Updates on the Tall Tales of Bill ‘Catch Me If You Can’ Grizack

By Patrick Coffee Comment

Since we last reported on former agency strategist Bill Grizack, we’ve received a steady stream of small tips and requests to continue sharing all the information we have on a man who pled guilty to three felonies in March for defrauding North Carolina’s The Variable and McKinney by falsifying $269MM worth in advertising contracts which were purportedly from Coca-Cola and Brown-Forman.

We don’t have the answers to the biggest questions in his case, but we can now present a slightly fuller picture of the roles he played at various agencies over the past six years.

First, we must report that Grizack was not at this year’s South by Southwest, contrary to this solid Twitter joke from Nick Gesualdi of Seattle’s Creature.

But Grizack appears to have been monitoring news coverage of the case while awaiting sentencing. In the month since we last updated this story, he deleted his Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

The latter never included any information about the three jobs he held simultaneously in San Francisco before pleading guilty. But we have learned more about his time spent working for Venables Bell & Partners, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and the Omnicom consultancy Interbrand in the Bay Area after leaving L.A.’s Dailey Advertising for reasons on which the agency declined to elaborate. Venables told us that he’d been a freelance strategist there and that a subsequent “offer of employment…was revoked” after the agency learned of his plea. A source who worked with him directly now confirms that he had, in fact, been hired as a full-time employee of VBP Orange, the design and innovation agency-within-an-agency that Venables launched in 2012. It’s unclear how long he held that position before being terminated, but the source says he was initially hired, at least in part, due to his personal charisma.

This would seem to be a running theme.

Prior to entering the world of advertising, Grizack co-founded a “free online financial planning and advice service for middle class consumers” called SimpliFi (or Simplify Your Finances) along with fellow Wake Forest ’03 MBA Bryan Link after successfully filing to patent the idea in October 2005. SimpliFi no longer exists, but it did win a 2010 Webby award, and it earned a bit of press as well: here’s an old Good Morning America segment mentioning the company alongside Mint.com, and here’s Bill himself running through a standard YouTube demo of the service. He positioned himself as something of a thought leader in the financial planning space, and a 2010 op-ed makes clear that he was very anti-credit union.

Grizack’s relationship with the company he co-founded appears to have dissolved at some point thereafter for reasons that are unclear at this time. According to our sources, he later “showed up” at what was then known as Pave Advertising in Winston-Salem in late 2010 just after being terminated by the board of his previous employer, BrightLeaf Financial Network (which also no longer exists). He allegedly arrived at the agency looking for a job and armed with data-driven ideas about what he later called “the future of creative advertising strategy.”

A year or so later, Pave renamed itself The Variable–and its new identity was based on Grizack’s invention, known as “Brand Forensics.” A press release from October 2011 presents the newly rebranded company as “a digitally informed marketing and communications lab” powered in part by this “proprietary technology,” which was described as “a derivative of the search engine results page algorithm that allows The Variable to determine with statistical significance where a query starts, where it ends, and where it stops along the way.”

Grizack had this to say about the underlying concept:

“The traditional agency model is fundamentally flawed. Focus groups and survey research are not only archaic, but the ad agencies that are still employing these methods are simply wasting their clients’ money. At The Variable, we use the scientific method for business and creative strategy. Traditional research is dead, and we won’t be attending the funeral.”

The release also encouraged curious journalists to make reservations for “private viewings” of the technology, and a profile piece published the following January in the same Winston-Salem Journal that broke news of Grizack’s guilty plea last month gave him room to elaborate on his own vision, calling The Variable “part think tank, part ad firm.” From that piece:

Grizack said Brand Forensics does not infringe on consumer privacy.

“It’s not studied at an individual consumer level,” Grizack said. He said the company uses aggregated data that it accesses, meaning all the combined searches for a state or country, or around a brand. “It’s not yours and mine and Joe’s,” he said. “It’s all of them combined into just a number.”

He said the company name change and idea for the process came about partly because of economic conditions in the past several years, in particular for businesses considered traditional advertising agencies.

“In the current economic climate, advertising agencies experienced significant ups and downs,” he said.

Soon afterward, the fraud began in earnest. According to prosecutor Scott Harkey, Grizack planned to fake the account wins with false documents, phony email accounts and even simulated phone calls because he was desperate to provide the $500,000 in new business revenue required to become a partner at Pave–and thereby avoid paying an alternate $150,000 partnership fee. McKinney later entered the agreement, acting as Grizack’s second full-time employer and hiring 40 additional employees to work on the fake accounts. Lawyers in the case have declined to discuss what happened to those teams prior to the sentencing hearings.

Not everyone saw Grizack as a compelling personality. When news of his confession went live last month, two real estate professionals who’d interacted with him in North Carolina responded on Facebook by calling him “very sketchy and not very nice.” One wrote, “Maybe we should sue for a false contract. Got what was coming to him.” We also learned, via a Facebook thread started by one of our contacts in the public relations industry, that Grizack didn’t limit his ambitions to advertising: Edelman global strategy director David Armano confirmed that he had applied to work at the world’s biggest independent PR firm “several years ago,” calling him an “intelligent guy” who should have “put his smarts to better use.” Armano did not elaborate on why Edelman chose not to hire Grizack at the time.

A source who claims to have worked with him at Pave/The Variable in 2011 says that some of the agency’s employees didn’t quite buy what he was selling.

“Most of us actually referred to him as ‘Little Bill.’ He pitched a data collection algorithm … They went all over the country to try to sell it without success.”

That algorithm would be Brand Forensics. According to this source, multiple veteran staffers privately shared the opinion that Grizack was “full of shit,” but the promise of his tech solution proved too great for agency leaders to resist. (The Variable no longer uses or mentions Brand Forensics.)

None of this answers the most pressing questions: how did he pull off his fraud in the first place; was anyone else directly involved; how was he able to get away with it for at least six months; and why did nearly three years pass between the day when McKinney/The Variable fired him and the day when charges were officially filed?

Both agencies have declined to comment, calling the case an “ongoing criminal investigation.” Boulder, Colorado’s Egg Strategy, which also reportedly fell victim to a Grizack fraud involving a fake contract with McDonald’s, has not responded to multiple email requests for comment.

We did, however, hear from a source who claims to have “interviewed with Bill Grizack for a falsified deal during his time at Egg Strategy.” During their exchange, Grizack asked this source to describe his/her personal brand in four or five words and provided his own self-promotional tagline: “Work smarter, not harder.”

Grizack continued to appear as a guest speaker at marketing strategy conferences after The Variable and McKinney uncovered his crimes and before his then-current employer realized that he had faked the $14MM McDonald’s deal.

Unsurprisingly, many who work in advertising have been discussing his case in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Raleigh’s News & Observer published a piece in which a couple of marketing academics commented on the story.

Ashley Rose, an assistant professor of advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University, theorized that Grizack must have had an accomplice: “This kind of thing never ever ever happens solo – with just one person negotiating a deal.” She also expressed disbelief that McKinney–which she described as “[having] a great reputation” in the Southeast region–was involved.

JoAnn Sciarrino, who also currently teaches advertising after spending more than a decade in strategy roles at BBDO New York, said that such a scam could only work if the agencies involved “weren’t very diligent verifying and checking” the contracts. The same would presumably apply to the companies that hired Grizack after his initial crimes were uncovered; they currently number five and counting.

Rose said, “I am absolutely shocked that Mr. Grizack was able to get away with this…I definitely want to see the movie when it comes out.”

Don’t we all. Here’s his mugshot via the News & Observer.

bill grizack mugshot

Sentencing is scheduled for the week of June 13th, when we should have more updates on the case.

In the meantime, if you have worked with Grizack in the past or have more information about his case, please email patrick.coffee@adweek.com or use the anonymous tip box on this page.