The Kings of Madison Avenue: John Dooner - Stefano Hatfield talks to IPG’s CEO, who is unfazed at the prospect of taking the reins from Phil Geier

It’s out with the new and in with the old on the 40th floor of Manhattan’s Time and Life Building. In the offices that house the Interpublic Group, to the collection of neon installations and bizarre sculptures that form part of the chief executive officer Phil Geier’s modern art collection, a Monet has been added.

It’s out with the new and in with the old on the 40th floor of

Manhattan’s Time and Life Building. In the offices that house the

Interpublic Group, to the collection of neon installations and bizarre

sculptures that form part of the chief executive officer Phil Geier’s

modern art collection, a Monet has been added.

That’s because there are now two corner offices that matter at IPG.

Geier retains his with the view downtown, defiantly computerless,

humidor centre stage. At the far end of a corridor gallery of pop art

there is the new home of John Dooner, the chief operating officer of IPG

and Geier’s designated successor.

The two men are attempting the almost unheard-of advertising industry

feat of a measured and professional handover of power. For eight months

they will double up at IPG’s helm; Dooner shadowing the inimitable Geier

as he does the rounds of lawyers, accountants, clients, analysts, fund

managers, operating company chiefs. Even journalists.

If he is daunted by taking over at the world’s second-largest agency

group, it doesn’t show. Sitting, sipping Diet Coke, on a comfortable

sofa in a relatively nondescript room - Monet aside - Dooner holds forth

with ease and an impressive grasp of his subject matter. He is champing

at the corporate bit.

Some might mistake his loquacity for nervousness. Geier walks in briefly

to shake hands and asks if I need a translator. But Dooner is being what

he is - a shirt-sleeved, native New Yorker sounding off. His

conversation is littered with ’there’s no finish line’ (a favourite);

’you’re answering your own question’ (always a winner with journalists

that one); and ’’uge’(which is clearly bigger than huge). Nevertheless,

he is corporate enough to pepper his conversation with ’that’s off the

record, right?’.

Dooner could not have had a better pedigree. In his six years running

McCann-Erickson, the IPG subsidiary, the network tripled in size. He

took an agency still traumatised by the CAA/Coca-Cola affair - one that

lacked confidence in its creative product - and turned it into the

network that rivals pay tribute to (privately), with a storming

new-business performance and improved creative standards almost

everywhere. Admittedly, from a low base.

During this time he introduced what become the McCann WorldGroup, a

mini-holding company within IPG. WorldGroup comprises McCann

Relationship Marketing, Momentum Worldwide (event marketing and sales

promotion), FutureBrand (brand equity consulting/design) and McCann

Healthcare Worldwide.

Through IPG, McCann WorldGroup is allied with Shandwick International

(public relations) and Zentropy (online marketing).

Dooner, after 17 years at McCann, is unfazed by the prospect of taking

on the holding company’s top job. Wall Street aside, he has virtually

been doing that job within McCann. So, what does the top job really


’We’re trying to effect an orderly transfer,’ he says. ’Kind of, if you

will, what we did on the finance side from Gene Beard to Sean Orr. I’m

already goosed, but you can see that working with Phil, it’s creating a

new sense of energy with him as well. Phil has done this for 21 years

with some greatness. The combination is probably a little more

stimulating than it has been at Interpublic for a while. Usually it’s

done through chaos and we should benefit from a sense of order.’

The early signs are good. Wall Street reacted favourably to Dooner’s

appointment. The succession at McCann is in place in the shape of Jim

Heekin. It’s uncontroversial stuff. Which leads us to the subject of

Frank Lowe.

If, before last year’s merger, the Lowe and Lintas networks disdained

each other, frequently it appeared that the relationship between the

Lowe and McCann groups was one of mutual distaste, dislike even. How

much of this was personal between Dooner himself and Frank Lowe? Or is

such gossip rubbish?

Dooner, knowing that despite protestations to the contrary many still

believe Lowe would once have liked the IPG job himself, gives much more

thought to his answers regarding Lowe. Lowe has been at pains to point

out that he is now committed to the new order and has his head down

effecting the merger around the world. But Dooner doesn’t exactly kill

any suggestions of previous antipathy.

’Is it all rubbish?’ he asks with a big sigh. ’Actually, I think it was

more my predecessor (Bob James) and Frank who had some real issues.

Within the environment of strong different cultures there were

conflicts. It’s not a personal thing. Frank and I really did not spend a

lot of time together.

Since this thing has come about I’ve spent eight or nine hours with

Frank having a great time, sharing dreams and visions. In the previous

20 years or so it’s been just about that much time. So it’s unfair that

people categorise it that way. Some of it’s done because of the spirit

of the game, but when the wall or veneer is taken away we are speaking

the same language.’

’I can’t comment on whether Frank wanted the job,’ he adds, ’but anyone

wants to aspire to be the best at what they do. I don’t know if we

should discount his previous aspirations, but now we laugh about it. The

competitiveness was brought about not by two individuals but by two

entities. I can’t deny that I haven’t heard the same thing you have but

it’s not an issue today.’

Despite this invitation to read between the lines, Dooner is as eager to

appear a Frank Lowe fan as Lowe is to stress how committed he is to

IPG’s success. (Let’s not forget that Lowe is a significant IPG


Asked whether he believes there is still a lot of pain to go through in

the Lowe Lintas merger, Dooner is fulsome in his praise of the way it

has been handled to date, singling out Lowe, the president Jerry Judge,

and the former McCann executive Michael Sennett for the foot-slogging

effort they have put in.

’It’s a paper wall between them (Lowe and Lintas) and we are walking

through it incredibly easily,’ Dooner insists. The difference in culture

is an issue in some places - particularly where ex-pats run the show,

but it’s working because of the amount of energy and shared desire that

is being experienced. The first trimester of any birth is critical. They

have done great. The evidence is there, in new business, the lack of

business loss and what I like to call the room tone which is very

positive. Little wins have ’uge momentum. So, no finish line,

but ...’

But, I persist, you did have this huge cultural difference with the Lowe

Group. And now you have inherited it. You can’t get away from the fact

that Lowes stood for this and Lintas stood for ...

’No! No!’ he interrupts. ’Achieved that. Or didn’t achieve that. I think

you are answering your own question. Frank lives and breathes the

quality of the creative product. He is not only known for that - it’s

true. You take that culturally and you give him a platform that has a

group of companies that share that and a network that has the global

reach to allow that, and what you are seeing is them both embracing it.

Nobody does not want to be the best in their field. You have a dynamite

proposition there.’

So, with a nod to the Unilever client that was so often regarded as a

lucrative millstone around Lintas’s neck, does Dooner believe great work

is possible with all clients?

’Yes. It’s all relative,’ he says. ’I am willing to bet Unilever is very

excited about the prospect of Frank having an influence on their


His fervour will never be taken away. He becomes a spiritual leader to

where you want to be. And he now has the clients and processes to get

there. In the first trimester they are doing pretty damn good.’ (He

singles out the 3-Com win as proof.) ’Hey, it’s not over. They are the

number-five agency now. They will give McCann, Ogilvy & Mather, J.

Walter Thompson, etc. a real run for their money. Frank is married to a

dream. He is in the big game now.’

But hasn’t Lintas really disappeared in the merger?

’What you had was Frank and his management team at the top, the Lowe

culture with its pursuit of excellence, and then you have a company

that’s dying to be like that (Lintas) and you add Michael Sennett to

that with his sense of multi-nationals. Nobody wants to be crummy.’

That’s why, the fiercely competitive Dooner says, despite McCann’s

pre-eminence as a global account handling network, he put improving

McCann’s creative reputation at the top of his priority list when he

took over.

’You can’t accept a mediocre product. McCann lived the life of what you

said before I took over. I couldn’t live with that. I knew back then if

we had the quality of ...’ (maddeningly he goes off the record to name a

rival network) ’... and the reach and scope of McCann you’d have the

best in the world.’

Dooner took over McCann in the aftermath of CAA and amid all the talk of

the death of advertising. Has McCann rectified its relationship with

Coke, or was it never that much of a problem?

’It’s a good question,’ he says. ’On Coke, the reality is that CAA

brought a freshness to Coke’s advertising that all of us paid attention

to. That was a wake-up call that definitely had an impact, however ...’

(Again he goes off the record.) ’How are we today? We have gained

respect in the creative product here and there’s no finish line to


’CAA, consultants, dotcoms, all were supposed to be the death of


But it’s absolute nonsense. Consultants are complementary to our


There is a point at which you come to a point of view, but then in our

business a leap is taken - and that’s creativity. What’s an agency

really good at? Consumer insights and the creative leap.

’It is all about insecurity. We all got caught up in that nonsense. CAA

was the same. If you remember nine years ago Hollywood was taking over.

If Hollywood was so good at consumer insights, why does only one in 35

movies work?’

But is it not going to be a constant battle to improve creativity if you

have the McCann client list?

’Absolutely. There is no finish line. Look at McCann’s new clients:

Microsoft, Sprint, Gateway, Mastercard, Motorola ... look at the global

reel on those clients. That’s why we are being named agency of the year

in about 20 markets. That’s why we’re getting agency of the year

globally. You have to have superior creative.

’In the UK there is no finish line. The UK has its own spirit of

creativity that won’t go away. Therefore you have a tough fight. McCann

is fighting that fight very well, but until it is achieved there is no

rest. Ben Langdon’s very much on the case. We are bringing this

intensity of focus to PR, online, every area.’

Dooner has very strong views about the value of vertical


The future for IPG seems clear; all marketing services companies

wherever possible will be aligned with one or other advertising network.

He is clearly not a man to follow the industry norm sheepishly.

This is evident in his attitude to media. McCann, almost alone in the

major advertising networks, retains its name in its media arm, Universal

McCann. Dooner insists that the complete separation of media at a time

when clients are asking for closer integration makes no sense.

’Media really is the message, especially with new media. It is bizarre

to me that you would separate strategic media planning and the creative

process. What’s in the best interests of the brand? Strategic planning

has to be inextricably linked to the creative. Media buying? OK, you can

see the need for clout.’

What of size? He claims it does not matter to be bigger than Omnicom

again, but acknowledges that he will be judged in part by their relative

sizes. While he laughs at my question as to whether he has to buy a

third network, he does not dismiss it. He hints heavily that he may be

prepared to risk another foray into challenging the status quo on client


He concedes there are relatively small differences in the fundamental

strategies of the major groups. ’I’d rather not articulate them, they’d

be part of our competitive advantage,’ he says.

Client service is Dooner’s game. He believes he can make a


’My character will create some new energy. Right now I need to absorb.

Then you create, you spend time ensuring that the dream is worthwhile. I

go about it with a ’not to be denied’ attitude. And pretty much I am not


How anyone could get a word in edgeways to deny him is beyond me. But

there is a sense of purpose about Dooner that augurs well for IPG, which

has not had its most sparkling of years.

Geier will leave huge boots to fill. But Dooner’s ambition is clear, his

energy formidable and his track record impressive. Much depends on

whether Frank Lowe can make Lowe Lintas work, and on Dooner’s future

bold acquisitions (whatever they may be) paying off.

Dooner is to be watched. He is not afraid of zigging while the rest of

the industry zags, and is a one-time rougher diamond than his

expensively coiffed appearance would today suggest.

A man who has slimmed down as dramatically as Dooner did in 1993 - and

stayed that way - is someone who benefits from considerable


However, he of all people will know that in his new elevated position,

there’s no finish line.


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