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Is deal the start of Dooner era?

By Published on .

One last bow for Mr. Geier, or a startling debut for Mr. Dooner?

With the deal for Deutsch landing smack in the middle of the transition of Interpublic Group of Cos.' leadership-Chairman-CEO Philip Geier will pass the CEO title to President John Dooner on Jan. 1-the question of who deserves top billing for sealing the deal remains open for debate. The 52-year-old Mr. Dooner would clearly like the acquisition to be viewed as his first mark on the company and a sign of what's to come. But Mr. Geier, 65, has made it clear he's not ready to retire.

Mr. Geier said he and Mr. Dooner did a lot of the legwork together, and added that Mr. Dooner's ability to work well with Deutsch CEO Donny Deutsch was a "big plus." Yet Mr. Geier's name headlined Interpublic's official Deutsch announcement and the man who has headed the holding company for 20 years declined to concede that this was indeed his last acquisition. "Who knows? There may be other things we are working on that may happen before and after [Jan. 1]," Mr. Geier said.

But some executives at Interpublic units see Mr. Dooner stepping into the spotlight with the Deutsch purchase. "Donny Deutsch represents the next generation in marketing communications, as does John, so this has John's imprint on it, with Phil's blessing," said Larry Weber, chairman-CEO of Interpublic's Allied Communications Group.

The Deutsch deal may have the highest marquee value of any IPG transaction since Mr. Dooner was promoted last March from chairman-CEO of Interpublic's McCann-Erickson WorldGroup to second-in-command at the holding company. But Mr. Dooner is no novice in the art of the deal. "John's always been a deal maker, as long as I've known him," said Nina DiSesa, chief creative officer at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York. "What's changed is the size of the deals."

Those deals, whether in the form of acquisitions or new-business wins, tripled the size of McCann-Erickson over the six years Mr. Dooner was at the helm (he began his McCann-Erickson tenure in 1984 as worldwide account coordinator). Mr. Dooner formed marketing-communications divisions at McCann-Erickson, including Momentum Worldwide, Zentropy Partners, FutureBrand and Torre Lazur McCann Healthcare Worldwide, and claimed an impressive 12 for 13 new-business-win record in 1999.

"Prior to John's arrival there was a little bit of a void in energetic and dynamic leadership. John came in all fired up and got everyone charging and built this team," said Eric Keshin, Chief Operating Officer of McCann-Erickson. "John is always very clear about what he wants and he knows how to go get it."

Lauren Rich Fine, an analyst with Merrill Lynch, said Mr. Dooner's presence made the difference in getting a shop like Deutsch. "In the past, some of the creative shops like Deutsch would be unwilling to sell out to Interpublic because it's not perceived as cutting-edge. But now, with John Dooner in place, it seems like an ad guy is in charge, and the company is revitalized with a new generation of management."

Colleagues describe Mr. Dooner as a straight shooter who is energetic, empowering, accessible, willing to "get his uniform dirty" and able to work well with creatives-all adding up to a style that some observers say won over Mr. Deutsch. After all, it worked before. "Interpublic had a lot of people involved, and Phil was involved," recalled Mr. Weber of his company's acquisition four years ago. "But the main reason I did it was because of John . . . He got me on the hook of his dreams."

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