Q&A: Grey Global President Michael Houston on the Agency’s ‘Brand Experience Group’ Launch

New offering combines 4 divisions under one banner

Since 2015, when Grey was named Adweek's Global Agency of the Year, the WPP organization has been in expansion mode. North American CEO Michael Houston took on the role of global president in February, and since then he has worked to reshape the network around the world.

The latest stage in this evolution is today's official launch of Grey Brand Experience Group, which consolidates the network's Activation and PR, Mobile and Connected Experiences and Shopper Marketing divisions under a single banner, while also introducing Grey Adventures, a unit focused on utilizing new and developing technologies for Grey clients.

To spearhead this reorganization, Grey hired Evan Kraut (formerly with MRY) to lead Adventures and creative veteran Darren Moran to fill the newly created head of innovation role at Grey New York.

Adweek spoke to Houston about Grey Brand Experience Group, the new hires and the ways in which Grey plans to help its clients stay up to date on the newest marketing technologies.

Adweek: How has your role changed since you became global president?
Michael Houston: For better or worse, not much has left my plate—but lots of new, interesting things have emerged. What's exciting to me is recognizing that, on a global level, we have a team that is aligned via its shared ambitions for what the agency can be. Having sat in our global headquarters in New York for nine years, it's easy to think that all the energy emanates from this office. But our other offices are doing really cool things … It goes both ways.

What will the Brand Experience Group be, exactly?
Some of the work Grey has been known for in recent years goes well beyond traditional advertising—not just because that's the kind of work we want to do, but because it's what consumers demand. So we've taken our established Activation/PR teams and our Shopper Marketing teams, paired them with our recent acquisition of the mobile group ArcTouch and added a completely new offering (Grey Adventures) in order to help clients get that type of work faster. It's really about ensuring that we are solving their business problems, not just their communications problems. We're taking a wider brief and asking ourselves how we can take what we're good at and apply it as broadly as possible.

So the intention is to be a single resource for clients with expanding needs.
Yes, I do believe all these things can be one-stop shopping for clients that need to create experiences and do traditional advertising as well. It is a new offering, but we've all agreed that, if we do our jobs correctly, there's a good chance this structure will eventually go away because it will be innate to everything we do. Moving forward, our work will be more like Volvo Life Paint, the gun store project, et cetera.

Speaking of expanding beyond "traditional advertising," do you also plan to focus more on earned media?
If you go back to the paid/owned/earned model, there is so much in the latter group right now, and I would say that's where everyone is focused. But it would be an oversimplification to say that it's all about earned. I personally put word-of-mouth in the earned category, which is a form of PR with a different structure. All four groups in the Brand Experience unit will contribute to that in meaningful ways.

What led you in this direction?
It's about [building on] our recent successes, and not just at awards shows. Our mantra is still "Famously Effective," and in order for clients to be effective there needs to be some corollary between their brands and popular culture. For example, the Manning Brothers work for DirecTV reached a younger group of people. That's the type of work all clients are interested in doing, because it's "sticky" with consumers. 

How does Grey Adventures differ from previous offerings?
It's a recognition of that fact that, while we do much more than create ads, we give away that thinking many times for free. We don't want to do that in the future for obvious reasons. I dislike the term "intellectual property," but there's no better way to talk about it. We've made a financial commitment to putting a leadership structure in place [with Kraut and Moran]. We've picked the areas in which we want to focus, and there is some overlap with other Brand Experience Groups: AI, wearables, the Internet of Things, connected home, e-commerce and VR or AR. It's about picking third party partners within each of those areas on behalf of our clients because from our point of view, there are no more swim lanes. The world is too interconnected to operate in that way, and now we can give things to a client that may never have thought of going to those places.

How will the larger Grey global network shift following the Brand Experience Group launch?
On my international tour I've learned that the agency is already there in many parts of the world in terms of the kinds of work we're doing. For example, Volvo Life Paint originated in our London office. The formal structure [of BEG] will start in North America … and as it evolves, we will figure out if and how we can roll it out globally. It really is surprising how aligned our agencies are globally around our creative ambitions. We also talked about the structure in broad terms with clients and had an overwhelmingly positive response.