What made the agency stand out was its focus on strategically solid, results-driven creative that was more focused on substance than style. Tim Andree, representative director at Dentsu Group Inc. and executive chairman at Dentsu International, said in its initial years the shop didn’t even enter creative awards shows, preferring instead to focus on solving a client’s problem.
Andree first met McGarry in 2008 when he approached the agency, then six-years-old, to become part of the Dentsu network. “I called [McGarry] and asked for 30 minutes which grew into a four-hour discussion,” said Andree. Unknown to Andree, McGarryBowen was already in serious talks with another agency group to be acquired. “But we hit it off and decided to join Dentsu and I’m forever grateful,” said Andree.
It was McGarry’s unique ability to connect with clients—chief marketing officers and CEOs alike—that was legendary on Madison Avenue. One industry executive who knew him called it “an obsession with client services and respect for what a client wanted.”
“He knew the people and he knew their families and their backgrounds,” said Andree. “It was authentic caring. It’s not just that he had files on them, he knew them personally because he cared.”
'Not a facade'
“It was not a facade. It was the way he believed the business should be,” said Dana Anderson, who worked with McGarry on the agency side at Y&R but also as a client with Kraft Foods and later Mondelez, where she was senior VP and CMO. Anderson recalls McGarry calling her asking to delay the final of a pitch the agency was participating in. “He said ‘One of our client’s husbands has died and the funeral is on the day of the pitch. Can we reschedule because it is important we be there.’”
“What made John so uniquely John was his deep level of caring, which extended to his clients,” said Bowen, who is now chairman of DentsuMcGarryBowen. “His commitment and personal belief in the client and what they do is unparalleled in my career. He was the real deal.”
'Gracious but tenacious'
Bowen recalls the agency’s first meeting with Verizon, in which McGarry began asking a key question that later became standard for all clients: What is your biggest problem? “Usually it was a doozy,” said Bowen. “But we would tackle it and it sort of became the John mantra. Something that kept you awake at night. It showed in everything we did.”
McGarry was “gracious but tenacious,” said Andree. “He had a relentless nature, he’d sink his teeth into a thing and not give up. Clients would see the gracious part and the rest of us experienced the tenacious part,” he said with a laugh.
“I was so intimidated I called him Mr. McGarry my whole life,” said Anderson, who hastened to add: “John said I don’t have clients, I have friends.”
McGarry, in fact, was known to give meaningful gifts and write personal letters that people “found themselves lucky to be on the receiving end,” said Andree. And McGarry’s habit of remaining friends with ex-clients paid off on more than one occasion when those clients started looking to review their business. John McGarry brought Reebok back into its fold in 2011 after a two-year absence with six words to its then-CMO: "We want you to come home."
'Best I've ever seen'
“He taught me so much,” says Brandon Cooke, global chief marketing and reputation officer at FCB Global, who was earlier a CMO at McGarry and worked directly with the co-founder on new business pitches. “He was incredibly smart and brilliant when it came to winning business,” said Cooke. “Hands down he’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
In 2012, McGarry moved from chairman and CEO at the agency into an exec advisor role for Dentsu Group, which he did for about two years before quietly stepping down.
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That capped a career that included winning Ad Age Agency of the Year in 2009 and in 2011.
After the first win, Ad Age recorded a video with John McGarry, who offered his reasoning for its success. “Our clients tell us, ‘McGarryBowen embarrasses us day after day after day, because honestly they have more passion for our brands than we do.’ And at the end of the day, we think that is the greatest compliment we can get in the business.”