Big Account Wins Make Grey the 2013 Global Agency of the Year

Strategic and creative renaissance under CEO Jim Heekin

Even a confident Jim Heekin admits that waiting for the Gillette decision from Procter & Gamble was a nail-biter.

As the Grey Group CEO sat in his fourth-floor office overlooking New York’s Madison Square Park one day last April, surrounded by his top execs leading the pitch, he knew he was about to receive a call that had no assurance of good news. It had been an arduous, 178-day, round-the-clock effort, with all the twists and turns befitting 2013’s most coveted review—one for a $1 billion brand that had been at BBDO and its forbearers for more than 80 years.

The Gillette pitch began last fall in the basement of a New York hotel, the agency’s global headquarters at 200 Fifth Avenue having been temporarily shuttered due to Hurricane Sandy. The process came to an end amid an uncertain, last-minute decision to substitute the initial creative concept. Heekin turned off the speakerphone after the client shared the good news that afternoon, and anxiety turned to hugs and celebratory drinks. The review, with the initial scope of North American business, was expanded to a global brief based on the strength of Grey’s creative ideas. After the win, none other than Martin Sorrell—chief of the agency’s parent, WPP, and someone who’d never before visited Heekin’s office—showed up toting two shopping bags filled with magnum bottles of champagne and hats embossed with the Gillette brand name.

Gillette would be enough to make any agency’s year, but P&G’s vote of confidence meant even more. Global networks struggle to reinvent themselves as something more than dots on the map. Meanwhile, Heekin, in his eight years at the helm, has had the thankless task of forcing change upon one of the most hidebound of shops. And under his watch, the 96-year-old company, built on account managers’ ownership of client relationships under the autocratic management of former CEO Ed Meyer, has, in fact, succeeded in radically altering the way it operates. Key to the Gillette win, for example, was collaboration among Grey’s offices, including those in New York and London. “This never would have happened five to six years ago,” says Heekin. “We’ve broken down walls, fiefdoms, rivalries between London, New York and other parts of the world. Gillette came at the perfect time to leverage the one-agency, one-team culture we’ve built.”

What’s more, Grey prevailed against the likes of P&G’s top agencies, including Wieden + Kennedy, which transformed the CPG giant’s Old Spice brand. Significantly, the strength of Grey’s ideas won the day, with Gillette opting to run the very work pitched during the review. “It’s rare that that happens, almost unheard of,” explains Tor Myhren, Grey’s worldwide chief creative officer.

Still, at one point during the pitch, even Myhren had his doubts that would happen.

Last December, Grey showed Gillette an ad it had worked up featuring parts of a speech by Al Pacino as coach Tony D’Amato in the film Any Given Sunday, and it was well received. But a couple of months later, Jeep rolled out a Grand Cherokee spot using the same speech. So, it was back to the drawing board—just two weeks before the final presentation. It worked. “They brought us a big idea on Gillette, which we know will connect with men around the world,” says Marc Pritchard, P&G’s global brand building officer. “Grey knows consumers and knows brands. Grey knows how to create winning campaigns.”

“Winning campaign” has taken on new meaning at an agency long known for its bland work. The New York flagship has worked aggressively to change that perception since Myhren was hired as chief creative officer in 2007. Grey’s creative ranks now number about 320, up from just fewer than 70 when he arrived. Top hires this year came from agencies such as Anomaly, TBWAChiatDay and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

This year, the agency had its best showing ever at Cannes, taking home 36 Lions. Grey also won nine Cannes film prizes, more than any other agency; snagged an Emmy for the Canon spot “Inspired”; and was the first agency ever to make the shortlist for the Academy Awards for When You Find Me, a short film for Canon’s Project Imaginat10n that Ron Howard using 1,000 user-generated photos. (The associated online effort generated 1.5 billion impressions in a matter of months without the support of a single commercial.)

Even Sorrell, WPP’s bottom line-focused CEO, enthuses about the creative overhaul. In a video addressing a Grey Group conference in Beijing this year, Sorrell stated that “revenue and profits have grown because Grey’s creative reputation has grown.”

This year, Grey’s global revenue grew 10 percent to $725 million, with digital—barely a part of Grey’s business six years ago—now accounting for some $150 million. Aside from Gillette, global account wins include Volvo, HSBC, GSK Corp., Trilux and Montblanc. Grey New York, which won 20 of its 22 major account pitches, posted an 18 percent revenue bump. The U.S. flagship won back Hasbro, Allergan, and Pfizer’s Advil and ThermaCare business and added a global corporate campaign from Canon while attracting new clients like Pfizer and GE Healthcare.

Grey London was another top performer this year. In addition to the recent win as Volvo’s worldwide creative lead, the office was also behind the pitch of HSBC’s retail and wealth business in Europe and Latin America, and global commercial business. It also led a global corporate branding campaign for GSK and a worldwide assignment from Vodafone.

And China, in its first full year under a new CEO, well-known regional adman T.H. Peng, has attracted major local clients like dairy Mengniu and cosmetics marketer Proya. In the past five years, Grey has doubled its revenue in the Asia-Pacific region. Now, it turns its focus to Latin America with Grey Brazil, created by the merger of the WPP agencies 141 and Y&R Energia.

The agency continues to add to digital hubs in New York and London, as well as at its offices in Spain, Russia, China, India and Argentina. This year, it won new digital business from P&G, 3M, Hasbro, Coca-Cola, Darden, Marriott, Lilly and GSK. Grey also continues to roll out a strategic partnership with WPP interactive company Possible Worldwide. Separately, it completed digital acquisitions in Germany, Turkey, Singapore and China.

When Myhren came to Grey, there were fewer than a dozen digital staffers in New York. Now, there are 180. Its digital focus is apparent in work like “Football on Your Phone,” a rap video for DirecTV featuring the pigskin-tossing Manning brothers. The digital effort immediately became a viral sensation, earning 7 million views in a single week plus free exposure by the likes of ESPN. Grey’s spots for DirecTV featuring frustrated cable subscribers—which Bill Clinton described as the “most hilarious ads” he’d ever seen—continue to win fans, including Cannes judges. The campaign’s latest iteration won three gold Lions this year.

Hilarious, yes. But Paul Guyardo, chief revenue and marketing officer at DirecTV, stresses that Grey’s approach to his business is nothing but serious. Grey staff have visited DirecTV’s call centers, for example, and Guyardo has been invited to the agency to explain the company’s high-pressure subscription business.

“Working with Grey has been the best relationship in my 30-year career,” says Guyardo, a former agency exec. “We don’t refer to them as the agency; their team and my team are one. When the work comes out great, it’s because of that collaboration, and when it doesn’t, it’s because of that collaboration. We give them plenty of freedom and they take advantage of it.”

The Gillette win not only grabbed headlines, but it also changed the way clients perceive the agency. “Gillette really was a redefining moment,” says Michael Houston, CEO, North America. “It demonstrated what today’s Grey was about in terms of the way we work, approach problems, and the fact we’re more integrated and collaborative than we’ve ever been. That’s why clients like Hasbro now view us that way, and came to us as a fully integrated, multidisciplinary agency where the lines are blurred.”

In October, Grey won back a sizable chunk of the global Hasbro business that the agency had for a decade before losing it in 2007. Suresh Nair, Grey’s director of global strategic planning, says returning clients like Hasbro underscore the agency’s offering now of complex integrated marketing solutions. “It’s no longer just matching luggage and just beautiful ads,” he says. “Clients are too smart for that.”

Nair is working with Joe Lampertius, brought in as CEO of Grey’s global shopping practice, to explore opportunities to exploit Frame, an integrated activation process introduced this year. The duo at present is looking into setting up a data-driven retail strategy practice.

Debby Reiner, Grey’s evp, group director for P&G, knows well, as a 14-year veteran of the agency, the stamina that is required to work on such a massive piece of business. Even so, she describes the Gillette pitch as “running as fast as you can every day for seven months straight.”

Reiner notes how dramatically the agency has changed under Heekin, and Grey’s newfound creative fuel needed to go the distance after such big wins as Gillette.

“Grey was always a place to get your training and become a solid, strategic account person and business partner,” she says. “But the work was never as exciting as the thinking that pushed it.”

Heekin remembers those early days after joining Grey in 2005, laughing as he recalls the response from staffers to his initial 100-day plan to transform the company. “They were grateful,” he says, “but they also thought I was crazy.”

It was about three years ago that Heekin says he started to see a turning point at the agency, giving himself and his colleagues the swagger to go after big fish like Gillette. His creative chief Myhren also began to see a new world of possibilities.

“Ten or 11 years ago, I was at ChiatDay when they got [Adweek’s] Agency of the Year, and I was just leaving at the time,” recalls Myhren. “I remember actually thinking then that I’ll never run a company that will be an Agency of the Year. Then, three years ago, I began to think, if we keep this up, we just might …” 

The Work

Grey produced some of the most memorable work of any agency in 2013—and had its best showing ever at Cannes, taking home 36 Lions. From the hilarious (rapping Manning brothers) to the sobering (an anti-child abuse ad that had us all awestruck), here is a sampling of some of the standout campaigns.

01. NFL

Leon Sandcastle” was a top 10 Super Bowl spot in USA Today’s Ad Meter.

02. DirecTV

The Manning brothers’ rap parody “Football on Your Phone” got 7 million views in one week.

03. Canon

Grey was the first agency ever to make the Oscars shortlist.


04.Duracell This print ad took a gold Lion at Cannes.

05. World Wildlife Fund

Grey Brazil’s “Deforested Field” also won a gold Lion.

06. ANAR Foundation

This billboard for a Spanish child-advocacy group showed kids a hotline phone number not visible to taller adults. It earned a bronze Lion.