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.
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