Phil Geier Prepares to Relinquish Reins to John Dooner
NEW YORK–Phil Geier, who’s guided Interpublic Group of Cos. through one of the most transformational eras in any industry, now finds himself maneuvering through one of the more difficult changes he’s ever faced: pulling back from running the company he’s led for more than two decades.
Last week, the 65-year-old IPG chief executive and his now officially-named heir apparent, John Dooner, who heads up McCann- Erickson WorldGroup, convened in Geier’s 44th-floor Midtown Manhattan digs. The red wine was uncorked; cigars lit. Just another dusky, end-of-day office bull session, like so many before. Except this one was about the transfer of power that, no matter how long it’s been planned and anticipated, brings mixed emotions to any of Madison Avenue’s top echelon of executives.
For Geier and Dooner, the transition began 18 months ago when IPG’s board began a search, which included a look outside for appropriate candidates. The transition started last month when Sean Orr came in as the company’s new CFO, allowing Geier’s longtime partner Gene Beard to retire.
Now, the 51-year-old Dooner has been named IPG’s president/chief operating officer; he becomes chief executive on Jan. 1, 2001. Geier will remain chairman.
Geier and Dooner both were animated and seemed relieved that a succession plan has been finalized and announced, ending years of speculation. Nonetheless, the two are still feeling their way into their new roles and admit that the coming year of transition won’t always be easy.
Geier, one of advertising’s most visible executives, who transformed IPG from an agency holding com-pany into a nearly $38 billion diversified marketing communications giant, seems outwardly philosophical about the inevitable. How long has this been in the works? “Twenty-one years,” he jokes, explaining that he’s “proud of having the right people in the right positions over the last 20 years.” As proof, he points to being able to fill IPG’s top job from within the company’s ranks.
But as he and Dooner interrupt each other and occasionally bicker–they admit to engaging in “vigorous debates”–they sound like an old married couple, an analogy close friends and colleagues often use.
“We never disagree on strategic initiatives,” however, “tactically, we never agree on anything,” both say simultaneously and laugh–perhaps only half jokingly.
The two are clearly similar in that they spent their careers in the elbow-smashing, cigar-chomping corridors of McCann-Erickson.
“They have a lot in common. Both are very aggressive with very much of a service mentality,” observes Jack Connors of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston.
While most associates acknowledge that there’s a “generational difference” between the two men, “there isn’t one fundamentally,” says IPG’s Barry Linsky. “The path taken may not be the same, but there’s no material difference in the end objective.”
As chief executive of McCann, IPG’s largest group, Dooner has done operationally on a smaller scale what Geier has accomplished in expanding the dimensions of the holding company.
During his tenure, Dooner tripled Mc-Cann’s billings to more than $20 billion, and was named Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year in 1998 and 1999. He’s also added various marketing services.
Dooner says he wants the perception of IPG as a diversified entity to catch up with reality. He’ll also be looking at new business models for the company’s agencies, with “a new sensitivity to integration.” Dooner also wants to accelerate the growth of IPG’s Internet involvement.
For his part, Geier says he’ll help his successor change his mindset from that of an operations guy to one more corporately focused.
As for similarities, “Phil and I are both client-centric people,” says Dooner, adding Geier is welcome “on our turf anytime.”
The two deny rumors their relationship has become strained over the last few months as the CEO-designate grew more impatient while Geier grappled with a lesser role. In fact, IPG’s longtime steward insists last week’s move “is not about retirement” and that he’ll be around for a few more years. K
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