Red Hot Grey?

Jim Heekin received a very early industry lesson during tackling practice at a South Orange, N.J., football clinic. He and the other kids had to pair off in facing lines, but whenever he was partnered with boys his size or smaller, his father, a Madison Avenue ad exec who was standing on the sidelines, moved him opposite much bigger players.

That sense of competition still serves Heekin well. At a point when his contemporaries are bowing out, the 60-year-old Grey Group chairman and CEO has taken on his biggest adversary yet: the cultural legacy of former longtime head Ed Meyer, an enigmatic autocrat who spent nearly 50 years at Grey and left behind a place in urgent need of modernization.

Heekin, who began at Grey in 2005 as president of the Grey Group’s advertising agency, says his motivation is simple: It’s most likely the last stop in a career that saw him rise quickly through the ranks of traditional U.S. multinational companies like WPP’s J. Walter Thompson and Interpublic’s McCann Erickson.

He now finds himself at the helm of remaking what may have been the most traditional of the lot. At Grey, he’s tearing down walls, literally in its new space, and metaphorically as he dismantles the siloed culture. His goal: to create a creative and digital profile at an agency known for taglines like “Choosy Moms choose Jif.” Predictably, skeptics are doubtful Grey can modernize, but less in dispute is the momentum established over the past two years.

In 2009, Grey won 17 out of the 18 pitches in which it participated. The shop doesn’t disclose revenue numbers, but based on publicly disclosed new business wins, Grey appears to have added more than $80 million in revenue since the start of 2009. It continues to pick up new clients like DirecTV, Darden Restaurants’ Red Lobster and the global Allianz account. (Last week, Grey said it won the consolidation of the GlaxoSmithKline Panadol pain relief brand and Bausch & Lomb.) The agency also picked up 20 awards at Cannes this year compared to nine in 2008.

“Grey never believed in creativity,” says Heekin, who has also been running the New York agency since Steve Hardwick exited Grey in 2009 after less than two years. “It’s not like it tried and failed. I thought if we could build on the existing culture of effectiveness and add a layer of creativity and innovation, we could take on creative agencies that can’t keep clients very long.”

One of Heekin’s first moves has been to bring in a younger team to remake a place populated by career-long executives who gave rise to the snipe “Grey by name, grey by nature.” Early on, in 2007, Heekin hired Tor Myhren, now 38, as CCO of Grey NY. “When the headhunter called about the Grey job,” says Myhren, “I said, ‘No way.’ When I told my mentors I was taking the job, they said, ‘Grey’s a place you go to die.’ But it was the team that Jim was putting together that got me. … and that he lets people do their own thing.”

Of the 130 people in Grey’s creative department, about one-half are new over the past three years. They’ve recruited from agencies like TBWA\Chiat\Day, Wieden + Kennedy, BBDO, Anomaly and BBH, something virtually impossible five years ago.

Shortly after Myhren came on board, the agency won E*Trade and produced the “Talking babies” work that debuted on the 2008 Super Bowl. It generated cultural buzz foreign to Grey, and signaled a new direction. It also provided entree into new-business reviews previously off limits, and helped it win accounts like BMW Dealers of North America, Ketel One and DirecTV.

Nick Utton, CMO of E*Trade Financial Corp., was also Heekin’s MasterCard client at McCann when it produced the “Priceless” campaign that helped lift the shop’s profile. He says he sees parallels: “When we moved the business from BBDO, people asked, ‘Why Grey?’ They do solid advertising for clients like P&G and we were looking for iconic advertising. [Now] we have both.”

As for working with Heekin, Utton adds, “he was at all the key meetings and the final pitch, but he doesn’t micromanage.”

Heekin measures Grey against the shops over which it prevailed in new-business pitches, agencies like BBDO and TBWA (the NFL); Wieden and Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners (Ketel One); Lowe and BBH (TJ Maxx); and Deutsch and DDB (Boehringer Ingelheim).

Still, in an industry where reputations die hard, there are doubters.

“I’d say it’s more of an evolution, not a reinvention at Grey,” says one new-business consultant. “I was talking to a client known for doing cool marketing and I said, ‘What about considering Grey?’ and this person said, ‘No, they’re still Grey.'”

While the agency lost no business in 2009, last month it lost Pfizer’s Advil brand after a review and, in June, it was unable to retain Aetna. And there’s the challenge of creating interesting work across a broader range of clients. While Grey considers the use of celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres for Procter & Gamble’s CoverGirl among its better creative work, the client is getting more breakthrough thinking on brands like Old Spice from Wieden.

Therein lies a rub: While Wieden is repositioning the brand through digital tools, Grey is still getting up to speed in digital. Two weeks ago, however, Euro RSCG managing director Josh Golden, was hired as its first chief digital officer.

In response to critics, Heekin points to his new team, including longtime colleague Suresh Nair, global director of strategic planning, who came from McCann and has worked with Heekin for the better part of 25 years. “When an agency works, you’ll find a group of five or six [top] people for whom achieving success is personal,” Heekin says.

For Myhren, recruited from Leo Burnett Detroit, it was the chance to run a department. For Michael Houston, Grey’s CMO, an opportunity to pitch on a larger scale after working at shops like Kirshenbaum. And global CCO Tim Mellors, who’s been at Grey’s top worldwide offices, says he now has the latitude to find hungry local creative talent.

Hand in hand with the need to pump up creative, Heekin inherited a siloed network and client fiefdoms, especially those at the New York office, which was divided into agency-within-an-agency “villages.”

When he got there, says Houston, new-business sessions were “painful meetings. … We didn’t know what the story was. The agency was very defensive in our presentations so we stepped back and said, ‘We’re not going to another pitch meeting until we know.'”

John Clarke, president, worldwide consumer healthcare at GlaxoSmithKline, says he sees the change: “There’s a more globalized commonality in creativity for global campaigns. Previously, Grey felt like a global agency with a few international affiliates.”

Clarke adds that Heekin, who is often described as hardworking and engaged,  “delivered on what he said he would. … And when I say deliver, I mean results.”

Colleagues respect Heekin’s strategic skills, as well as his curiosity. Nair says “planning as a discipline has a tough time in agencies, but Jim has always believed in it. … [And] his reading list is amazing. We’ve been working on the Army pitch and he was reading Three Cups of Tea, about a guy who opens up schools for girls in places like Afghanistan. [I read it] and it gave me a completely different perspective.”

Heekin, a former college athlete and current gym rat, hadn’t planned on a career in advertising — in part because it was the doman of his father, who was well-known from his time as president at Ogilvy & Mather and DDB’s U.S. operations.

After graduating from Williams College — his father’s alma mater — Heekin majored in English and Psychology then taught school, but realized he wouldn’t be able to earn a decent living. He liked that advertising dealt with the motivation behind behavior, and landed his first ad job at JWT in research, later returning and, at age 38, becoming gm of the New York office.

Moving to McCann as regional director of North America, he became EMEA regional director and then CEO of McCann WorldGroup. In 2003, Heekin joined Havas’ Euro RSCG after being dismissed by McCann amid an inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission into the agency’s global accounting practices going back to the mid-1990s.

“The experience at McCann made me more determined,” says Heekin, who was never charged with wrongdoing. “Every positive or constructive effort failed and the negative things prevailed. … You just learn to suck it up.”

You also move on. And perhaps tear a few things down — like walls. Grey left its longtime midtown skyscraper offices and is now in a loft-like space downtown where creatives sit alongside planners at long tables. (The agency recently hired Pele Cortizo-Burgess as strategy chief in N.Y., from London’s ITV, and has gone from a handful of planners to 30.)

But Grey still has much to prove. The same words used to praise Heekin — such as “hardworking” and “engaged” — are not necessarily words one associates with a game changer. And there’s the matter of the shop’s lack of digital experience.

Heekin remains undaunted. He made his choice to be part of the industry a long time ago, and hasn’t looked back. And his biggest influence, he says, turned out to be his father, who died a year ago.

“My father made me his project and I learned a lot from him about competing, winning and effective leadership,” Heekin muses. “But I’ve also learned from his mistakes. Hubris was a large factor in his career and it’s like chalk on a blackboard to me.”