Geier's 'Survive to Thrive' Offers Look at Culture That Built IPG

Frank Lowe, Martin Puris, Donny Deutsch Emerge as Key Characters in His Book

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
Philip H. Geier Jr. has had to deal with some pretty tough characters in his years as chairman-CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.

Frank Lowe, Martin Puris and Donny Deutsch all crossed swords with Mr. Geier during his 20-year span running the holding company.

Problems arose when Interpublic didn't adhere to strict due diligence when acquiring other companies, especially privately held ones. "Unfortunately, this is one of the areas in which Interpublic became lax on its follow-through" after Mr. Geier retired in 2000, he writes in his new book "Survive to Thrive."

That's not to say things always thrived during his tenure. Mr. Geier recounts how he tried to revive the Lintas agency in 1994 by buying Ammiriati & Puris. The two agencies were compatible, at least on paper -- A&P handled MasterCard in the U.S.; Lintas had it in Europe. Both agencies did business with Aetna. "We thought that transplanting this prestigious New York shop onto the global package-goods agency of Lintas would create a powerful new system, combining creative leadership with international expertise," Mr. Geier explained. "But as Ralph Ammirati later said, the creation of Ammirati Puris Lintas was more like a 'collision' than a merger."

One of Lintas' big clients, Johnson & Johnson, didn't like the way the newly acquired A&P was throwing its weight around. The chairman of J&J, Ralph Larsen, resented that Martin Puris was pushing hard for a creative overhaul of J&J's work.

"I let Martin Puris know he needed to show a little more patience and a better understanding of how his more-traditional accounts operated. He adjusted his approach, but he was not always comfortable with the need to compromise," Mr. Geier said. He also thought Mr. Puris should do more schmoozing with international clients, but Mr. Puris didn't want to travel very much.

The agency did well for three or four years, but then "problems began to arise again." Mr. Geier admits he should have "forced the issue" to install a chief operating officer who would take the travel burden off Mr. Puris' shoulders.

So when Mr. Puris decided to retire, Interpublic moved to combine two of its global networks: Ammirati Puris Lintas and Lowe & Partners Worldwide to create Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide. Frank Lowe became chairman-CEO of the new network.

"But once again, personalities intervened," Mr. Geier said. "Frank Lowe had a problem working with an agency system he felt was beneath him. Which would have been fine if he hadn't let everyone in the agency know it."

One of the last acquisitions Mr. Geier was involved with before he retired was the purchase of Deutsch. Like many deals, Donny Deutsch's was heavily tied to Interpublic stock. "I saw him after my retirement, and he expressed some disappointment that we hadn't met our full-year forecasts, and the stock was down, along with many others in 2001."

Later, Mr. Geier said he was "surprised" to learn that Donny persuaded his successor at Interpublic, John Dooner, to make an upward adjustment in his take. "The board allowed it, though why they did I'll never understand. Donny would never have gotten it out of me."

The Deutsch deal paid back Interpublic's investment in less than the five years projected, "and Donny has moved on to a lucrative showbiz career," Mr. Geier observed.

Frank Lowe figures in one of the biggest and costliest debacles in Interpublic history. Mr. Lowe had pitched the agency holding company on buying soccer club Manchester United, and he later suggested that its Octagon Sports unit buy Brands Hatch, its race tracks and the potential to own Formula One rights in the U.K.

As it turned out, the past revenue, profits and forecasts were all inaccurate, and Interpublic's auditing firm, Price Waterhouse, didn't catch the bad numbers. "After the deal was signed, two key people from Brands Hatch left because Interpublic didn't know they hadn't signed employment contracts."

"It was a mess that could have been avoided by a more responsive due-diligence process," Mr. Geier said. The mess resulted in an Interpublic write-off of as much as $500 million.

In 2002, Interpublic agreed to pay a $12 million fine to settle SEC charges of overbooking revenue between 1997 and 2002. Mr. Geier says Price Waterhouse should take most of the blame. "It's ironic that Price Waterhouse was the firm responsible for auditing the accounts both before and after the investigation began. Having failed to alert Interpublic's management to unresolved accounting issues in 1998 and 1999, Price Waterhouse profited handsomely over several ensuing years as the firm 'solved' the problems they themselves helped create."

Mr. Geier also faults Interpublic's HR department for not putting the right people in key positions. He said for four years after he retired, "even as CEOs and CFOs came and went," Interpublic's HR department "made a string of bad calls."

Mr. Geier gives the current CEO Michael Roth credit for "righting the Interpublic ship," but adds that "the unprecedented financial storm of 2008" presents enormous challenges for the now fourth-place agency holding company.

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