Looking back on the life of advertising legend Philip Geier
Philip H. Geier, Jr., the long-time chairman and CEO of the advertising giant known as The Interpublic Group of Companies, died on Wednesday, June 19, at the age of 84.
Over the course of his nearly six-decade-long career, Geier made a name for himself in the worlds of both advertising and philanthropy, working with big-name corporations from Coca-Cola Co. to General Motors Corp., while also donating his time and money to hospitals, museums, charitable organizations and artistic endeavors.
Born in Michigan in 1935, Geier attended Colgate University for economics before earning an MBA from Columbia Business School in 1958. He briefly served in the National Guard before securing a job at McCann-Erickson, where he worked his way up through the ranks to become vice chairman of Interpublic, the ad agency’s parent company, in 1975.
In 1980, Geier was named chairman and CEO of Interpublic—a position which he held for 20 years. When Geier first accepted the job, Interpublic had 8,000 employees and brought in about $500 million in annual revenue; by the time of his departure, the company had grown to more than 50,000 employees across 650 global offices and was registering $5.6 billion in yearly revenue.
“His knowledge was immense, but equally important was his joy,” says Harris Diamond, the current chairman and CEO of McCann Worldgroup, who recalls meeting Geier after his departure from Interpublic to seek his valuable advice. “He was a true advertising guy.”
During his tenure, Geier oversaw more than 200 successful agency acquisitions and worked with major corporate clients including Exxon, L’Oreal and Nestle—but his lengthy creative career was not without a few blemishes.
In 1985, McCann helped launch New Coke, a revision of Coca-Cola’s classic formula so universally panned by consumers that it was removed from store shelves less than three months after its release. In his 2010 memoir “Survive to Thrive,” Geier opened up about the notorious New Coke business blunder that has since become synonymous with the words “flop” and “failure.”
Supported by research from consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Interpublic and Coca-Cola were led to believe its “customers ‘have nowhere else to go’,” Geier wrote, recalling that the research, while true, would prove to be detrimental. “Those customers didn’t go to Pepsi—but they stopped drinking Coke. Just stopped dead.”
Looking back, Geier had two takeaways from the flop: “Don’t argue with consumers. When they’re mad at you, act fast to appease them,” and, “Don’t assume consultants are always right. They’re not.”
After retiring from Interpublic in 2000, Geier went on to form the Geier Group, a marketing and venture capital consulting firm. He also subsequently served as chairman of the U.S. Ad Council and was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2004.
“[Geier] received countless awards and honors in not only his industry, but also in the arts and philanthropy as well,” according to his obituary, which was published in The New York Times on Sunday.
Geier invested in and co-produced several critically acclaimed Broadway shows in his lifetime, including a 2007 stage production of 1928 drama “Journey’s End,” which won a Tony Award that year for Best Revival of a Play.
Another Times obituary that ran on Saturday, which was written on Geier’s behalf by the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he served as a trustee and board member for 27 years, said, “Phil made an enormous difference in a multitude of lives through his pioneering career in advertising, generous philanthropy and devotion to his family.”
In addition to the Whitney, Geier served on the boards of several notable non-profit organizations throughout his life including Autism Speaks, Save the Children and New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.