Wheeler, who steps down at the end of the year, was one of the UK's PR pioneers. Having set up consultancy Sterling in 1976, he sold it to Grey Global in 1987, marking the marcoms group's first foray into PR. Wheeler stayed at the helm of the agency, which took on the GCI name in 1990.
GCI soon became an international force and at its peak in 2000, together with public affairs sister firm APCO, pulled in £16.3m in fee income. That year the company grew by 52 per cent and, in bullish mode, acquired healthcare consultancy Maureen Cropper Communications and Delaney PR.
Its UK operation's alumni include Manning Selvage & Lee managing director Nicholas Walters, a former GCI London MD. Firefly founder Claire Walker spent four years at the agency. Wall House Consulting founder Rupert Ashe set up the financial PR practice acquired by Grey in 1997 that later became the ill-fated GCI Financial. And Red Door Communications founder Catherine Warne is a former GCI head of healthcare.
But therein lies one of GCI's major shortcomings. The number of heavy-hitters with a GCI past suggests the agency has had trouble holding on to the right people. Big names have slipped from the company's grasp in recent years with alarming regularity (see box).
Wheeler admits the 2003 closure of GCI Financial after a crash in M&A work meant the group 'took a knock'.
GCI London is now estimated to have around 75 staff. Those in the know say it had around 120 employees in 2001 (US financial reporting rules now prevent the group from commenting on staff, fee and revenue levels).
Whatever the actual staff number and fee income, Wheeler's departure started to look likely following WPP's £734m acquisition of Grey earlier this year. In April, WPP appointed Donna Imperato as global CEO of a new, unnamed holding company that oversees Cohn & Wolfe and GCI. Around the same time, GCI group CEO Bob Feldman joined DreamWorks Animation and was replaced by the agency's Latin American president Jeff Hunt. April also saw the exit of London CEO Sue Ryan after a decade at the agency.
It was unsurprising when C&W managing director Jonathan Shore took over as UK head of the new holding entity in October.
Shore claims that the defection of senior staff since 2000 is not out of step with most big agencies' experience. He says GCI has 'excellent professionals at board level' and argues that the firm's hardworking middle rankers are just as important.
'Does a client want big beasts or relentlessly effective people? You will not recover the investment in new business if you lose it in six months. During a pitch the client will make the grey foxes shut up and interrogate the middle ranks,' Shore says, also referring to GCI's 'strength and depth in all our account teams'.
That is a moot point. GCI's public affairs offering, for example, practically disappeared after the departure of PA chief Rod Cartwright in 2004.
And GCI Healthcare, under Rhonda Smith, is thought to have fallen from a peak of at least 20 staff to around seven.
Lack of publicity
Although the group still boasts some big names on its books, such as British Airways, Dell and Homebase, recent wins such as the British Airports Authority and the government-backed Business Link have not been heavily publicised.
Shore admits GCI has 'hid its light under a bushel'. He describes his job as 'bushel removal'.
But his actual task is more profound. Since taking over the running of GCI, Shore has – it emerges this week – installed former C&W digital director Ginni Arnold as 'ops director'.
Shore is keen to stress that GCI's business directors, who include Smith, Rhodri Harries, David Knowles, Nicola Taylor and Richard Medley, remain in full control of their units.
Arnold, he says, is 'a bit of glue' between him and the team and has not been hired to interfere in the day-to-day running of GCI.
Be that as it may, Shore's position replicates that of Imperato in the US. Based in New York, the latter already overshadows GCI boss Hunt, who is headquartered in Texas.
In the UK, C&W stands to benefit from the scale of GCI's European network, which comprises 30 offices in 20 countries. WPP has publicly ruled out merging GCI with C&W, an idea it has said was 'considered and rejected' given the likely loss of business through client conflict.
But WPP is injecting some of the ruthless efficiency that has made
the marcoms group so successful. Imagining GCI without Wheeler at its helm is difficult. It is now up to Shore to reinvigorate a once great PR brand and recapture its former glory.