Mullen Lowe Chairman Looks Back on His 40-Year Career

Joe Grimaldi led Boston shop onto global stage


Current gig Chairman, Mullen Lowe

Previous gig Chairman, CEO, Mullen Lowe

Twitter @wizbolt

Age 64

Adweek: After 40 years in advertising, and 33 years at Mullen, including 15-plus as its chief executive, you're retiring at year's end. What comes next for Joe Grimaldi?

Joe Grimaldi: I like building things that matter with people who have a shared purpose and inspire each other to exceed expectations. I recently became the president of the board of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras, an institution that's been creating excellence in kids and teens through classical music for the last 58 years. We have a vision to create The BYSO Youth Center for Music in Boston. It will have a profound impact on Boston's cultural character for generations to come.

Give me a thumbnail description that puts each of your decades in the ad biz into perspective.

Seventies: I do remember the birth of the TV miniseries, the emergence of cable TV and the beginning of the death of media commission compensation fueled by rapidly accelerating media costs. Eighties: Technology advertising goes from the back room to the front line in business and starts its migration to a consumer product … the emergence of review consultants and procurement. Nineties: Everyone was in a hurry to build their new dot-com brand and had a lot of VC money to burn, which most did. Aughts: The death of the advertising agency was greatly exaggerated. Tens: We are in the midst of an innovation and creative renaissance fueled by a new generation of tech- and social marketing-savvy ad people.

Sure, the technology is much different now, but beyond that, what's changed the most through the years?

It used to be simple: You delivered your ad to a family sitting in front of the living room TV. Now, consumers are also content creators and distribution networks on a multiplicity of screens. It's had a profound impact on who the competition is, agency skill sets, the complexity of orchestrating them and how you build a brand. And I would be remiss if I didn't say it's never been harder to make money.

What things have stayed the same?

This business is still about powerful ideas that shape culture, done by amazingly talented and interesting people who love being on an exhilarating roller-coaster ride that's outrageously fun. I can't imagine having done anything else.

What's your proudest professional achievement?

Our agency has been my life's work and I am proud that we built a brand that has withstood the test of time based on a well-defined, strong culture and challenger mindset. Moving the agency in 2009 from the suburbs into Boston at the low point of the Great Recession was transformative. It raised our visibility and stature, elevated our talent quotient, accelerated innovation and enabled the great success we've had ever since.

Biggest disappointment?

Losing BMW in 1995. The ad world was shocked when we won it in 1992. We'd have gone farther faster had we not lost it, although it didn't matter in the long run.

What advice would you give a young person just starting out?

This won't be a job; it will be what you do. Love it and swing for the fences.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.