Unless you work for Grey, you may not have heard of Ed Meyer, its
septuagenarian worldwide president, chairman and chief executive
officer. He does not court publicity - either through dramatic business
moves or personally. But he controls one of the world's major
advertising groups to a relative degree that no-one else matches and is
- arguably - advertising's richest man.
I failed to ask Ed Meyer two obvious questions, partly because they felt
so desperately British and small-minded. The first was 'what are you
worth?', to which the answer is 'shedloads'. The second was 'what's your
succession?', to which the answer is that he's just signed up for
another five years.
Meyer, somewhat enigmatically, describes Grey as 'semi-public'. This
means that Grey is listed but Meyer retains control. To define control:
Meyer holds 25 to 33 per cent of Grey shares between himself and family
trusts; another third is held by employee share-option schemes over
which he controls the voting rights. The rest are traded on Nasdaq, but
Grey is invulnerable to hostile takeover.
Meyer's worldwide board consists of John Shannon, the president of Grey
International, two non-executive directors and himself. So, when Ed
Meyer says,'You know, I'm not sure the board will buy that idea', he is
being euphemistic. In the last (1996) annual report, Grey declared
pre-tax profits of dollars 65.7 million on revenues of dollars 765.5
million. The dividend has been raised for 22 years in succession.You see
what I mean about those questions?
I interviewed Ed Meyer in Grey London's anonymous Great Portland Street
offices. A pity, because to understand Meyer you need to go to Grey's
monolith on Madison Avenue, over the road from the famous Smith &
Wollensky's, America's most expensive steakhouse. (Meyer owns a stake in
the steakhouse.) It's difficult in parochial London to gauge the
extraordinary power of Grey by its unexceptional local office.
However, I can tell you the interview took 18 months to set up, that
Grey staffers asked in hushed awe, 'You're interviewing Ed Meyer?', and
if ever it was clear that when someone says 'jump' everyone jumps, then
it was clear at Great Portland Street.
Which, of course, helps explain why the search for a successor to the
dep-arted, frustrated Nigel Sharrocks took so long it had to be
abandoned in favour of an interim collective. Make no mistake, Grey is
not St Luke's.
Refreshingly, unlike other London offices of multi-national agencies, it
does not try to be.
You can't be a funky local shop when you are part of a network that
claims more multi-national clients (95) than any other, one thick with
the likes of Procter & Gamble, Smith-Kline Beecham, Mars, BAT, Kraft
Foods and Danone.
Grey's clients know this - they don't want funky, or they'd go
Neutral observers know this. The question is whether local managers can
allow themselves to say they know it too.
However, Meyer, having delivered an utterly convincing explanation of
why the trend of globalisation is quickening, regardless of Coca-Cola,
is adamant that an office can handle global and local business with
'Grey in New York and Germany certainly have both. London probably has a
higher proportion of multi-national business, but there's nothing
inherently that restricts you,' he says with unmistakable steeliness.
'This is a market where there is a greater bifurcation than most between
local and global. But there's no reason why there has to be. We want
I suggest that, in our peculiar marketplace, Grey's reputation as the
ultimate pragmatic agency is one of the reasons he doesn't have so much
of both, to which Meyer retorts: 'It's not the way I'd like to paint the
'But I'd never like to surrender the fact that Grey has a worldwide
reputation for being a marketing-smart agency; a research-sophisticated
agency and a business-producing agency for our clients. I think people
don't see through that to the quality of our creative product, and I'd
like to get a bit more credit for the work we do.'
Meyer is as animated as he gets during the time we spend together. His
emphatic statements belie a slight irritation that he is trotting out
these arguments again. I'm sure he's thinking 'damn limeys'.
'I come to the UK a lot,' Meyer says. 'Frankly, the work we do for Fairy
Liquid should be praised to the sky and it's done for a client (P&G) who
we all know, while they want to get better work, it's hard to sell
better work to.'
When I agree with him, his sharp 'do you?' suggests he was ready for a
fight. He's a fan of London advertising - both his agency's and
It's just as well, because his assessments of the realities within a
global network is as honest as those from any advertising guru get.
Meyer believes there remains a need to service clients in local markets
on the ground, but creative work could come from centres of excellence
such as London. Isn't this disincentivising to smaller offices?
'I don't think you need outstanding and forceful creative departments in
97 countries. Sometimes you're better off recognising centres of
A tip of the hat to London - sometimes you're better off using the
'Instead of this being disincentivising for the smaller countries, you
say to them, 'go out and get local business'. That's what they all want
to do, isn't it?'
Meyer declares he is happy to run other agencies' creative work, with
Grey as a handling network - an admission other agency bosses would be
wary of. While acknowledging, 'I'd rather do it myself', he simply views
such requests as business opportunities.
Talk to Meyer, and the 'crazy bifurcation' in the London market between
businessman and adman disappears. He does care about quality of the work
and about new-business initiatives such as interactive media, but not in
a show-off-to-his-mates kind of way. They are a means to a business end.
Meyer is the client's archetypal business partner.
It is evident in the trust P&G places in him. We spoke before P&G's
firing of Wells BDDP, which precipitated the GGT fire sale to Omnicom.
As a result, Grey quietly picked up the dollars 30 million Pringles
business. Small wonder Meyer enthuses, making reference to the variety
of work Grey does for the client in response to the suggestion of a
threat posed by management consultants.
'What can P&G's Cover Girl do on the Web? We came up with the whole idea
of that cosmetic counselling you get in stores. That's a strategic
What element does interactivity give you that's different?
'Interactive is burgeoning. We are doing transaction work for Dell,
we're doing Website work for P&G - we're developing new paradigms for
clients. We don't need the technologists who can do the coding. It's the
page that you can see. This is strategy and execution.
'I look at consultants as yet another competitor. We must defend the
strategy part of our business. But we are taking the fight to
consultants, with companies like Brand Futures, more than most in the
It's a typical response. Unlike so many of the smaller-sized prophets of
doom Campaign meets, Meyer's self-belief allows him to see a new growth
opportunity at every turn.
'We live in an age of outsourcing and, frankly, communications
activities -from company reports to internal communications - are not
the core skills of the manufacturers of the world. They're not going to
outsource the production of the widget they make, but they will ask 'why
the hell are we printing these booklets saying what a great company we
are? Can't we get someone else to do that? We've got eight people in
It's delivered with the matter-of-fact confidence of a businessman who
understands his global business, and has the unchallenged authority to
take decisions based on that understanding. This is Meyer at his best,
sure enough of his ground to reveal the odd flash of humour. Take the
crash in Asia.
'You have to smile because now American executives are saying it really
won't affect us very much because the rest of the world is 92 per cent
of our business, which is probably true, but they were saying yesterday
that this is 8 per cent of our business and it's growing like that.
Listen, if England or Germany went down, I'd be in despair and walking
on a ledge.
I feel sorry for my people in Asia, but it's not yet a tragedy for
'The real issue is Japan. If the second-largest economy in the world
goes down, then the knock-on effects will cause us problems. It's not as
if Asia has sunk below the waves. There will be a mom-entary problem
but, over a 20-year period, it will still be our fastest-growing
Meyer remains frighteningly hands-on. He is challengingly on top of
subjects ranging from healthcare agencies, and other booming
below-the-line sectors, to a view that the future growth of MediaCom
lies in developing global proprietary software programmes.
Yet even Meyer has no answer to the client community's
growth-restricting obsession with conflict. Therefore, with Wall Street
off his back and safely sitting atop a cash mountain after 20
consecutive years of profits growth, you might think an acquisition
would be on the cards.
'A lot of 80s acquisitions were done for reasons I didn't understand,'
he concedes. 'They were done at too headlong a pace, and there wasn't
enough experience of how to manage some of the companies that were
created. Now the paradigm of how to build those com-panies is a little
clearer it's a valid way to go. But I'm still excited about building out
Grey. As you know, we have had discussions but it's not an essential
part of our strategy.'
That strategy is to continue to grow quietly but inexorably as the key
business partner of as many global clients as possible.
It is helped by a level of senior staff retention that is the envy of
Meyer's rivals. All this, despite his penchant for horse-trading over
every pay rise - in fact, in everything he does.
'If you want a 10 per cent rise, you know you have to ask for 15. And
then you will probably have to negotiate the date of the increase,' one
phlegmatic Grey employee says.
Viewed from London where nearly everyone, big and small, tries to sell
themselves as the sexy local boutique, Meyer at least has a clear
It's not to everyone's taste, of course. Grey has found that, in London,
pragmatism has been a deterrent to some of the very top talents, and to
local clients looking for more creative risk-taking.
But Grey is the product of Meyer's relentless drive to succeed in
business - a drive few in the London community (outside Martin Sorrell)
It brings with it a different definition of what's sexy. Decades of
success in advertising leave him confident about the future.
'As Roger Edwards (Grey's European chief executive) is doing here, we
must project that we're not just about the old definition of the ad
agency. There's no doubt that if I called in a management consultant
they would advise me in all seriousness to drop the advertising name
everywhere - but, you know, I've got a lot of stationery.'
This success is achieved at some cost. Despite the fabulous house in the
Hamptons and the condo in Florida, Meyer never takes holidays.
In fact, he's been known to telephone employees and express surprise
that they themselves have found the time to take holidays.
Instead, he's to be found at his favourite restaurant in New York, the
21 Club. Arguably the best networked man in US advertising, it can take
him 20 minutes to get to his regular table. He knows the business,
cultural and political elite of American society. Photos of Meyer with
presidents and business leaders adorn his office.
It is also true that he has an enthus-iasm for the more mundane, less
high-profile parts of the marketing services business, unmatched in my
experience. That's possibly down to the fact that 40 per cent and rising
of Grey's fortunes derive from these areas. And, as we have established
beyond doubt: Grey's fortunes are Ed Meyer's fortunes.
It's small wonder, then, that a Grey insider confided: 'Meyer can't
retire; he mainlines his job. He is drug-dependent and needs his
Ed Meyer is a one-off. He even genially volunteered his own headline for
this piece: 'Hey, how about calling it 'the Benign Dictator'?'
- This interview appeared in February 1998 and Meyer remains Grey's
chairman, president and CEO. Grey is still independent but is the
subject of constant rumours.