Philip Geier Expanded Interpublic Group Into a Global Advertising Giant

Date : 06/27/2019 @ 10:59AM
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Philip Geier Expanded Interpublic Group Into a Global Advertising Giant

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By James R. Hagerty 

After earning an M.B.A. degree at Columbia Business School in 1958, Philip H. Geier Jr. felt ready to launch his own business. His early ideas included a toothbrush with toothpaste stowed in the handle, hotel soap with a logo that would remain visible even as the bar shrank, and suntan lotion containing insect repellent.

None of these notions got off the ground. So Mr. Geier tried advertising, a field where his flair quickly became apparent. As a junior ad executive at McCann-Erickson in the early 1960s, he began making powerful friends at Coca-Cola Co. and other giant advertisers that would last for decades.

When McCann sent him to London in 1968 to help run its European operations, he knew he would have to show an ability to bring in British clients. One of his first targets was Britain's Milk Marketing Board. Mr. Geier buttered up the chairman of the milk board by inviting the chairman's wife to curate an art exhibit, with cocktails, at McCann's London office. Soon McCann was creating ads for the milk board.

It was the "Mad Men" era in London as well as Manhattan. In his 2009 memoir, "Survive to Thrive," Mr. Geier recalled marathon drinking sessions with clients and his decision to hire "a glamorous young lady...wearing a figure-hugging T-shirt and bright red hot pants" to greet visitors to McCann's London office. For himself, he favored brightly colored dress shirts with white collars.

Mr. Geier, who died June 19 at the age of 84, was known for catering to the global communication needs of giant advertisers including Coca-Cola, Nestlé SA and Unilever. That talent propelled him into the top ranks of Interpublic Group, the parent company for McCann and other ad agencies. He served as Interpublic's chairman and CEO from 1980 to 2000.

During that period, he oversaw more than 200 acquisitions, including the Lintas and Lowe agencies. Interpublic's head count grew to 50,000 world-wide from 8,000 and its market value to $12 billion from $500 million.

In 2006, three weeks before his 71st birthday, he had a heart attack on a tennis court in Midtown Manhattan. A cardiac surgeon, who happened to be nearby, saved him. Months later Mr. Geier received a heart transplant that allowed him to return to the tennis court and tend to his philanthropic interests, including Autism Speaks and Save the Children.

Philip Henry Geier Jr. was born Feb. 22, 1935, the first of six sons, and grew up in Hunting Valley, a suburb of Cleveland. His father ran a vacuum-cleaner company and later sold insurance. His mother, he wrote, was the family leader, "a great skier, tennis player, dancer and flirt."

He chose Colgate University because a girlfriend was studying nearby. He earned an economics degree there in 1957. He also earned the nickname "Deals" at Colgate for setting up businesses, including sales of sandwiches to fraternity boys and a car service to New York. He dated Joan Bennett, who later married Ted Kennedy, and bartered bottles of Scotch whisky for tutoring in statistics.

When he became a trainee at McCann in Cleveland, he expected to stay in advertising only for a few years to explore career alternatives, but he soon was promoted to the New York office and found he was in his element working on accounts including Nabisco cookies and Philip Morris cigarettes.

Arriving at the London office in 1968, he was shocked to find all the desks empty at 9:15 a.m. on a Monday. Managers "sauntered in around 10," he wrote, and creative people turned up even later.

"Cocktails in the agency started at five, after which the creatives invariably headed to the nearest pub, and the account guys took clients out for dinners that usually stretched past 11 p.m.," he recalled.

One potential client, a fitness buff, challenged him to a 12-mile race, offering to give him a three-mile head start. Mr. Geier had less than two weeks to train and was passed by his rival 30 yards from the finish line. Even so, the client was sufficiently impressed with Mr. Geier's effort to award business to McCann.

In 1979, Interpublic announced Mr. Geier would become CEO the next year. Soon afterward, two colleagues defected to form the rival agency Backer & Spielvogel. The new firm promptly poached the Miller beer account, which had accounted for the bulk of profits in McCann's New York office.

Noting McCann's wounds, other big clients said they might bolt. Profit fell 9% during Mr. Geier's first year as CEO but he managed to appease major clients and win new business.

In 1985, he worked with Coca-Cola Co. on its introduction of New Coke, a sweeter version of the soft drink. After it bombed, Coca-Cola pivoted three months later by reintroducing Coke Classic. Sales rapidly recovered. Mr. Geier said the lesson was clear: When customers are "mad at you, act fast to appease them."

Influenced by his wife, the former Faith Power, Mr. Geier collected contemporary art. In the 1980s, he adorned Interpublic's Manhattan offices with works including a Bruce Nauman neon sculpture and a mural by Sol LeWitt. Some Interpublic directors questioned the expense. He hired an appraiser, who reported that Interpublic was making a good return on the investment.

Faith Geier died in 2009. In 2013, he married Julie Ann Weindling. Along with her, his survivors include two daughters and four grandchildren.

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 27, 2019 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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