When Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City in October, Grey's usually humming flagship office of 900 people found itself at a standstill, without electricity for days. Yet, the Monday after the storm, the agency's staff wasn't fretting about how it would get back online. Instead, six teams of staffers fanned out across Manhattan and the boroughs, helping those in the flood zones find food, water and shelter. Soon after, Grey decided to forgo its annual holiday party and turn it into a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy-impacted families.
The agency's approach to the storm was symbolic of Grey's approach to business, which has shifted dramatically in the past couple of years. Despite being owned by WPP, the world's-biggest holding company, and the financial pressures that can come with being a part of a public corporation like WPP, Grey Global CEO Jim Heekin has permitted the agency to focus less on quarterly numbers and more on finding ways to do things the agency can really be proud of. Funnily enough, that's why new clients are now knocking on Grey's door, and why clients that strayed are coming back.
"Jim's support has been unwavering from the day I got here," said Tor Myhren, Grey's president and chief creative officer. "He said 'The singular focus is a better creative product and that's what I'm hiring you to do.'"
In 2012, Grey was a hit at the annual Cannes Lions festival in the South of France, earning nine awards for its client work. The icing on the cake came when it was anointed with the first-ever "Presidential" lion when Bill Clinton told hundreds of people that his favorite commercial was a Direct TV spot by Grey.
After working with director and producer Ron Howard for Canon U.S.A.'s "Project Imagin8ion," effort, the first user-generated photo contest to ever inspire a Hollywood short film, Grey last year returned for a new iteration with Mr. Howard mentoring celebrity directors to partake in a similar experiment that sets out to prove that everyone is creative.
It's inspiring other clients to think bigger, too. For Red Lobster, Grey launched a new approach centered on freshness that was unleashed on all media channels. The TV campaign told consumers to "Sea Food Differently" and featured fishermen and grill masters in restaurants. At restaurant locations, Grey overhauled the menu; on Facebook it shared weekly infographics; and on mobile it started a couponing program. The first quarter after launch, same-store sales were up 12%.
"The thing I'm most proud of about all the change we've had is that we've truly been able to build a creative culture. Everyone in the building believes we'll succeed by doing great creative, and it's not like that at most big agencies. The result is all of us being able to collectively move toward that goal. It's not just about a good creative department, it's about an entire agency that thinks creatively," said Mr. Tor Myhren.
Clients have taken notice. Even accounts it lost in North America in the past couple of years, have come back; Allergan and Pfizer returned to the agency in 2012, handing over duties for its Advil brand.
Under the leadership of Managing Director and CMO Michael Houston, the agency won 21 of 23 new-business pitches in which it participated -- Whole Foods, Marriott Resorts, Olive Garden, EmergenC, Radio Shack -- worth more than $450 million in billings. Agency revenue is up 15.2%. Operating profit is up over 33%. And though Grey's ETrade baby is at this point a pop-culture icon, the long-running campaign isn't a crutch; it continues to work. The Monday after Super Bowl 2012, the marketer saw a 41% increase in account openings.