Grey works to turn around creative reputation

Chairman Ed Meyer wants to challenge the local perception that Grey means grey. James Hamilton examines the evidence.

If Jim Heekin's appointment to chief executive of the Grey Network and heir-apparent to the chairmanship of the Grey Global Group was meant to signal the start of a slowdown in Ed Meyer's diary, no-one told the 78-year-old Grey Global Group chairman.

On a hot summer's day in New York,when Meyer would be better off up-state, practising for his much-predicted retirement, he is in the office, surveying his domain.

The world isn't kind when it comes to Grey. Lick a finger, hold it up to the industry wind and whatever continent you are in, you will feel a similar chill. "Deeply unexciting," a UK chief executive says. "Lacklustre," a US network chief says. "Workmanlike," is the judgment of the Asian jury.

The problem with Grey, they all say, is that while its geographical coverage and account handling are laudable - second to none, even, in the latter's case - its creative reputation is, well, grey.

"I think that's fair," Meyer says. "Most large agencies seem to have something of the same problem, though, because we have allowed the boutiques to grab the mantle of creative brilliance. But that's all they have to sell."

Meyer, Heekin and their regional network chiefs know the group's major challenge is to raise the creative bar. This is not something Heekin was famous for at his former homes, McCann Erickson and Euro RSCG. Achieve that, and Grey could take up a leading position within WPP to handle some accounts that Sir Martin Sorrell would have problems placing elsewhere.

A decent-sized car account would be nice; a further tranche of Publicis Groupe's Procter & Gamble business would be nicer.

Meyer argues Grey's creative reputation has more to do with perception than reality. "We are more than poised creatively; we are already on the road to improving our creative reputation," he says.

Some markets are further down that road than others, however. While New York, under the creative watch of Tim Mellors, is starting to win awards and turn heads (it took home a Lion at Cannes this year for its work on Dairy Queen), Asia is lagging. Seriously.

Based on its creative work in the region, Grey came a 22nd in a field of 22 in Media Asia's Top Creative Agencies report last year. It went on to score five out of ten for its overall performance, down from seven the previous year.

Add to that the imminent departure of the Grey China chief executive, Viveca Chan, rumoured to be taking a healthy slice of talent from her Shanghai office with her, and Mike Amour, the Grey Global Group chairman and chief executive for Asia, has his work cut out.

Amour is bullish, though. He has appointed Todd McCracken, the creative director of Grey's New Zealand office, as creative chief for the region.

New-business wins in the form of Axa (Australia), Volkswagen (China) and GE Money (India) are coming in and, he says, Chan's departure is already covered by the appointment of Dennis Wong, the former Leo Burnett China and Hong Kong chief.

"It's not a crisis, it's an opportunity," Amour says. "One of our big strengths out here is the entrepreneurial spirit within Grey. The real challenge is channelling that."

But he does concede that Grey has to raise its creative game in Asia.

"We've been doing really well creatively in India and New Zealand but we have slipped every year," Amour says. "We need to improve creative abilities in Thailand and Singapore - they are the real key drive markets."

Head west and the network starts to look healthier. Carolyn Carter, the president and chief executive of Grey EMEA, points to a string of wins that, she says, have more than compensated for the loss of the global Mars business. They are AOL in the UK, Deutsche Bank in Germany and Toys R Us and Ikea in Denmark, one of Grey's creative bastions in Europe.

Through Callegari Berville Grey, its Paris base, the network is making in-roads into the fashion market, and Grey Worldwide Denmark and Finland maintain their tight grip on the Nokia business.

"This is Grey turning the corner," Carter says, not betraying a hint of the disappointment she is rumoured to have felt at not being given the global chief's job. "We have had some tough years in the no-growth economy, especially in Germany, but this is the beginning of the upward curve."

She agrees that Grey Europe, in common with the US, is judged more on reputation than reality. The twin perceptions - that the network is choked by servicing global accounts and that the resulting work lacks any real bite - do not stand up to scrutiny.

She concedes that the UK has a higher proportion of international accounts - a natural result of so much of the European business being hubbed out of the UK - but adds: "That's atypical across Europe as a whole. Our network average across EMEA is only 35 per cent global."

Carter is also looking to change the Grey culture when it comes to entering ads for awards, a sentiment echoed by Mellors, the Grey North American creative chief. "Everybody is always bullshitting that they are putting creative first, but that's what I'm doing here now," he says, pointing to the WPP internal competition in which the winning creatives gain WPP shares. "WPP has a 'most improved agency' award and it's my aim to win that this year for the New York office," he adds.

Fittingly, Meyer has the last word. "We are no longer grey, creatively. We're iridescent. It's what we intend to keep doing. I want Grey to be seen as one of the few large agencies with a dramatic creative reputation. I know Heekin is committed to the same goals. That's where the opportunity is."

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