it-all-before attitude to Unilever is hardly surprising,
perhaps, for someone who has been in the business for more than 40
On new working methods and wacky agency structures, he says: 'I've seen
agencies within agencies, virtual agencies, the lot. But I've always
believed in the old product-group system.'
On hotshops, he reports: 'We saw them do pretty well for a while in the
US, but they flatten out as they get to a certain level, about dollars
300 to dollars 400 million in billings. Big international accounts need
the strength and depth of big agencies. I can't name an agency that's
started up in the US in the last five years that's been successful. When
they get to a certain size they have to get involved with international
accounts and their ability to service them becomes more than difficult.
Even Wieden & Kennedy's biggest account (Nike) is looking shaky.'
You don't have to meet Geier more than once to suspect that it pleases
him, this image as advertising's gruff old curmudgeon. It probably
doesn't bother him either that the other Kings of Madison Avenue whisper
about 'everyone hating each other' at IPG. I'd guess too that it's a
matter of pride to him that his agencies see him as a hands-on
taskmaster and a bullshit-free zone. A former senior IPG media man
recalls his first encounter with Geier. A phone call and a voice yelling
about problems in Brazil: 'Get down there, sort it out! Sort it out
As he accompanies me out of his office, wreathed in the smoke of one of
the cigars that he is forbidden to smoke at home (Mrs Geier must be even
more formidable than her lesser half) we pass some of the works of
modern art adorning IPG's offices. Huge abstract canvasses. A crushed
car by Michael Chamberlain mounted on the wall. ('It's a mixture of a
Chevrolet, a Buick and a GMC truck - all my clients!' he laughs.) A neon
sign by Bruce Nauman that flashes the words 'NO NO' on and off. 'Gene
(Beard, IPG's financial director and Geier's closest advisor) asked me
to remove it from outside his office to outside mine,' he grins. 'I
guess it was too close to home.'
And that's where I leave him, all mellow fruitfulness and merry
bonhomie, full of promises that he's going to stick around for at least
'That cost me dollars 16,000,' he beams, pointing to the flashing neon
'A similar piece is now worth dollars 300,000.'
Funnily enough, some IPG directors questioned Geier's desire to invest
in art. That is, until he had the collection appraised and sent the
results to the board in the form of a seven-year growth his-tory. It
compounded out to almost 21 per cent. 'Slightly better than Interpublic
over the same period,' he concedes.
- This article appeared in February 1998. John Dooner is now the chief
executive of Interpublic; Geier remains as chairman. Following its
purchase of True North in March, Interpublic is currently the largest
advertising group in the world.