THE KINGS OF MADISON AVENUE: Phil Geier - Cigar-chomping, journalist-eating, market-share obsessed - but the chairman of Interpublic also reveals a human side to Caroline Marshall

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 operation.

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

word. Choleric, maybe.

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

white table.

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 different characteristics,

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 Coke.’

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 an ambitious and 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 stick,’

Geier says.

He adds that McCanns has the hardest future of his companies because it

has big clients in most categories - a problem other networks can only

dream about.

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. Four or five people from all

disciplines working together is the best way.’

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! Now!’

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 ferocious financial director and Geier’s closest advisor)

asked me to remove it from outside his office to outside mine,’ he


’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

four years.

’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.