Close-Up: Live Issue - Can Heekin reshape Meyer's empire?

The new boss of Grey must bring it out from Meyer's shadow and into the present.

The idea of Jim Heekin being the boss of the Grey network will take a while for a lot of people to get their heads around.

Grey has been Ed Meyer's personal fiefdom since God was in short trousers and the group has reflected his personality in a way that's almost unique. The upside is that Grey has strong and enduring relationships at the highest level with some of the world's biggest blue-chip clients.

The downside is that Grey is perceived as conducting itself in a way more suited to the 70s and 80s. What's more, it's seen as having created a network where senior managers became preoccupied with pleasing their elderly chief at the expense of personal initiatives.

"The problem with Grey is that everybody spends their time trying to locate Meyer's G-spot and trying to lick it," a former senior executive says. "That was the corporate agenda. It wasn't about improving quality."

Now, at 78, time is catching up with Meyer, who is expected to step down when his contract runs out next year. His departure will bring down the curtain on a leadership defined by "divide and rule" tactics in which the succession was always an open question.

In Heekin, 56, Grey has an experienced Madison Avenue adman who fits comfortably with its US-centric clients, most notably Procter & Gamble.

However, his last two big jobs, at McCann WorldGroup and the Havas-owned Euro RSCG Worldwide, ended less than happily. His appointment will be seen by some as a reflection of the small pool of top talent available.

Heekin's challenge at Grey is formidable. He must reshape and redefine the role of a group where Meyer has long retained a tight hold on the purse strings and where the main function of its foreign outposts has been to service Grey's multinational clients.

The situation poses fundamental questions. Should Heekin decentralise control in favour of a more federal system? If he does, what effect will that have on Grey's culture? Should he inject fresh blood at senior level, where managers in their 60s are not uncommon?

And, most crucially of all, what is Grey's role within Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP empire? Some onlookers believe it should do what it does best, only better. That is, service complex multinational accounts across a range of markets and bring its creative potency into line with its account handling skills.

One of Heekin's first calls after news of his appointment broke was to Carolyn Carter, the London-based president and chief executive of Grey Europe, who had been seen as the leading internal candidate to succeed Meyer. Credited with raising creative standards and sorting out next-generation management at Grey offices around Europe, Carter is said to have been hugely disappointed not to get job. However, some suggest she may see WPP as an opportunity to fulfil her ambitions. "I hope she'll stay," Heekin says. "I think she will."

For his part, Heekin puts Meyer alongside David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach as one of those strong leaders who have helped their agencies reap huge benefits.

"Over the past 30 years, Grey has been a remarkably consistent performer," he says. "It hasn't suffered the peaks and troughs that other agency brands have been through. That's no mean achievement and I want to ensure it continues."

- Opinion, page 16

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FORMER CHAIRMAN - Roger Edwards, former chairman, Grey London

"Grey has been Ed Meyer's personal shop for so long, he thinks he alone knows how to run it. Local initiatives have been discouraged because all major decisions are taken in New York. Meyer always kept a tight hold on the purse strings. Heekin will have some unravelling to do if he is to get margins quadrupled.

"As he does so, he must show leadership. Too many managers are past their sell-by date. Not surprising, when they all seem like trainees compared with Meyer.

"There's certainly a place for Grey within WPP. It may not have the creative edge of JWT and Ogilvy & Mather, but it has a level of professionalism the others don't necessarily match."

ANALYST - Steve Govey, head of advertising and marketing, Baker Tilley

"The challenge faced by Jim Heekin isn't so different from that facing any other agency network. The decline in the effectiveness of TV ads and the rise of digital are problems for everybody. In Grey's case, they are particularly acute because of Ed Meyer's age and management style. The network isn't seen as growing or dynamic. Not that Heekin is exactly a youngster either.

"I'm sure WPP has no intention of collapsing Grey. It has paid a lot of money for the group, which has an established reputation for handling blue-chip brands very well. I think this is where Grey's future lies."

CONSULTANT - David Wethey, chairman, Agency Assessments International

"The big question for Grey under Heekin is whether it will be a continuum of what's gone before, or turn into something new. The likelihood is that it will change. Just look at how different Young & Rubicam has become since Sorrell bought it.

"Not everybody is enthusiastic about Heekin, but I'm a fan. He's a seasoned, tough and professional manager who suffered as a result of a political situation at Havas, which wasn't of his making.

"Under Heekin, Grey can become to WPP what Leo Burnett is to Publicis Groupe - efficient, trusted by big clients, not trying to get a headline every five minutes and not preoccupied with new business."

CLIENT - John Clarke, president of futures group, GlaxoSmithKline

"What can Jim Heekin do to keep us happy? Just give us the best creative people he can find. We've had a long, successful relationship with Grey and we appreciate its business-like approach to creativity. We're not interested in awards, but we've never believed there's any such thing as a perfect piece of creativity.

"I think Heekin's big challenge will be in new media.Total media solutions are slower coming than they should be.

"As far as being a WPP client is concerned, we think it will benefit us as long as the work we get doesn't become bland. We'll be keeping a close eye on that."