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Rise and fall of an agency empire builder. (Not that one.)

By Published on .

He built the world's largest agency holding company with a big idea, borrowed money and went on a buying binge on a scale the industry had never seen. Ad Age called him "arguably the agency world's most innovative empire builder of the 20th century." But suddenly, three decades after he began, he was out of a job.

Marion Harper, Jr., founder of Interpublic Group.
Marion Harper, Jr., founder of Interpublic Group. Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

The man in question is Marion Harper Jr., who in 1961 morphed McCann Erickson into the first major agency company, Interpublic.

"McCann Erickson has reorganized again," Ad Age wrote at the time, "with the establishment of a new parent company, Interpublic Inc.," overseeing two agencies, McCann Erickson and McCann-Marschalk Co. "Interpublic, the new corporate umbrella, will provide the affiliate companies with management and financial guidance and central services such as personnel and accounting."

Harper at the time was president of McCann Erickson, where he had worked since the late 1930s. Harper had a big idea: Operate multiple agencies able to handle competing clients and offer one-stop, integrated marketing services.

Harper had presaged the move when McCann bought Marschalk in 1954, giving him two agency brands. In a 1954 editorial ("A New Type of Super Agency?"), Ad Age wrote: "If the experiment works, the advertising field can look for the further development of 'satellite' agencies which would actively solicit accounts which other satellites -- or the parent agency -- can't touch because of conflicts."

With borrowed money, Harper went on a 1960s Mad Men's buying spree, turning Interpublic into a group of companies that he in 1964 renamed, well, "The Interpublic Group of Companies."

By 1966, Interpublic owned companies in 100 cities in 48 countries and served 1,900 clients. But Harper built an unwieldy venture overloaded with debt.

Harper, like WPP's Martin Sorrell, fell hard and fast, if for different reasons. Harper was toppled by mounting debts and a top-level rebellion.

Interpublic's bankers in November 1967 forced Harper's removal as chairman. Harper in February 1968 (the year Sorrell earned his Harvard MBA) resigned as a director, officer and employee of Interpublic. In so doing, Harper severed all links to the advertising-communications holding company that he had built.

In his later years, Harper indicated that he might have made a mistake in trying simultaneously to increase international business, acquire agencies and expand marketing services.

Interpublic, post-Harper, found its financial footing and continued to be an industry force. It went public in 1971 (following the lead of others that went public in the 1960s, including Foote, Cone & Belding, Doyle Dane Bernbach and J. Walter Thompson).

Interpublic ranked as the world's largest agency company as recently as 2000. But it slipped to second place in revenue, behind Omnicom Group, in 2001; third, behind WPP, in 2003; and fourth, behind Publicis Groupe, in 2009.

Harper died in 1989 at the age of 73. He was named posthumously to the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1998. Ad Age in 1999 called Harper "arguably the agency world's most innovative empire builder of the 20th century."

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