Interpublic trailblazer Phil Geier dies at 84

Phil Geier (Philip H. Geier Jr to give him his full title) was chairman and CEO of Interpublic from 1980 to 2000, when he turned Marion Harper’s Interpublic into the biggest ad holding group in the world.

He began his career at McCann Erickson, then as now the foundation of the group. He began his serious rise through the ranks in London, initially as chairman and then as Europe boss. Geier may or may not have been a Mad Man but McCann in London in those days had its fair share.

At the time three of the game-changing agencies in London were all clustered around Charlotte Street: McCann and Collett Dickenson Pearce on nearby Howland Street, Saatchi and Saatchi just down the road. Charles Saatchi, it’s said, used to look enviously out of the window at his more established rivals. Most people thought it was the creative powerhouse CDP than he envied but actually it was McCann, closing in on JWT as the biggest agency in London on its foundation of big international accounts – Coca-Cola, Martini, Exxon – to which it added the somewhat less glossy Tesco.

As Geier moved up the likes of chairman Nigel Grandfield, creative director Barry Day and head of research Ann Burdus took centre stage. It wasn’t the most creative of agencies but, like its American parent, it had the knack of giving those really big clients what they wanted: aspirational dreams fuelled by big budget TV campaigns. Straight out of the Don Draper songbook.

Interpublic began to unravel under Geier’s tenure; in truth the whole never became more than the sum of the parts and McCann remained the core. Some deals didn’t work out. In 1990 it paid an estimated £100m for Lowe Worldwide, Frank Lowe’s creation. Lowe had eyes on Geier’s job but Madison Avenue types then were never going to take to the flamboyant Brit (or any Brit for that matter) Lowe quit but Interpublic was still making payments to him when he set up rival The Red Brick Road in 2006 – with the Tesco account.

Interpublic has turned round since then under Michael Roth but it’s been a long and sometimes painful process. Rivals like WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell took care not to make their empires too dependent on one agency, as Interpublic did with McCann and Saatch & Saatchi too, which failed to add anything of comparable stature despite splashing millions on the likes of Bates in New York and Dorland in London.

But the ad holding companies are still with us and that’s partly down to Geier. He certainly had a big impact in London in, arguably, advertising’s UK heyday.

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