WPP’s Grey Group today announced its most significant leadership change in more than a decade, promoting Michael Houston to the global chief executive officer role.
Houston will oversee all of the network’s 430-plus offices and approximately 6,500 employees around the world. His predecessor Jim Heekin, who became CEO of Grey Group in 2005 and chairman the following year, will step into the executive chairman role, effective immediately.
The news comes on Grey’s centennial. Larry Valenstein and Arthur Fatt started the company as Grey Studios in August 1917.
Moving Grey into its second century
“One hundred years ago today, Grey opened its doors in New York,” wrote Heekin in a memo that went out to all staff this morning. “The Centennial has been a time to reflect on our extraordinary journey and look to the future. As we celebrate our anniversary, and a decade of record growth and creative performance, the time is right for the elevation of a new generation.”
Heekin went on to praise Houston’s “personal qualities and business achievements,” adding, “It has been a pleasure to watch him grow to become one of our most dynamic and talented leaders. He has an innate ability to bring out the best in people, both his colleagues and clients alike.”
“One of the things we will take forward [after 100 years] is that Grey has always been a highly strategic agency,” Houston told Adweek while reflecting on his decade-long tenure (he joined Grey as a global chief marketing officer in 2007). “This isn’t a knee-jerk response or appointment based on some necessity or weakness. This is part of a strategic plan that [Heekin], myself and the rest of our management have been working on for over a year.”
The plan followed last year’s launch of the Grey Brand Experience Group, which established four divisions to sort the network’s services by disciplines like shopper marketing, activations and mobile. Three months earlier, Houston became the group’s global president after serving as North American CEO.
Since then, Grey has made a number of promotions around the world, naming new executives to lead its African, European and Latin American networks while promoting Debby Reiner to CEO of its New York headquarters and hiring John Patroulis of BBH to replace departed chief creative officer Tor Myhren, who went to Apple in 2015.
“It’s been an invigorating, rewarding ride for the past 10 years,” Houston said, “and now we’re putting the team in place for the next [decade].”
Expanding definitions of creativity and success
When asked whether Grey would be the latest in a line of agencies to go through a large-scale restructuring, Houston said, “There will be no 17-page memo coming up anytime soon.” Still, he hinted at potentially “evolved structures” that would help Grey become more “indispensable to clients.”
“We need to offer more solutions that really speak to the way consumers are living their lives today: more experiential and immersive,” he added.
To Houston, that means “[opening] our aperture regarding creativity and our definition of it.”
“What you’ll notice from us in the future is that one size fits all no longer works,” he said, adding that Grey has been expanding its Brand Experience approach to every region it serves and that these groups will look and operate differently so as to cater more effectively to the populations in their respective areas. He also noted forthcoming partnerships with other WPP agencies around the world, stating that “Grey merges with agency X” announcements will be far less likely than news about the agency working with a sister shop to develop client-specific offerings.
“We have every intention of being here in 100 years … but we must give something to consumers rather than just communicating a message,” he said of the changing definition of success for contemporary ad agencies. “We didn’t hire [Patroulis] to tighten up our 30-second TV spots. … It’s really about looking at how the creativity manifests itself.”
Asked to identify Grey’s competitors, Houston said a shorter list would consist of organizations that don’t fit that description. “Everyone feels pressure to evolve, and in terms of direct competitors, I look at anyone who shows a great agility and speed in their evolution,” he said.
“There is no silver bullet or single way, but we’re all headed to the same place,” he added, describing a market filled with “frenemies” that can include everything from fellow legacy shops to “pure-play digital agencies,” media companies and tech platforms. Houston said he has confidence in the quality of Grey’s output relative to other holding company-owned networks. “A few days ago, while talking to a consultant,” he said, “I wondered at what point the creative product actually became the commodity.”
The right time for a change
“One cold December night I will never forget was 11 years ago when [former Grey chairman and CEO] Ed Meyer walked out,” Heekin told Adweek. “That was it—but that’s not the way I want to do it.”
The 30-plus-year industry veteran cited Grey’s recent global Revlon win, in which he played a pivotal role, when explaining that he plans to stay engaged with day-to-day operations and maintain his close working relationship with Houston while ceding ultimate authority to the new CEO.
“My 12 years have been a transformation period—a rebuild, if you will—at Grey,” he said, calling his tenure “the culmination of my career” and adding, “The rise in our creative reputation is the single thing I’m most proud of. No one gave Grey a shot.”
“I just feel damn good about it—I really do,” Heekins said.
At 45, Houston is one of the youngest chief executives in the ad industry. He is also the only African American currently leading a top 10, holding company-owned agency, and he believes that gathering a group informed by different experiences will be a key part of helping Grey retain its competitive edge.
“In many regards, the industry uses diversity as a throwaway term,” Houston said, and he hopes agencies like his can move away from quota-based hiring. “If we are in the business of creativity, and we define that as putting two or more things together that have previously never been together, then from a business case, it calls for different perspectives.”
He continued, “This has traditionally been a business for white, privileged men. What changes do we have to make at the root to pave the way for people who may have come from more modest places?”
Houston went on to say he plans to focus on ensuring that his organization addresses racial, gender and age disparities rather than “glossing over them.”
“Those people [who do not believe in diversity] will be left outside,” he said.
The next 5 years
As the newly promoted CEO tells it, the first half of Grey’s life to date was about turning Valenstein and Fatt’s project into a sustainable organization. For the following four decades, Meyer worked to make that network global before selling to WPP in 2005.
“The next 10 years were where Jim came in, and he very squarely had his eye on creativity,” Houston said. “The coming five years—not that I will only be around for five—are about redefining and opening the definition of what is creative. There’s a greater urgency around what we need to do today than we’ve ever had in our history. And the time line is shrinking.”