IPG regroups after shakeup

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Just over two weeks ago John J. Dooner Jr. decided he wasn't the man to lead the Interpublic Group of Cos. The board had already come to the same conclusion.

Last week, according to executives close to the situation, the board-or at least the seven external directors who sit on the nine-strong board-decided that the right man for the chairman-CEO spot was David Bell, Interpublic vice chairman.

Hearing Mr. Bell discuss his priorities on his first day in the job, the task ahead of him seems clear-cut: "Short-term, focus on key employees and key clients. More broadly, we've got to improve our margins, increase financial reliability and organic growth."

Prior to his Feb. 27 departure from the top job, reported first by Advertising Age on Feb. 26, Mr. Dooner frequently discussed those very same goals.

But, given his failure to deliver on the financials, his removal as CEO shocked few. More surprising was the decision to promote Mr. Bell, most recently a fairly low-profile vice chairman, and return Mr. Dooner to the helm of McCann-Erickson WorldGroup, the agency network where he built his career. Mr. Dooner's return is at the expense of McCann Chairman-CEO James Heekin, who left the company.

Frank Borelli, Interpublic's presiding director, was keen to emphasize that Mr. Bell's appointment is not an interim one: "David has just the skills we need." Prior to becoming Interpublic's vice chairman, Mr. Bell, 59, led publicly traded True North Communications, a holding company acquired by Interpublic in June 2001.

The job of a holding company chief, said Mr. Bell, requires being "highly visible, accessible, even aggressive in building and nurturing relationships with the Street." Those are widely said to be Mr. Bell's strengths.

Still, some Interpublic executives question whether the soft-spoken Minnesotan has the savvy to steady battered Interpublic. One agency executive said, "A lot of people are asking, `Is this the best we can do?"'

Don Elliman, former True North board member, said "I can understand why somebody would [ask] why David Bell. My answer is wait and watch. ... He's not going to be flashy or try to get his name in the paper every day, but David will get it done."

Mr. Bell said that in the coming weeks he and Mr. Borelli will interview candidates to fill the chief operating officer position, a job created last November. Executive search firm Spencer Stuart is handling the search. Both men said that current Chief Financial Officer Sean Orr will remain at the company. "He's not out this month, or two months from now," said Mr. Borelli. But executives close to the situation were not convinced, suggesting Mr Orr's tenure might end after the sale of Interpublic's market-research unit NFO WorldGroup.

That sale is key to one of Mr. Bell's other priorities-reducing the company's debt-which means pushing to sell assets now on the block, such as market research firm NFO WorldGroup. United Business Media confirmed Feb. 28 that it is looking at NFO.

contributing: kate macarthur

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