When Steve Blamer first walked through the doors of Grey London in
May 1998 as its new chief executive, everyone wanted a piece of him.
Clients, colleagues, rivals and journalists all demanded to know his
How was he going to turn the agency’s fortunes around and make it a
place where business fell through the door and where people would be
happy to work?
They weren’t just talking about changing the pictures hanging in
reception (although Blamer did that too). They wanted to know how Grey -
an agency perceived as being fat, stodgy and slow - could become fast,
responsive and creatively focused.
Last week Campaign broke the news that, two years into his three- year
tenure, London is losing Blamer. He’s been drafted in by Ed Meyer,
Grey’s worldwide boss, to run the New York operation.
Blamer refused to comment on the story other than to say its timing was
premature and his lips remain shut on many of the specifics surrounding
Grey is adamant that the move has not been prompted by a poor set of
results for 1999 from New York but while Grey’s biggest network office
boosted net income in the fourth quarter, it also suffered a big drop
over the year. Net income of dollars 6.4 million was down a staggering
75.3 per cent from 1998.
Tighter controls on commission from Procter & Gamble and high staff
levels - 1,800 employees spread over 36 floors in New York - are thought
to be two of the biggest contributors.
Clearly there is a job to be done in New York and Blamer is perceived as
the only person in the company who has the necessary local office
management exper-ience. While London’s fortunes are on the turn, is the
task he set out to do in the capital really complete?
Grey will have you believe that London is the talk of the network - out
of the red and into the black - with a creative profile to be admired
and a whole host of beneficial changes that are working a treat.
The agency is doing so well, it claims, that many of Blamer’s changes
may be duplicated elsewhere in the network. Unfortunately no-one is
confident enough to put any of this on the record.
The agency holds the number one slot in Campaign’s new-business league
after a shower of new- business wins including Dairy Crest, Posthouse,
Shop-Smart and Findus. Earlier this month it also pulled in the pounds
30 million global Twix account from Mars. Its total billings gain stands
at pounds 36.5 million with no recorded losses this year.
Blamer has restructured the old monolithic agency into a company where
five ’agencies within agencies’ are working to combine the intimacy of
small shops with big agency expertise.
He pledged to improve Grey London’s account management skills and
subsequently introduced a task force of veteran account directors to
coach less experienced staff. Then he spear-headed the launch of Grey’s
Roger Edwards, Grey London’s former group chairman who was responsible
for hiring Blamer, describes him as ’very determined, bright and
committed to change. He is a straight operator who has 100 per cent
support from New York. No other man achieved that’.
Others are less complimentary about Blamer’s hardline style.
Matthew Clark, the former commercial director at Grey who now works at
Mother, describes Blamer as ’a man who is totally driven by climbing the
corporate ladder. The whole thing is about impressing Meyer.’
Personal preferences aside, the 43-year-old Californian helped the
agency to win its place on the global Mars roster in 1991 and has also
been credited with the dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of its Los
Blamer’s career in advertising began in 1979 when he joined Foote Cone &
Belding in Chicago. Three years later he moved to Needham Harper &
Steers, and then rejoined FCB in California.
After FCB, he worked at the soft drinks company Capri Sun before
starting up his own soft drinks business which he later sold.
He joined Grey’s Los Angeles office in 1989 as the new-business
director, rising to managing director, and has been with the agency ever
On joining Grey London, Blamer worked closely with the management
consultant Mike Farmer - who was originally brought in under Edwards -
and assisted on a wide analysis of the agency and its efficiency.
’I have seen very few advertising executives with such a clean view of
the steps needed to make changes, not just in terms of having the
inspiration but the power to communicate them. Blamer sees the full
picture from a management standpoint,’ Farmer says.
The pair worked closely across five key areas: how to decompartmentalise
the agency so that different disciplines could work more freely
together; an assessment of how many staff the agency should lose to
improve profitabil-ity; the integration of the Grey-owned Mellors Reay;
productivity and time management and how to communicate these changes to
the whole network.
’Blamer has turned the agency around,’ Farmer declares.
But a number of observers will be critical of some of Grey’s wins this
year. Three of its biggest nets were dotcom businesses and Twix and
Clover came from existing clients. Big blue-chip domestic business still
needs to be conquered and, in the past year, Grey has lost DHL, Oxy,
Anadin, Mr Kipling and Skoda.
If everything is as comfortable as Grey would have you believe, why is
there no successor in place to take on management responsibilities?
While there might be several names in the frame, no one person stands
above the rest as the natural choice.
Again, Grey is not being specific but has denied that Richard Pinder,
the former Ogilvy & Mather managing director, and Piers Yeld, who is
based in Brussels and runs Grey’s P&G Europe business, are in the
The only name that doesn’t get a flat denial is Tim Mellors, Grey’s
executive creative director. The question may be whether he actually
wants the job.
Many would say it’s too early for Mellors to take on the top job -
himself included - but at least he would represent continuity.
Another option would be for Grey to import another American to work
under Mellors, alongside the managing directors of the internal
The most difficult hiring would be one from outside the network. It
would run the risk of upsetting clients and would mean a new learning
curve for the candidate and his American bosses.
The only sure thing is that Blamer’s successor will need to look to the
future, not the past