Close-Up: Live Issue - How Lace's ambition was too great for the confines of Grey

John Tylee asks if Grey can capitalise on the progress kick-started by Garry Lace.

Grey hired Garry Lace to give its London agency a profile. It certainly has one now. However, it's not quite the image Grey bargained for when it signed him as the chief executive at the end of 2002.

Sixteen eventful months on, the relationship has ended with all the melodrama that's come to be associated with the flamboyant cheeky chappie who always said that he was constrained only by his own ambition.

Now, with his abrupt exit, onlookers are asking whether that desire for fame and fortune will prove his undoing.

"Garry is Icarus," one of his former colleagues remarks. "He's flown too close to the sun and got his wings burned."

The infamous e-mail - which claimed Lace was leaving to set up a loyalty scheme with Drew Thomson, the Air Miles managing director, something both men have denied - shows someone has not only got mad with him but got even.

Lace, 36, is a contradiction, making much of the youthfulness of his staff while pursuing the kind of sybaritic and loadsamoney lifestyle that is a throwback to Saatchi & Saatchi in the 80s when he was a graduate trainee.

The conspicuous consumption at his rented villa during the Cannes Advertising Festival is legendary along with last year's agency party, a heaving display of largesse to which the entire UK ad industry, and their dogs, seemed to have had an invitation.

His complex character is bound to raise questions about whether or not Grey knew what it was doing when it made its jaw-dropping announcement in October 2002 that Lace, then the chief executive of TBWA\London, was taking charge at Great Portland Street.

Carolyn Carter, the Grey Global Group president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, was determined that the London office should have a better domestic profile to balance a client list too heavily dominated by Grey's core global clients - Mars, Procter & Gamble and GlaxoSmithKline.

Indeed, there was a belief that Grey had evolved into an extension of those clients and, in doing so, had lost its culture. "We'd become a backwater," as a one-time agency manager puts it.

It had tried and failed with Martin Smith, the former Bartle Bogle Hegarty deputy chairman, whose tenure of the top job lasted little more than a year. Neither had its Mellors Reay acquisition in 1998 succeeded in building a stronger UK profile.

In hiring Lace, so at odds with Grey culture, Carter took a gamble. As the head of one of the most creatively potent agencies in the country and with a reputation as a new-business getter, you can see the attraction.

Equally important, as far as Grey was concerned, was his skill at generating positive PR.

What's more, Grey was prepared to fork out big time to tempt its target. A remuneration package rumoured to be approaching £800,000 was a huge sweetener to be sure but Grey senior managers drew comfort from the fact the new man was coming in very much on his own terms.

Sweeping reforms certainly suggested Lace had been given carte blanche.

A fifth of the workforce was axed and the board disbanded. Meanwhile, the new boss was allowed a substantial war chest to assemble a coterie of star thirtysomething managers to lead the agency through its catharsis.

Dave Alberts (executive creative director), Dylan Williams (executive planning director), Chris Hirst (managing director) and Nicola Mendelsohn (head of new business) are said to account for a significant amount of Grey's current salary bill.

Lace had a clear vision that he communicated ably with both staff and journalists. This vision paid unusually immediate dividends. Within four months, Grey had not only defended its Dairy Crest business in a pitch but also exited with Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's share of the billings.

Lace's friendship with Thomson paid off and the agency picked up the brief to relaunch Air Miles. Most impressive of all, it won the £30 million AOL account.

This was the first significant domestic win for Grey for several years and was testament to Lace's and his newly assembled team's energy and talent.

Energy such as Lace's comes at a price and in his case it has transpired to be relentless ambition. On one occasion, while chatting to a group of his senior managers, he joked that if he fulfilled the new-business targets set for him, the agency should be renamed Grey Lace & Partners.

On another occasion, he laughingly suggested the possibility of making a takeover bid for the network.

His ambition is not harnessed by a commitment to the advertising industry.

He displayed this when he entered into talks about the loyalty scheme venture with Thomson, talks which may indeed still bear fruit.

But where does this leave Grey? It has promoted Alberts to chairman and Carter is expected to spend the next few months searching for a group chief executive. Having had her fingers burned by attempting to bring colour to the agency via Lace, most expect Carter to settle on a Procter & Gamble-friendly, conservative manager.


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