For those who savour being able to say 'I told you so', the news
that Martin Smith has stepped down from the chairman's position at Grey
Worldwide London has a certain poetic justice to it. For a little over a
year ago, the sight of an agency that is largely about grinding out
process-driven work for process-driven clients hiring a veteran of an
creative agency had the sceptics chortling. As did the notion of a
lasting partnership between the calm, contemplative Smith and Grey's
more volatile creative leader, Tim Mellors.
Grey is seen, after all, as one of those agencies that turns out
sometimes good but usually forgettable work for the rewards it brings in
to its New York financial centre. Given the choice of agreeing with the
client or kissing so many million dollars goodbye, it's easy enough to
guess which way Grey would lean. Advertising, after all, is a business,
and if there are some small qualms about expediency and compromise,
these can also be soothed in one way or another.
Like considering, perhaps, that Grey's worldwide chairman, Ed Meyer, is
the highest paid man in advertising.
That may sound too simplistic and it certainly sounds unkind to an
agency that has made some radical environmental and structural changes
in recent years, but what other conclusion can be drawn? To continue the
simplistic line of thought, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, where Smith spent most
of his career, continues to be one of the most stoutly independent of
creative agencies, despite its deal with Leo Burnett. Plucking Smith
from that environment and putting him into the more profit-driven
climate of Grey was a supreme example of miscasting.
And yet the hiring undoubtedly had a certain military logic to it, on
paper at least. A year ago, Grey urgently needed a top suit as Steve
Blamer had been recalled a year early to take over the network's crucial
New York office. Smith, for his part, had been at BBH for 18 years and
was one of many, perhaps too many, senior managers there. After that
long with a single agency - punctuated by making a small fortune when
BBH sold a minority stake to Leo Burnett - you either know you are
valued as part of the furniture or you are encouraged to believe that
you should go and run something on your own.
Now Mellors, a veteran of many a previous political skirmish, steps into
the top role as the creative director and chairman of Grey London and
the search is on for another top suit to bolster the agency's
Mellors is one of those creatives who works best with an old hand with
big agency experience by his side. But where to find such a saint?
Saatchis had to go to New Zealand to find its equivalent in James Hall,
Grey itself went to the US to find Blamer, J. Walter Thompson also went
to the US to find Simon Bolton. Going outside London looks inevitable.