Geier Group CEO Phil Geier: The Real Thing

Geier Group CEO and author Phil Geier dishes on decades in the ad game

Legendary adman Phil Geier Jr.’s account of decades devoted to helping build the world’s most powerful brands might lack the eye candy of an episode of the hit Madison Avenue based series Mad Men, but he sure doesn’t stint on the drama. In Survive to Thrive, his candid tales of working with the likes of Coca-Cola, Exxon and GMare peppered with incidents of trust and betrayal, epic success (and epic failure), and even death and rebirth.

To the former chairman and CEO of Interpublic’s credit, not all the tales reflect particularly well on the teller. Geier looks back on the disastrous decision to replace Coca-Cola with New Coke – a move he admits “we all got behind.” In not one but two stories, he recounts trusting CAA’s Mike Ovitz, only to become the victim of stunning backstabbing maneuvers. There are even cameo appearances by celebrities, including President Ronald Reagan, whose chance phone call serendipitously pulls Geier out of a tense board meeting –  and possibly saves his job as a result. Finally, famed cardiac surgeon Karl Krieger saves Geier himself when he quite literally drops dead of a massive heart attack in the midst of a tennis game.

An entertaining read, Geier’s book is a combination memoir and corporate and industry chronicle. “I tried to give people a  feel for what happened and the lessons to be learned,” says Geier, who is widely credited with leading Interpublic  from revenues of $500million and 8,000 employees to $5.6 billion in revenues and 50,000 employees between 1977 and 2000.

The New Coke fiasco, for example, was a case of knowing about a potential hitch, but misjudging the consequences. Even though research by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed that a large number of customers had an “almost religious attachment” to the existing Coke formula and brand, the company opted to replace it. “They said that those customers ‘have nowhere else to go,’ ” recalls Geier, who notes that the theory proved true but not helpful. “Those customers didn’t go to Pepsi – but they stopped drinking Coke. Just stopped dead.” The resulting consumer uproar was so intense that when the company backpedaled three months later, ABC interrupted General Hospital for a special broadcast by Peter Jennings heralding the return of the original Coke.

Before Mad Men, there were ad men like Phil Geier, former CEO of Interpublic

The takeaways? “Don’t argue with consumers,” Geier writes. “When they’re mad at you, act fast to appease them.” And, “Don’t assume consultants are always right. They’re not.”

Coming from an agency man at a time when consulting firms are increasingly vying for the strategic marketing role once occupied exclusively by advertising agencies, the latter statement might sound a tad defensive. But while Geier does lament the intrusion of consultants into the marketing mix, he lays the challenge squarely on the ad industry. “It will be the jobs of the new people coming up to figure out how to involve themselves in more than just the advertising business,” he says.

A large part of that task will involve coming to grips with the evolution of the media, says Geier, who points out that his career began long before the likes of MTV, Microsoft and Google, let alone new media like Facebook and Twitter and technology like the iPhone. In addition to multiplying exponentially the number and types of outlets available for brand messaging, new technologies are revolutionizing marketing research capabilities, he points out. “I can test a reaction to an event in a matter of hours,” he says. “If you have a major Tylenol-type crisis situation now, you can know what consumers are thinking in 24 hours, whereas before it would have taken three to five days.”

That capability represents both a challenge and opportunity to the industry. “The speed with which this is taking place is a concern for a lot of people in our business – whether you’re a consultant or in the day-to-day business,” says Geier, who is now the CEO of marketing consulting group The Geier Group. “The ones able to understand those funnels and to take advantage of the research [capabilities] and move quickly to react to those changes will [benefit].”

But even as new media will revolutionize marketing strategy and the speed with which it’s executed, Geier expects traditional media to survive – and potentially continue to thrive. “Everybody thought the radio would die when television came,” he points out. “Television is going to be around a long time – and so will these new devices. Each will have its place and it will be a matter of how to execute the right way and in the right one for what you’re doing.”


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