Philip H. Geier Jr., Who Built an Advertising Giant, Dies at 84


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Philip H. Geier Jr., whose binge of acquisitions as the chief executive of the Interpublic Group of Companies turned it into an advertising industry behemoth, died on June 19 in a hospice in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 84.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Hope Geier Smith.

Mr. Geier began his advertising career in the late 1950s as a trainee at McCann-Erickson, the ad agency that created memorable campaigns for clients like Coca-Cola, L’Oreal and General Motors. Under its former chairman, Marion Harper, McCann had become a conglomerate that offered its clients a wide breadth of advertising and marketing services. It changed its named to Interpublic in 1961.

But Mr. Geier (pronounced GUY-er) proved even more of an empire-builder than Mr. Harper. As Interpublic’s chairman and chief executive from 1980 to 2000, he oversaw the acquisition of nearly 200 companies, among them other ad agencies; public relations, lobbying and event planning firms; management consultants; and digital marketers. All were meant to fill the expanding needs of clients under a holding company model. Rivals like Omnicom, WPP and Publicis Worldwide also adopted the system.

“Interpublic was always a vision in Phil’s head,” Michael Sennott, a former vice chairman of McCann, said by phone. “As everybody was going global and television was penetrating the world, he wanted Interpublic to provide integrated communications in one spot.”

During his tenure, Interpublic’s revenue grew to $5 billion from $500 million and its global work force to 50,000 from 8,000.

Mr. Geier’s relationship with Coca-Cola included the successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982, with its slogan, “Just for the Taste of It” (conceived by Lintas, one of Interpublic’s ad agencies) and the disastrous introduction three years later of New Coke.

Seeking to reinvigorate Coke — and armed with market research and consultant reports arguing that a newly formulated Coke would prove better at battling Pepsi-Cola in the cola wars — Coca-Cola replaced its core brand, Coke, with the sweeter and less carbonated New Coke.

CreditOfficial White House Photograph

“Once the decision was made, we all got behind it,” Mr. Geier wrote in “Survive to Thrive: Sustaining Yourself, Your Brand, and Your Business From Recession to Recovery” (2009). But he added: “Virtually overnight, all of the history, the passion, the memories — every part of the emotional experience that consumers associated with the Coca-Cola brand — was destroyed.”

Three months later, with New Coke selling poorly — at one point it was renamed Coke II — Coca-Cola revived Coke, calling it Classic Coke, and sales soared. Mr. Geier wrote that the debacle had proved the value of gathering better information before replacing a beloved product and of listening to unhappy customers.

“When they’re mad at you,” he wrote, “act fast to appease them.”

Philip Henry Geier Jr. was born on Feb. 22, 1935, in Pontiac, Mich., and grew up in Cleveland. He was the oldest of six sons of Philip Sr., who ran a family-owned vacuum cleaner company and later sold insurance, and Jane (Gillen) Geier, a homemaker.

While studying economics at Colgate University in upstate New York, Mr. Geier started two businesses: selling late-night sandwiches to students after the school’s kitchens had closed, and operating a car service to New York City.

He received his first taste of advertising during his junior year, when he dated Joan Bennett (who went on to marry Edward M. Kennedy, the future United States senator, a few years later). Mr. Geier would listen to her father, Harry Wiggin Bennett Jr., a senior executive at an ad agency, practice making presentations in front of a mirror at their home.

After graduating from Colgate in 1957, Mr. Geier earned an M.B.A. from Columbia University the next year. He served six months in the National Guard in Cleveland. For a time he tried to develop some novel products: a toothbrush with toothpaste in its handle; a bar of glycerin soap that revealed a corporate logo after repeated use; and suntan lotion that also carried an insect repellent. None were successful.

Convinced that he could apply his skills to advertising, he applied to the McCann-Erickson trainee program in Cleveland in 1958 and was accepted. Promoted to account executive two years later, he moved to the agency’s Manhattan office, where one of his first accounts was Nestlé’s chocolate morsels.

His rise was swift. Mr. Geier became head of strategic planning for McCann in London in 1968, elevated to chairman of McCann U.K. a year later, promoted to executive vice president of McCann Erickson Europe in 1971, and, after four years in that job, named vice chairman of Interpublic. He became the company’s president and chief operating officer in 1977 and its chairman and chief executive in 1980.

That promotion, announced in May 1979, preceded the departures of two key Interpublic executives. Carl Spielvogel, a vice chairman left after he did not get the job that went to Mr. Geier. And Bill Backer, a vice chairman and creative director who was behind the Coca-Cola jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” wanted to start his own firm.

Those two men formed Backer & Spielvogel, and within three months it had spirited the Miller Brewing’s High Life, Lite and Lowenbrau accounts from McCann. It was a startling loss, but McCann soon offset it in part by winning the Pabst beer and Texas Instruments accounts.

Mr. Geier’s focus for the next 20 years was largely on snapping up companies, among them the Lowe Group; Scali, McCabe, Sloves; Campbell-Mithun-Esty; Newspaper Services of America; and Deutsch.

Although not from the creative side of the advertising business, Mr. Geier nonetheless understood what made campaigns work. More important, Mr. Sennott said, “He had a sense of how to slip the right person into a situation to solve a problem.”

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Geier is survived by his wife, Julie Ann (Weindling) Geier; another daughter, Johanna Howard; four grandchildren; and a brother, Richard. Faith Power Geier, his first wife of 48 years, died in 2009 at 74.

Mr. Geier served briefly on President George W. Bush’s National Economic Council and donated to Republican candidates and causes. He served on the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York for 27 years.

After his retirement from Interpublic, Mr. Geier formed a consulting firm, invested in start-up businesses and produced several Broadway shows.

He received a heart transplant in 2006 after collapsing during a tennis match. The next year, the Broadway play “Journey’s End” brought him and its other producers a Tony Award for best revival of a play.


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