Marion Harper was born in Oklahoma City in 1916. He graduated with honors from Yale University in 1938. The following year, Mr. Harper joined McCann-Erickson in New York and began a meteoric rise through the agency ranks. He began in the young men's training program, but he quickly impressed agency executives by devising a formula for predicting which types of creative executions would score best in Starch Readership Reports.
Mr. Harper was named VP-research director in 1942 at the age of 26. Six years later, he was named president of McCann-Erickson. By that time McCann-Erickson had a good reputation and international offices, but Mr. Harper believed the agency was lacking in creative talent. He reasoned that to attract bright creative people, he needed a larger business; for the business to grow, he needed good clients.
One obstacle to growth was the problem of competing accounts. In constructing a holding company, he acted on the assumption that agencies in the company could handle competing accounts as long as competitors were not served by the same agency. To accomplish this separation of responsibility, each agency would have to maintain its own identity, and no agencies within the holding company could exchange information. Agencies would pay the holding company for legal, personnel and other services.
Mr. Harper purchased Marschalk & Pratt in 1954, and after success there, he acquired other agencies. He also expanded the business internationally, opening offices in 16 countries. In addition, he began establishing separate specialty companies, such as public relations, sales promotion and market research shops.
By 1953, five years after Mr. Harper became president, McCann-Erickson's billings had doubled to $100 million. Three years later, in 1956, billings had again doubled.
During this time, McCann added some of its most important clients to its roster, including Bulova Watch Co., Coca-Cola Co., Esso, Nestle and Westinghouse Electric. Mr. Harper shocked the industry when he resigned the Chrysler Corp. account, at $27 million in billings, to accept Buick, valued at $14 million. But the Buick account led to more business from parent company General Motors Corp., including Chevrolet and GMC trucks, and eventually resulted in more than $100 million in billings.
In 1961, he placed all of the agencies under the umbrella of the Interpublic Group, the conglomerate he had built. He continued to buy agencies, and the holding company grew at an accelerated pace. By 1966, Interpublic owned companies in 100 cities in 48 countries and served 1,900 clients. The holding company's staff grew to 8,700 people, of whom 5,500 were outside the U.S.
By 1967, however, the costs involved in acquiring agencies, hiring experienced people and paying the high overhead required to run the conglomerate began to weaken Interpublic. Although its billings that year were $700 million, its losses were estimated at $2 million to $3 million; Mr. Harper then ran into difficulty with several banks over loan agreements. When Interpublic was unable to satisfy the bankers through cost-cutting measures, they forced Mr. Harper's removal as chairman in November 1967. He stayed with Interpublic for a few months but then resigned.
In his later years, Mr. Harper indicated that he might have made a mistake in trying simultaneously to increase international business, acquire agencies and expand marketing services. After his resignation from Interpublic, he engaged in several small ventures, then virtually disappeared for 12 years. He reappeared in Oklahoma City in 1979, when he talked informally with a reporter from Advertising Age about publishing a work on marketing and company organization. He was next heard from in 1982, in an interview published in Bart Cummings' "The Benevolent Dictators", in which he spoke of his meteoric rise at McCann-Erickson and his reasons for building Interpublic. He died in 1989 at the age of 73.
Born in Oklahoma City, May 14, 1916; graduated Yale University with honors, 1938; joined McCann-Erickson, 1939; became VP-research director, 1942; named president, 1948; formed Interpublic Group of Cos. and became its chairman and president, 1961; died in Oklahoma City at age 73 on Oct. 30, 1989; named posthumously to Advertising Hall of Fame, 1998.