It's been a wretched few weeks for Martin Smith. As if having to
wear a neck brace after surgery wasn't enough, there was the shock of
the sudden death of his old Cambridge pal Douglas Hitchhiker's Guide to
the Galaxy Adams.
But even that was trumped by last week's events at Grey Worldwide London
that led to his swift exit, some enforced "gardening leave" and - no
doubt - some serious self-examination by both the fallen chief executive
and the agency itself.
Smith and Grey never looked like a marriage made in heaven when his
appointment was announced 13 months ago. Now the results of
transplanting somebody from an agency such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty,
where creativity is king, to one where the bottom line is paramount have
become painfully apparent.
Some believe Smith - described by one associate as "almost too nice for
his own good" - never stood a chance. And certainly not at Grey, which,
in the words of one ex-senior manager, is "a political snakepit where
you have to be a jungle fighter to survive".
Who was to blame for this mismatch will be debated long after Smith has
negotiated his pay-off. Was it Grey, now paying the price for its
hastiness in filling Steve Blamer's vacant seat? Or was it Smith, who
set himself an impossible challenge?
Money appears to be at the root of it all. Ed Meyer, Grey's
septuagenarian autocrat owner, expects all his agency chiefs to share
his passion for it and woe betide anybody who can't get their head
around the figures.
"If you don't know the numbers when you're presenting to Ed, he'll
barbecue you," a former Grey senior manager warns. "It's a horrible
thing to witness."
Reports suggest Smith's position began to be questioned at a review
meeting around the turn of the year between himself, Meyer and the
network's chief money man, Steve Felcher. Having heard his London chief
executive advocate a relaunch, a creative refocusing and a renewed
emphasis on domestic business, Meyer was said to have been less than
impressed with the sketchiness of the financial report presented to
Smith's apologists argue that his background was not as a financial
manager and that Grey should have known it. A one-time copywriter at the
then Ogilvy Benson & Mather before switching to account management,
Smith's preoccupation was always with ads rather than balance
Even as managing director at BBH, his emphasis was on developing client
relationships and ensuring the effective management of the creative
department, while relying on financial input from two of the agency's
shrewdest operators - Nigel Bogle, the chairman, and Simon Sherwood, the
group managing director.
However, Smith's opportunities at BBH appeared to be narrowing.
Contemporaries talk of his increased detachment from key individuals and
core clients -"He'd been there a long time and done everything," one
recalls - and a settled family life that made him reluctant to further
his career abroad.
At Grey, Tim Mellors, the chief creative officer and managing partner,
was hoping Smith would sprinkle some BBH magic dust across an agency
dominated by blue-chip, internationally aligned FMCG clients and in
desperate need of more domestic business to counterbalance it.
What Smith hadn't bargained for was the political cauldron he was
entering, which would finally leave him out in the cold. Meyer still
rules the roost and gives no sign of choosing between the leading
candidates to succeed him.
Blamer is said to be vying for the job with Carolyn Carter, the
president of Grey Worldwide Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She is
described as "extremely driven, focused, clinical and every mother's
idea of what a career woman should be" by one of her former senior
staffers. She called the final meeting with Smith that ended in his
Critics of Meyer's management style blame it for causing division and
factionalism. "Those who are in with Ed do well," a former network
manager alleges. "Because he can topple anybody at any time it makes
everyone behave badly."
Mellors, who has come to play an increasingly pivotal role at Grey since
it swallowed Mellors Reay at the end of 1998, is seen as an instinctive
survivor. Those who know him say he will see his time at Grey through to
its twilight, not least because of a salary said to be in the region of
pounds 400,000. "Tim's big concern is that he makes his final exit with
dignity and his reputation intact," a former associate says.
Meanwhile, the question of a replacement management partner to work
alongside Mellors must be resolved.
He says it should be someone with lots of big agency experience, and
admits the selection process may take some time.
Some believe it may have to be somebody with whom Mellors has worked
before and who understands his ways. "If you don't have someone who
relates with Tim you have a dysfunctional relationship from the start,"
a director of one of his previous agencies comments. "But it's not an
easy balance to strike in a tightly run international network."
Whether or not Grey's attempt to gain a creative reputation will survive
Smith's departure is an open question. While Mellors' declared intent is
a gradual raising of creative standards across the board, Steve
Richards, the abrasive, newly appointed managing director, is said to be
more preoccupied with profits.
"I think the emphasis on creativity will stop for the time being while
the agency sorts itself out," a former senior London staffer says. "I
don't think you'll be hearing much about them for a while."