How This Man Duped a String of Ad Agencies and Almost Got Away With It

Serial fraudster Bill Grizack said exactly what they wanted to hear

The advertising model was broken, and Bill Grizack knew how to fix it.

"At The Variable, it was my job to invent the future of creative advertising strategy," his LinkedIn profile boasted. "I developed the staff and the technology that leveraged big data into meaningful creative insights, and built a creative team that new [sic] how to use those insights to create brilliant work."

Switching to the third person, he wrote: "One of the luckiest periods in his life was working on both Coca-Cola and Jack Daniel's at the same time. For a man that went to college in the Southeast, there isn't much better than that."

Those statements, like so many others made by Bill Grizack, were lies.

Last month, North Carolina Superior Court Judge John O. Craig sentenced the former agency partner and chief strategy officer to 57 to 81 months in prison for defrauding The Variable (formerly known as PAVE Advertising) and McKinney by faking a series of contracts with the Coca-Cola Co. and Brown-Forman that were supposed to be worth $269.9 million.

During the sentencing hearing, defense attorney Bernard Desrosiers conceded that the primary motivation for Grizack's crimes was greed, compounded by an insatiable desire for approval. The man best known as "Griz" continued scoring high-level jobs years after being fired for fraud, thanks in part to an industry desperate for the very sort of data-driven solutions promoted by someone who called himself "a bundle of frenetic ideas stuffed into a cannon and shot through a particle accelerator."

His actions ultimately rattled an international agency holding company, caused two businesses to suffer a combined $4 million in losses, affected seven shops across the United States and destroyed dozens of jobs. The causes were many, but a common thread throughout this story is a lack of due diligence. (Grizack's lawyer said his client was unavailable to speak with Adweek.)

Here's how it all came to pass.

Auspicious beginnings

William John Grizack earned an MBA from Wake Forest University in 2003 and played the role of tech innovator long before he entered the ad industry.

In late 2005, Grizack and three others secured a patent for a product, called SimpliFi, that provided "goal-based financial planning via computer." He, along with partner and fellow Wake Forest graduate Bryan Link, would later turn this software into a business, and SimpliFi would win a Webby Award and score a mention on ABC's Good Morning America along with Mint.com. But it would cease to exist in early 2010, around the same time PAVE first hired Grizack as a freelance consultant. "He conned the company he worked for before us," said Keith Vest, president and partner of The Variable, during the sentencing hearing, in an apparent reference to SimpliFi.

PAVE brought Grizack aboard as chief strategist the following year at a salary of $150,000, but Grizack wasn't satisfied. He wanted to be a partner without owing the equivalent of a year's pay in related fees. PAVE co-owners Vest and Joe Parrish drew up a proposal whereby Grizack could become the agency's third partner, on the condition that he bring in half a million dollars in new revenue by the following summer.

Grizack delivered. A few months later, he played a leading role in the launch of a product called Brand Forensics that allegedly used search-engine data to help clients better understand "precisely what consumers want from a brand." Its debut doubled as the rollout of PAVE's new identity, The Variable.

"The traditional agency business model is fundamentally flawed," Grizack said in an October 2011 press release that claimed Brand Forensics could "change the nature of the relationship between a brand and its agency." During the sentencing hearing, Desrosiers claimed that executives at The Variable had called the product "revolutionary" and that it initially succeeded as a tool used to pitch new business. "[Grizack] started getting legitimate contracts from clients," Desrosiers said, "but the two he wanted most he couldn't get." They were Coca-Cola and Jack Daniel's.

According to documents filed by state prosecutor W. Scott Harkey, Grizack concocted a grandiose plan to convince the agency's principals that he had won those accounts with an expanding web of fake documents and communications. "Notably, the defendant created email addresses with domains that closely resembled the email addresses of actual Brown-Forman and Coca-Cola employees," the filing read. "The defendant engaged in simulated correspondence, presumably with himself … to create an appearance of legitimacy for his made-up business dealings with Coca-Cola and Brown-Forman." He printed fake contracts and invoices, "simulated correspondence indicating hundreds of thousands of dollars in future deposits to PAVE's bank account," and went so far as to simulate "numerous phone conversations" with executives from the would-be clients.

'Wary of big agencies'

Around May 2012, The Variable's leadership told their staff that Grizack had successfully pitched and won the world's top soda and whiskey brands, thereby satisfying the requirements of their deal with him. Over the next two months, Grizack presented three documents to agency executives: a pair of Jack Daniel's contracts worth $500,000 and $200,000, allegedly signed by Brown-Forman chief marketing officer Kris Sirchio, and a $200,000 deal bearing the forged signature of Coca-Cola executive Shubu Mitra.

As a partner in the firm, Grizack could finally reap the rewards of his fake work, including a $165,000 bump in salary, $22,500 in 401(k) contributions and a brand new Audi Q7. He insisted on managing both accounts himself for reasons that, in retrospect, were obvious.

The Variable didn't have enough manpower to handle all the work, so it turned to McKinney. The independent shop, which worked for such brands as Nationwide and Gold's Gym, had been a client of The Variable for more than two years, after associate creative director Parrish left to become a partner at PAVE and brought the shared Qwest/CenturyLink account with him. In June 2012, McKinney agreed to help staff the team working on Grizack's fake accounts and to pay him an additional annual salary of $250,000. For the next eight months, he was simultaneously employed by the two agencies.

Earlier that summer, The Variable visited the Winston-Salem offices of Mullen, seeking a partner for the Brand Forensics project. Adweek acquired an internal email, dated June 5, 2012, in which Parrish expressed his excitement about the meeting, writing: "McKinney has been our most profitable client for the past two years. We work well with other agencies. And Mullen's network has more money than McKinney's. This is an attempt to gain a local partner with deep pockets." Parrish then reassured staffers: "No one is more wary of big agencies than yours truly."

Mullen declined The Variable's offer, but multiple sources who worked at the agencies in question at the time tell Adweek that Brand Forensics was part of the subsequent McKinney deal, with the latter acquiring the software as its own intellectual property.

Grizack's much-hyped proprietary technology remained somewhat mysterious. One former employee of The Variable who spoke on condition of anonymity describes it as a rudimentary version of Google Analytics. A creative later hired to work on the fake Coca-Cola business explains: "During my time there, not a single person I ever spoke with regarding the algorithm could explain how it worked or the benefit of its use."

Before the partnership came together, South Korean holding company Cheil Worldwide had begun researching potential U.S. acquisitions after purchasing a majority stake in New York's The Barbarian Group in 2009. In a striking coincidence, Grizack's deadline for producing the revenue required for partnership at The Variable was July 31, 2012—the very day Cheil announced it had agreed to acquire McKinney in a deal worth an estimated $50 million.

Too good to be true?

Grizack's deceptions only grew in scale. Over the course of eight months, he created six fake contracts. In August, he produced a second Coca-Cola deal worth $9 million, and in October he claimed to have won an additional $120 million in Brown-Forman work. His two employers then hired 40 new staffers from around the country to work on the non-existent accounts. In many cases, employees relocated with their families to the Durham/Winston-Salem area, eventually producing spec work no one outside the two agencies would ever see. After meeting to review concepts weeks later, The Variable promised to report back on the clients' response to the work. They never did.

In January 2013, Grizack presented a final contract, allegedly signed by Coca-Cola svp of marketing Ivan Pollard, worth a colossal $140 million.

But his grand scheme had a fatal flaw: He had no way of producing the promised revenue. The former Variable employee said some in the office grew suspicious when their bosses suggested the work would be tied to Coke's sponsorship of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which was a far larger and more ambitious assignment than anything either agency had ever handled. As the weeks and months passed, the promised revenue never arrived. Unnamed executives allegedly began to press Grizack, who repeatedly stated that the money would come but grew flustered under questioning.

According to a source, Grizack's undoing came in the form of two disposable "burner" phones. One day in early 2013, when Grizack was not in the building, an unnamed employee who had become frustrated with his delays called the number listed on the Coca-Cola contract. A cellphone rang in Grizack's office. He then attempted to contact Brown-Forman. Again, a cellphone rang. 

The jig is up—or is it?

Specifics regarding Grizack's departure from The Variable and the dissolution of its partnership with McKinney remain unclear. Sources say executives never made any related announcements but simply stopped talking about the accounts in question. McKinney officially attributed a round of subsequent layoffs to the loss of its Meijer account, but most of the people hired to work on the phantom business eventually lost their jobs, and some didn't learn exactly why until months or even years later.

Grizack had encountered a setback, no doubt. But amazingly, he resurfaced one month later—and nearly 2,000 miles away—after relocating his family to Lafayette, Colo., and accepting a job as executive director for the consultancy Egg Strategy in Boulder.

"Right after his scheme was discovered by executives at PAVE and McKinney," said Harkey in court, "he went to another company and did the exact same thing."

"I am the leader of the Egg Lab," Grizack wrote on his LinkedIn profile before launching into a now-familiar refrain: "We have created new technology that let's [sic] Egg observe consumers in their natural habitat and use that insight to drive strategy for some of the world's largest brands." One of those brands, he claimed, was McDonald's.

According to the prosecution, Grizack presented the team in Boulder with a $14 million contract with the fast-food chain at some point during the 17 months he spent with Egg. Executives allegedly uncovered his deception only after an unnamed individual reached out to warn them that the business was fake.

Egg quickly terminated Grizack, but he wasn't yet done exploiting his colleagues' trust. Returning to his comfort zone, he somehow convinced a staffer there that he had left for an in-house job with his favorite fake client, Coca-Cola. "In fact," prosecutors wrote, "the defendant suggested an Egg Strategy employee apply to join his staff at Coca-Cola as a mechanism whereby he successfully obtained her personal information." (An Egg spokesperson declined to comment on the case, stating that agency policy prohibits discussing current or former employees.)

'Work smarter, not harder'

What made Grizack's lies so convincing?

"At first, he is truly amazing," acknowledges a former colleague. "He talks fast and smooth, and sometimes you walk away thinking, what just happened? He knew the names of everyone's children and spouses, and he asked about them. He was quite likeable."

One source describes Grizack as a studied strategist with a fondness for brainstorming sessions and Post-it notes, while someone who interviewed with him to work on the fake McDonald's account says he defined his personal brand as "Work smarter, not harder." David Armano, global strategy director at Edelman, the world's largest PR firm, later wrote in a Facebook comment: "We interviewed him a few years ago. Intelligent guy. He should have put his smarts to better use."

Lawyer Patrick Egan, who specializes in white-collar crime, explains that charm should only be able to get a person so far. "To me, the issue is not the hiring of this individual so much as the lack of due diligence and any kind of controls at the various companies that employed him," he says.

Unfortunately, at yet another agency, that didn't happen, at least not immediately. Grizack traveled further west, scoring a job as chief strategy officer at Dailey Advertising in Los Angeles less than a month after leaving Egg. "Bill Grizack was with Dailey for a short period of time," says president and CEO Tom Lehr in his agency's only comment on the case. "Our agency has always been about integrity and transparency in how we deal with one another and our clients, and like most of the ad community, we were shocked by the reports of his previous actions."

Little evidence exists in regard to the year Grizack spent in West Hollywood, Calif. His bio quickly disappeared from Dailey's homepage. One item, however, remained: The agency's signature black-and-white portrait of Grizack, which served as both his Facebook profile picture and the head shot he used while applying to his next three jobs in San Francisco.

The con collapses

In October 2015, the state of North Carolina charged Grizack with three felony crimes related to obtaining or attempting to obtain money or property via false pretenses. The end was in sight only weeks after he landed what might have been his most impressive gig to date: senior director on the AT&T account at the Bay Area offices of Omnicom's Interbrand.

People being pursued by the law often grow more desperate, and Grizack was no exception. At some point between November 2015 and March 2016, he began shopping around for additional work and briefly found it as both a freelance strategist at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and as a member of Venables Bell & Partners' in-house innovation firm VBP Orange. Using the power of personality and the strategic deployment of sick days, Grizack ensured that no one knew he was paid by all three agencies until the day his con finally collapsed.

On Thursday, March 3, Grizack pleaded guilty to all charges in a Winston-Salem courtroom, obviating the need for a trial—which might have yielded more details of his wrongdoing. Upon reading the news, his latest victims realized that they, too, had been fooled as his brief but eventful career came to an end. The following week, an Interbrand spokesperson wrote: "William Grizack worked at Interbrand for a very short period, but is no longer employed here." A VB&P executive wrote: "His offer of employment with us was revoked." A GS&P representative declined to comment.

Eventually, Grizack's Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn profiles all disappeared. But for several weeks, as he waited to learn his fate, the latter still included three key clients: Jack Daniel's, Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

During the sentencing hearing, Harkey shared emails he'd received from unnamed victims. "I lost my job when McKinney discovered Bill's fraud," one wrote. "I had worked at PAVE for more than 10 years." A second note read: "I was hired by McKinney to work on the fake accounts, and I was appalled to see the Winston-Salem Journal characterize him as a man of good character."

"[Bill] wanted to please people and thought that if he continued working it would pay off," defense attorney Desrosiers told the court. "He thought he could get away with it. He didn't."

"The focus should be on the people and lives he affected," The Variable's Vest said in a statement to the judge. "All of this happened to us three years ago, but we have recovered and thrived without his cancer within our walls." While admitting the likelihood of either agency ever recovering any of its money was low, Vest said, "I could not let it go. We don't want to see Bill Grizack do this to other companies."

A spokesperson for The Variable declined to comment for this story beyond a final statement: Grizack "caused unimaginable emotional turmoil, and he almost destroyed a company whose only fault was an instinct to trust."

McKinney also declined to comment and did not send a representative to the hearing. Desrosiers said that the agency's CEO Brad Brinegar told him: "[Grizack] placed a bet. It was a bad bet, and it went south." Less than two years later, McKinney added Coca-Cola to its roster after winning a pitch to market the brand's Atlanta-based museum.

"There is often a greed factor on the part of the victims," said Judge Craig in announcing Grizack's sentence. He compared the case to the tale of the goose that laid the golden egg, adding, "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I hope you will take this as a hard-earned lesson."

Craig then addressed Grizack directly: "It was a very ingenious scheme and I was amazed at its complexity and its criminal ingenuity. In so many instances involving schemes such as this, the defendant is able to play on his ability to convince people."

Look in the mirror

Did Bill Grizack truly believe his elaborate fraud would go undiscovered? Did he think he could win enough real accounts to make his partners forget the hundreds of millions he promised that never materialized? How many red flags went unnoticed, and why did the checks and balances of the agency business fail so completely, enabling him to thrive as talented, hard-working people lost their jobs?

Many of the final pieces in the puzzle remain unknown to all but a few, chief among them Grizack himself. North Carolina abolished parole in 1994, and the earliest date Grizack could go free is March 2021—five years after he entered his plea.

One veteran creative contacted Adweek on condition of anonymity, writing: "As one of many people hired to work on these phantom accounts at McKinney, to say I'm disappointed in the final outcome of this case would be a gross understatement. This final outcome is not only terrible for everyone involved. It's just one more black eye on an entire industry which is already accused of rampant institutional racism, sexism and large-scale corporate greed. I feel strongly that we must self-police our own industry and hold organizations and people accountable for their actions."

This story first appeared in the July 11, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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